The state, county, and city officials who’ve been working on the future of the Alaskan Way Viaduct‘s Central Waterfront section always freely admit they have much more to study and figure out. But it was made clear at Monday night’s public forum — first comment opportunity since the unveiling of two “hybrid scenarios” — that one of the things they’re still figuring out is what the scenarios would mean to this side of the bay. Read on:
By no means a full house at Town Hall downtown – but respectable given (a) the icy weather and (b) the 5 pm start time. Among those on hand, West Seattle’s two Stakeholders Advisory Committee members, Pete Spalding and Vlad Oustimovitch, both longtime neighborhood activists who’ve spent countless hours in briefings and discussions (with 23 other “stakeholders”; roster here) as part of the process of determining the fate of what WSDOT’s Ron Paananen called tonight “the mile in the middle.”
The event had four components: The usual array of infoboards in the lobby, each with somebody hovering nearby, ready to answer questions about whichever component of the (proposed) project her or his infoboard was showcasing; a recap presentation (“how did we get here”); a moderator reading written questions from audience members; open mike for public comments.
Component #1, the recap, ran quickly from “the Viaduct is unsafe and must come down” to recap of “current structures cannot withstand another earthquake,” through the 8 scenarios that were evaluated, to the 2 “hybrid scenarios” unveiled last Thursday. Paananen noted that this project followed “five or six years looking at full-capacity replacements” before they took a different tack. He shared the stage with four men who had been with him at countless other briefings, including media events we’ve covered – right to left, it’s county Transportation Director Harold Taniguchi, WSDOT’S David Dye, city Deputy Director of Transportation Bob Powers, Paananen, and consultant Jim Parsons:
Having heard the briefing basics before, we listened for something new – what was once called a “lidded trench,” study scenario H, was described here as a “depressed lidded roadway.” The two new scenarios have slightly newer names — “I-5 surface/transit hybrid” (one way Alaskan Way and one way Western Avenue), with slightly tweaked graphics made available at the forum too:
Powers made a point of saying the I-5 improvements that are being stressed as part of this would include the 2-way Mercer Street “from I-5 to Elliott” and overhead “gantries” displaying signs with messages such as suggested speed (to maximize flow), trouble ahead, detours when applicable, all this labeled “active traffic management” — plus an extra lane squeezed into the northbound direction from Seneca to 520, and a new ramp from northbound I-5 to the E-3 busway.
The I-5 work is a large part of the $2.2 billion pricetag for this scenario, adding onto the $1.1 billion that’s already being spent for other work including the south end rebuild, for a grand total of $3.3 for the surface/transit hybrid.
There wasn’t as much to explain about the newly rechristened “SR 99 Elevated Bypass Hybrid,” aka the two elevated side-by-side single-deck viaducts, with Alaskan Way running beneath them, and a waterfront “promenade” to the west:
Most of the $2.3 billion “scenario” cost here goes to the actual infrastructure, with lots less to be done with transit and other routes, grand total (with that added $1.1-plus billion in related work) $3.5 billion.
For both scenarios, Powers acknowledged that they don’t know much yet about how West Seattle drivers will be affected; both had slides listing questions, each including “access from West Seattle to downtown.” (When reading that in the presentation of the first scenario, he referred to it as a “rough spot” that has to be “sanded down”; in the second one, something “we have to wrap our brains around.” A later public comment made note of the phraseology, and voiced disbelief that West Seattle hadn’t been better-studied already.)
Powers pointed out that the travel time will increase from West Seattle to central downtown under any scenario, because the Seneca offramp and Columbia onramp are going away, and also, he noted, because of “general growth.” The new on/off point will be at the South King Street end, period (which the team noted cheerily would mean shorter travel time if you happen to be going to the south side of downtown).
Time is also an issue in terms of construction — the elevated hybrid, Powers said, would take two and a half years longer than the surface/transit.
Then came a brief mention of the “bored tunnel,” which had been mentioned at the Thursday scenario unveiling as something that would continue to be “studied,” since the surface/transit scenario wouldn’t preclude adding the tunnel later, if necessary.
“We heard loud and clear from Stakeholders Advisory Committee members that they’d like to take a harder look at this,” it was noted, along with two ways in which such a tunnel could proceed: make sure whatever’s done now wouldn’t get in its way, or start doing it now so that the Viaduct could be kept open till it was done. The team promised they were “going to take a hard look and examine the costs … and as that information becomes available, (they) will release it to the public.”
Examining the costs also applies to the two “official” scenarios, since that yielded a testy moment toward the end of last Thursday’s briefing, when Gov. Gregoire, seated next to County Executive Sims and Mayor Nickels, declared her $2.8 billion contribution was where the buck stopped for the project, and if both scenarios cost more, she’s waiting to hear who’s going to cover the gap — “not me,” she repeated at the time.
Next came the questions and answers. Fairly unenlightening, save the fact that one of the first ones read was attributed to a West Seattle resident saying “looks like both of these will make my commute much worse” since the Seneca and Columbia ramps will be gone. The panel took issue with that blanket statement about commute time, saying that if you are heading to the south end of downtown, travel times will be “equal to what they are today” – or, if you are going to the center of the city, could take 10 minutes longer. “Some trips will be shorter, some longer,” was the conclusion.
Why weren’t the Columbia/Seneca ramps included in any scenarios? was one of the next questions read. They were in the 2007 (election) version, the panel acknowledged, because that was in essence asking about a straight rebuild of the existing viaduct, theoretically — with some trepidation, Dye pointed out — retaining those existing ramps, while “the goal this time around was to develop an elevated with a smaller footprint, with the access to downtown via the (new) south end interchange.”
Another question: Who are the people — “names, please” — who will be making the final decision? That one didn’t quite get a clean answer, but it did clarify that what is to be chosen by year’s end will be a “preliminary preferred option” followed by a formal environmental review. (The Legislature’s role in a final decision was stressed, and it was noted that the governor had sent legislators a letter last Friday asking for their thoughts on the two “hybrid” scenarios.)
Another question: How long would each take to build? Powers explained the “construction-efficient” get-it-done timetable vs. the “traffic-efficient” keep-things-moving timetable. Little difference for both – the construction timetable could range from 5 years (construction-efficient surface) to 9 1/2 years (traffic-efficient option).
After the Q/A, on to the comments. First up, Randall Mastin, who said he’d been a truck driver for 25 years and is a fan of The Viaduct as it is now. “I haven’t heard anyone talk about how great this design is. It’s the best system I’ve seen in the entire West, handling traffic and congestion better than any other route.” He favored a retrofit, which was thrown out of the process fairly early on, with officials claiming it would cost too much to be worth it.
But Martin Kaplan, a member of the Seattle Planning Commission, said that group was unlikely to give its blessing to anything involving an elevated structure, and cited city principles saying that “new trips” downtown needed to be accommodated with anything BUT a facilitation of single-occupancy vehicle trips.
West Seattleite Bruce Bobzien might have begged to differ, if the commenters had interacted. His main beef was with the prospect of having less traffic capacity: “Right now we have a major roadway cutting through a major metropolitan city, going 50 miles per hour, three lanes each way, and we’re looking at moving that to two lanes each direction? From a West Seattle standpoint, all we want to do sometimes is just go into downtown and come back quickly and that’s really going to go away.”
Bruce Brewer warned starkly that “if travel time increases and capacity is reduced, employers are going to leave the city. If we don’t make improvements to our throughput, this will become an employer ghost town.”
Several more elevated supporters spoke, several pro-tunnel, and some simply in opposition to the surface option, like Kirk Robbins of the Queen Anne Community Council, who was one of two people who pointed out that the surface option would include more than two dozen stoplights along the path from Sodo to the north end. (The other one drew laughter and applause when he said, “If this is the best solution you’ve got after 8 years” — post-Nisqually quake — “it’s no good.”)
The loudest voice on behalf of West Seattle was Lea Kent, who said: “Normally I just think of myself as one of those 600,000 people (in the city). But to hear regarding West Seattle, either it’s something you need to ‘sand down’ or ‘wrap your head around’ — West Seattle is 20 percent of the population and that you still have not figured out how these options work for our part of the city is troubling. We need livability, we need access to the city. And every minute that we spend sitting in traffic at stoplights is a minute we’re not spending with our families and communities or doing other things that are more worthwhile. I’m not loving the elevated option, nor the surface transit option either. … I don’t think you’re understanding the bottlenecks getting out of West Seattle on transit now — unless you’re going to run a bus lane all the way to the Sound, you’re going to have everything stacked up all the way to the city.”
If you weren’t able to make it to the public forum, you can send comments; here’s how.
WHAT’S NEXT: The Stakeholders Advisory Committee meets again this Thursday at City Hall, 4 pm; according to the P-I (this one’s not on the Viaduct website’s events list), members also will be briefed on potential tunnel costs at a 5:30 pm gathering tonight at Puget Sound Regional Council HQ.