By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
For all the hubbub this week over Mayor McGinn‘s suggestion to shut down the Alaskan Way Viaduct next year – the people working on The Viaduct’s future point out that half of it is already scheduled to be closed next year.
That’s the southern half – the Holgate-to-King leg of the project that is exempt from the tunnel-or-no-tunnel controversy, since, as Viaduct project boss Ron Paananen told the Rotary Club of West Seattle on Tuesday, it’s designed to fit with whatever winds up replacing the Central Waterfront section.
Paananen was the headliner for the Rotary’s weekly lunch, before a crowd filling one of the downstairs meeting rooms at Salty’s on Alki, with attendees including even King County Executive Dow Constantine, days before The Viaduct closes for its next semiannual inspection (6 am-6 pm Saturday and Sunday).
To some degree, you could describe his presentation as part refresher course, part attempted myth-busting.
No matter how many times WSDOT reminds people about it, few truly realize that, as Paananen put it, “Since 2007, we have looked at this as two separate projects – Holgate to King and Central Waterfront.” Work on the former is well under way – most recently, with the realignment of the stadium-area ramps, as part of the preparations for a detour that will handle Highway 99 traffic through the area while a major portion of south-end construction (due for completion in 2013) is under way.
He warned again that 99 will be two lanes each way for at least three years, from sometime next year “until the tunnel opens.” But he was also quick to say the tunnel is not a totally done deal – the design work that is being done is “preliminary,” until and unless the environmental-review process finishes this summer with the official designation that the tunnel passes muster and is the final choice.
He defended the tunnel’s potential safety: “This tunnel would be built to our highest structural standards – in an earthquake that would happen once every 2,500 years, the tunnel would not collapse. It would be damaged and perhaps unusable, but there would be no loss of life – built to what we call the ‘no-loss-of-life standard.’ … The only structure to date we have built to this standard is the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.” Paananen said the standard is equivalent to a 9.0 earthquake – the revised magnitude of Japan’s quake last week. “It’ll probably be the safest structure we have ever built.”
What about the anti-tunnel ballot measures? Paananen wouldn’t comment on specifics but declared that the last round of voting – the twin measures asking opinions on an elevated replacement and a cut-and-cover tunnel – “set (the replacement project) back 4 years.” Half that time, he said, is because of the state-mandated environmental-review process: “We’re trying to complete an (environmental-impact statement for the central-waterfront section) that was started in 2001. … The idea that you can quickly change your mind and implement something else is not true from a practical perspective, given the state and federal laws we work under.”
Speaking of quick decisions, back to the mayor’s suggestion of shutting down the entire Alaskan Way Viaduct as soon as next year, Paananen said: “If you want to close the viaduct (central waterfront) next year, the only way to do it would be to declare some kind of emergency. It’s in the same condition it has been in for years … the threat of an earthquake is no different today than it was last week. Events in Japan are just a reminder (of potential danger). … We have a project schedule with this thing completely torn down by the end of 2015, and half of it torn down next year. I think the quickest path is the one we’re on.”
Another attendee question of note – Sue Lindblom from Illusions Hair Design (WSB sponsor) asked how West Seattleites will be able to get into downtown if the tunnel does indeed replace the central-waterfront section. In addition to noting that the 1st and (new) 4th exits from the Spokane Street Viaduct are viable ways to get downtown – the 4th, in fact, was partly subsidized with state mitigation money – Paananen pointed out that Highway 99 northbound will have an exit “in the vicinity of the stadiums – you’ll be able to cross Dearborn and go up 1st, or go to Alaskan Way and travel (further north).” Yes, Alaskan Way’s intersections will be signalized, Paananen noted, but they’ll be timed for traffic flow, and will have improved east-west connections into downtown.
Any plans to replace the parking lost under the current viaduct? he also was asked. That was actually the most popular topic among public comments, Paananen revealed, while saying the bottom line is that “we never fully replace all the parking.”
He deflected a question about cost overruns, saying it’s his job to avoid them, though, “We continually assess our risk and set aside an appropriate amount of risk money and contingency … We still have what we believe is sufficient contingency to deliver this project on time and under budget.”
But not without controversy, as reminded in a moment of levity shortly afterward. When it was pointed out that the King County Executive had joined the audience, Paananen looked his way and said, “Dow, you want to add anything?”
The West Seattleite who is arguably the state’s most powerful elected official after the governor looked back at Paananen and quipped, “Oh, hell no!”
By the way, there’s a bit of good news for SODO-area drivers – Paananen says that since the Highway 99 ramp work is ramping down, 1st Avenue South will be restored to two lanes each way in that area “sometime in the next few weeks.”
SPOKANE STREET VIADUCT: The Rotarians also heard briefly from Paul Elliott from SDOT, who said the widening of the stretch of the West Seattle Bridge between I-5 and Highway 99 is on track for completion in about a year. Most of the columns and shafts for the actual widening section, north of the current elevated roadway, are in, he said. Once that new section is done, current traffic will be shifted onto it while it’s connected to the existing roadway. The 1st Avenue on-and-off-ramp, he said, also remains on track to open by the end of this year.
OTHER ROTARY NOTES: The parent organization Rotary International has “set up a channel to distribute assistance” to Japan, it was announced … Next week’s Rotary meeting is a fundraiser breakfast instead of the usual lunch; as announced Tuesday by Amy Lee Derenthal from The Kenney, doors open at Salty’s next Tuesday (March 22nd) at 7 am, with the program at 7:30.