By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
After a dramatic 18-year prelude, the Highway 99 tunnel’s Monday debut was upstaged, big time.
Two inches of snow overshadowed two miles of tunnel.
But before the new tunnel becomes old hat, we need to finish telling the tale of its Saturday dedication, and the memories the event unearthed.
Whether you’re a fan or foe of the tunnel, you’ll agree its opening was at the end of a long road.
The 2001 Nisqually earthquake was the beginning of the Alaskan Way Viaduct’s end. Who could forget the WSDOT-produced video showing what a stronger quake might do?
Six somber, shaky minutes of simulation, made public in October 2009, which was already five months after then-Gov. Christine Gregoire signed the bill that formally set the tunnel project into motion. As we reported that day, her message to skeptics who said the tunnel couldn’t be done was, “Watch us.”
And Saturday – almost a decade of watching later – there she was, all smiles, with her daughter, now an elected official herself, Seattle Port Commissioner Courtney Gregoire:
Those at the ceremony who had helped make the tunnel a reality weren’t all past/present elected officials. These two West Seattle residents, for example:
Pete Spalding of Pigeon Point and Vlad Oustimovitch of Gatewood, longtime community advocates, were both on the Stakeholder Advisory Group that worked on Highway 99’s future before the tunnel decision, and then on the South Portal Working Group that started meeting days before tunnel funding was signed into law. For a bit of wonky history, check out our report from one of that group’s 2010 meetings, including a slide deck laying out the project’s original timeline and path.
Two years after that, politicians gathered again for a ceremonial groundbreaking in June 2012. You might remember some of the milestones that followed – milestones many involved with the project would like to forget. Five years ago, the tunneling machine was stuck, awaiting rescue. It worked, and in April 2017, the digging was done.
And on Groundhog Day 2019, this past Saturday afternoon, many of the politicians on the front lines along the way gathered for the ceremony dedicating it:
The half-hour-plus of speeches preceding the ribboncutting had two audio breakdowns – evoking fleetingly uncomfortable memories of the tunneling travails. Gov. Jay Inslee shouted his way through one of them, and both were fixed before too long, as the parade of speakers continued. The only West Seattleite to speak was County Executive Dow Constantine, who afterward walked into the tunnel with his family:
Daughter Sabrina was born during the tunnel machine’s unplanned pause. So many things have changed in those five years, including for others we photographed at the ceremony. There were former City Councilmembers, like West Seattleite Tom Rasmussen:
And Sally Clark:
Former mayor Mike McGinn – who had tried to stop the tunnel – showed up (Spalding couldn’t resist the photo op):
His pro-tunnel predecessor at City Hall, Greg Nickels, was of course there, as shown in Saturday coverage. We photographed him with our area’s former US House Rep. Jim McDermott:
West Seattle’s King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, who was in the Senate when the Legislature funded the tunnel project, was there Saturday too:
Finally the photos and speeches were over and the ribbon was cut.
36 hours later, the tunnel opened, spared the spectre of an opening-day traffic jam by the snowstorm that kept many drivers home. So its real test is likely a few days away. But more than a collective cheer on Saturday, the sentiment was more one huge sigh of relief – that the tunnel was finally done, that an earthquake hadn’t taken out the Alaskan Way Viaduct before its closure. The project still has milestones to come, from Viaduct demolition to tolling to surface-street construction – but the centerpiece is complete – though its trimmings aren’t quite:
Concrete for the yet-to-open NB exit ramp north of the tunnel’s south end was poured, noisily, before, during, and after the ceremony. The workers waved; the pour roared on.