What Could Possibly Go Wrong
It was in 1938, when traffic snarled the downtown waterfront, that the civic-minded first began pressing for a solution. Nine years later, Mayor William F. Devin rolled out a plan for a double-decker viaduct. It would cost $5 million, he said. Within five months, he would bump up that estimate to $6.3 million. A power shovel got stuck in the muddy soil shortly after construction began in 1950 and a crane had to pull it out. Fourteen months after construction began, when the true costs came into focus, estimates rose to $10 million. The budget had doubled.
Even then, locals predicted that the four-story concrete fixture would be death to the waterfront. In 1951, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Charles Regal warned it would be a "concrete curtain."
"The day may yet come when burly guards will be stationed at the portals of the new viaduct to examine the credentials of those who would venture into the desolate waterfront of the future," wrote Regal.
The over-budget, ugly viaduct opened on April 4, 1953, at 1:40 p.m., purportedly to unsnarl traffic. The first traffic jam occurred 18 minutes later, requiring the intervention of police officers.
Just 16 years after it opened, a Central Waterfront Study called for the city to tear the viaduct down. Twenty years after it opened, city council member John Miller called it one of the city's "worst mistakes." But the death knell rang on March 1, 2001, when the Nisqually earthquake struck, the viaduct sustained damage, and Seattle realized that another seismic bump could turn the two-tiered highway into a human juicer.
Seattle didn't want to replace the viaduct with a tunnel. Voters rejected both a tunnel and a new elevated highway by wide margins in March 2007. A stakeholders group—people representing business and waterfront interests—convened to discuss what they wanted. Representatives from the city, county, and state transportation departments ruled out a tunnel. They elected for a smaller viaduct or a surface/transit option. A deep-bore tunnel was out of the question, in part because the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) said it was too expensive. At a closing meeting of the stakeholders group, WSDOT's David Dye made a speech, saying, "It is out of reach in the current state of affairs to make it happen." He added, "It would be disingenuous of me to sit here representing the state to say, 'Geez, you know, let's go build a deep-bore tunnel.'"
The state is now on the verge of building a deep-bore tunnel.
So how did we get here? Labor unions, construction lobbies, and downtown business groups (which all had an incentive to sign multibillion-dollar contracts) charmed Governor Chris Gregoire into believing a deep-bore tunnel was feasible. Gregoire responded in early 2009 by crafting a tentative agreement with former King County executive Ron Sims and former Seattle mayor Greg Nickels to build that tunnel. Under this arrangement, each party would take responsibility for its own part of the project. For instance, Seattle would rebuild the downtown seawall and take responsibility for cost overruns on its share of the work. The state would dig the tunnel and accept liability for cost overruns on its part of the project.
But the state screwed Seattle at the last minute. One month after signing the agreement, the legislature passed the law capping spending and requiring Seattle to pay for all cost overruns—including all cost overruns on the state's part of what is a state highway project.
The governor also promised that the legislature would grant King County the right to raise the motor-vehicle excise tax to pay for transit near the waterfront—transit that Seattle needs to mitigate the traffic impacts of all the drivers who don't take the tunnel to avoid tolls and because the tunnel has zero downtown exits—but when a bill came to the governor's desk to allow more taxes for transit, she vetoed it.
"Gregoire's promises aren't worth the paper they're printed on," says Martin H. Duke, editor of Seattle Transit Blog. (He notes the governor vowed to tear down the viaduct in 2012; now she's pushed the date back to 2016.)
But the governor insists Seattle needs to sign a binding contract now, and besides, what is there to worry about?
"There are things that could go wrong," says Cary Moon, director of the People's Waterfront Coalition and a member of the stakeholders group. And when things go wrong, "Seattle gets screwed every time."