Is the viaduct safe? The city council isnt sure.
  • Washington State Department of Transportation
  • Is the viaduct safe? The city council isn't sure.

Things are about to get mildly uncomfortable at City Hall.

After learning through a Seattle Times report on Friday that the Alaskan Way Viaduct sank 1.2 inches this fall near the still-stuck monstrous tunneling machine Bertha, the Seattle City Council is preparing to grill Washington State Department of Transportation officials.

"It's not a good idea for elected officials to hear about what's going on in the city by reading it in the newspaper," says Council Member Jean Godden, who chairs a special council committee about the project, which is meeting at 2:30 today. WSDOT had sent the council a presentation for today's meeting that didn't include any information about the settling. Then, at 4:42 on Friday, after the Times had already posted a blog about it, an administrator from WSDOT e-mailed the council to say "my bad."

"It was my intention to send you the below e-mail earlier this afternoon," the message reads, "however, we just discovered that it was mistakenly not sent."

Godden says she's most interested in: "What did the folks from WSDOT know and when did they know it? And what are they going to do about it?" She says the council will call for another briefing from WSDOT Monday to hear the department's plans for the viaduct, both what they'll do in an emergency like an earthquake (remember the terrifying video of what that would look like?) and what the longer-term plan is for shutting it down.

While Godden says she "want[s] to trust" WSDOT, Council Member Mike O'Brien (an opponent of the tunnel project) puts it this way: "I don't have a lot of faith in WSDOT."

That's because all of this is familiar territory for O'Brien. He and other council members wrote WSDOT earlier this year asking, essentially, how much soil settlement was too much. When would the viaduct be too unsafe to stay open?

"Because settlement limits vary along the length of the viaduct, there is no single threshold for determining when settlement would be significant enough to require further mitigation or closure of the structure," WSDOT wrote back. "We would inform the City of Seattle if such a decision were made."

Well, okay. O'Brien says he's still wondering this and will ask, once again, at today's meeting.

"I appreciate that it's complicated, but if they can't articulate when it's safe or not, that doesn't give me much faith that when the time comes to make that decision they have the parameters to make that decision," he says. If the council isn't satisfied with the answers it gets from WSDOT, O'Brien says he may support hiring a third-party engineer to get answers.

"If [the viaduct is] not going to be shut down, at least give the public the information to say, 'I'm going to drive on it, I'm not going to drive on it or not with my kids.'"

WSDOT will likely be in full "nothing to see here" mode at today's meeting.

“The viaduct is safe," Highway 99 deputy administrator Matt Preedy told the Times. "People should feel free to use the facility, just as they always have.”

Watch for updates from the meeting at @strangerslog.