On August 14, a city consultant charged with studying the "surface" alternative for replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct released the findings of a $40,000 report concluding that, just as supporters of the $4-billion-plus tunnel have claimed all along, the "surface" option would result in nearly day-long gridlock through downtown. Supporters of the so-called surface/transit alternative for replacing the viaduct, including the People's Waterfront Coalition (PWC) and the Sierra Club, correctly predicted that the consultant, DKS Associates, would not challenge the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) assumption that every single one of the 110,000 cars currently traveling in the viaduct corridor will stay there. Last week, however, a PWC records request uncovered the preliminary results of a still-unfinished state study that shows exactly the opposite: Far from choking the city in gridlock, the surface/transit option, if fully implemented, would have minimal impact on traffic congestion in the Alaskan Way corridor.

Cary Moon, one of the founders of the PWC, told the city council during Monday's meeting that she wanted to "make it very clear that what the council studied is not what we asked to have studied"—a surface boulevard alternative that includes large investments in transit, street improvements, and incentives to get people out of their cars. Instead, she said, "They studied WSDOT's surface proposal, which was wildly unpopular" and was shot down by every agency and group that studied it well over a year ago. The consultants' work was so out of line with what surface/transit alternative proponents had requested, Moon said later, "you have to be suspicious of what the council wanted them to find. The council members who like the tunnel and believe that we have to keep providing infrastructure for more and more cars are going to be responsive to engineers who confirm that."

Despite those admonitions, the report the consultant unveiled Monday predictably painted what Council Member Peter Steinbrueck called a "gloom-and-doom" scenario: more traffic, more congestion, more greenhouse-gas emissions if the viaduct is simply taken away. "The surface roadway would carry substantially greater amounts of traffic," the consultant, Randy McCourt, told the council, making it unfriendly to pedestrians and choked by gridlock (with speeds as low as eight miles per hour downtown) nearly nine hours a day. The slow speeds, McCourt continued, would actually lead to higher greenhouse-gas emissions, because stop-and-go traffic is worse for the environment than traffic that moves at a steady pace. Additionally, McCourt said, the city could run the risk of expanding transit too much, "eroding travel times... and bus capacity." When Steinbrueck asked why they had not studied other alternatives, including some of the mitigation strategies in the surface/transit option, McCourt said the consultants had considered transit and trip-reduction strategies, but that after a certain point "the incremental returns [on investment in alternatives to cars] become less and less."

After the presentation, transportation committee Chair Jan Drago said she found the consultants' report "very informative" and the team "exceptionally well qualified." However, Steinbrueck, the council member most vocally supportive of studying the surface/transit plan, said he was "disappointed" that the consultants had merely duplicated the WSDOT analysis, rather than considering alternatives that could reduce auto dependence. "I don't want to malign these guys, but their analysis falls seriously short of my expectations," Steinbrueck said. "I had asked them—what can we do to further reduce reliance on the automobile as a means of travel through that corridor and develop a more aggressive strategy that moves forward the mayor's greenhouse-gas reducing goals?" Those goals would put Seattle in alignment with the Kyoto Protocol by reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

Shortly after the consultants' presentation, Moon called their treatment of the Kyoto requirements "a total joke, because they're saying we have no control of how many cars there are in the city; therefore we need to accommodate the existing number of cars." Drago says the council will take up several possible votes on the viaduct in September, including two that would put the question of how to replace it on the ballot; at this point, the most likely outcome appears to be a ballot measure pitting the tunnel against an elevated replacement structure.

Although the city's consultants didn't bother to examine the surface/transit strategy, surprisingly, WSDOT did. That report, a $1 million study commissioned by WSDOT in 2002, will be released later this year. A preliminary update from February 2005, obtained through a records request, shows that a combination of transit improvements, changes in parking and street-use patterns, enhanced signal controls, and other incentives will likely be more than adequate to reroute cars, freight, and transit commuters through the downtown street grid while Alaskan Way is fully or partially closed for construction, a closure that's expected to last at least four years. According to the report, the package of proposals "is intended to provide the tools necessary for the transportation system to respond to changing conditions... to provide viable alternatives to the automobile... [and] maintain the movement of people and goods in the corridor even during the most disruptive construction stages."

Although the draft report itself remains confidential, the 2005 update outlines many of the proposals consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff planned to study in an effort to lessen construction impacts. Most of them will sound familiar to anyone who has followed the debate between tunnel proponents and backers of the surface/transit option: convert long-term parking to short-term parking (to discourage commuters from driving in and parking all day); improve traffic-signal systems; add bus hours during construction; expand water-taxi service; divert traffic onto alternate routes; reduce on-street parking; close Third Avenue to personal cars permanently; and encourage different work hours and telecommuting—among a long list of other strategies. Most, if not all, of these proposals were outlined by the PWC three years ago, and all have proven effective in reducing congestion in cities (such as San Francisco and Portland) that have torn down freeways and implemented alternatives.

So if the state ultimately concludes that it could provide mobility to freight, commuters, and other traffic during a four-year viaduct shutdown, logically, it should also conclude that it could provide those users mobility in the long term too. Linking the WSDOT solutions for construction closure with the construction of a new four-lane surface boulevard would enable people to get around without a massive six-lane tunnel that will suck up billions of tax dollars for decades to come. It's a good idea. Too bad Greg Nickels won't examine it. recommended