At a Monday night forum at Town Hall, dozens of Seattle residents—mostly men, mostly middle-aged—lined up to gripe about the two remaining options for replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Their main complaints centered on downtown access under one scenario (what good is a new viaduct if it doesn't include any downtown Seattle exits?) and on speed under the other (how dare the state propose new speed limits and stop signs on the surface option?).
Notably absent from the discussion was any mention of one of the six options that were rejected: state house Speaker Frank Chopp's elevated tunnel, also known as the "integrated elevated" proposal. That option—an elevated highway enclosed by a wall on the waterfront, under which Chopp believes businesses would move—is no longer among the official proposals, but it's far from off the table. Sources who've met with Chopp say his current line is: "The executives are making a recommendation, the legislature is making the decision."
In other words, this week's "final decision" was anything but.
The Great Wall of Chopp can still be beaten, but only if the people who oppose it—that would be just about everyone—can get together behind an option instead of bickering among themselves. And that's a big if—currently, opponents of the Chopp option are widely divided, with some (like King County executive Ron Sims) supporting a surface option and others (like King County Council member Larry Phillips) apparently still favoring a tunnel, which viaduct planners rejected as prohibitively expensive.
Unbeknownst to most outside the county, Phillips, who plans to challenge Sims this year, inserted an item in the county budget that allocates $250,000 to an "expert review panel" (yes, another one) to "develop an independent analysis" of the various viaduct replacement options. "This analysis shall evaluate the mobility impacts of the options and the county's ability to provide transit services assumed in each option"—a clear slap at the surface/ transit proposal, which assumes a much greater increase in transit service than the elevated and tunnel options. Originally, in fact, Phillips's proposal would only have taken effect if the surface/transit option were chosen as the preferred alternative.
At a Monday morning county council meeting, Phillips expressed skepticism that the surface/transit option could work, noting that it would carry fewer cars than the current viaduct and asking rhetorically how the county was supposed to pay for all the extra transit assumed in the surface/transit proposal. He also raised the idea of digging a deep-bore tunnel through downtown—an idea the agencies that evaluated the proposals rejected. Sound Transit, Phillips noted, is building a bored tunnel for $1.5 billion. "I'm still trying to figure out why this is so much more expensive," Phillips said. (There's a complicated engineering answer for that one.)
The problem isn't so much that concerns remain about the surface option, as it is that the time for expressing concerns is drawing to a close. The more dissent is sown, the more viable Chopp's elevated tunnel becomes. And that's a prospect even surface/ transit discontents like Phillips should be able to agree is the worst of all possible worlds.