A Message From The People’s Waterfront Coalition

(Editor’s note:  The following is a letter from Cary Moon to friends and supporters of PWC, reproduced here with permission.)

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Dear friends,

It’s been a while since I wrote to share news with PWC friends and supporters. The politics around this viaduct decision were already tricky, and continue to get weirder. Here’s a recap from my perspective, to reestablish some facts and assess the next steps:

In December 2008, at the conclusion of an exhaustive and excellent stakeholder process, the three Departments of Transportion (DOTs) recommended either Surface /Transit / I-5 or the elevated as two viable options for viaduct replacement. Both solutions met the criteria for affordability, public safety, and mobility for people and freight, and the Surface/ Transit / I-5 plan fared better on the three other goals. (Remember –even tested against the worse case of regional car trips increasing 20% by 2015, modeling showed the Surface / Transit/ I-5 solution works great.) At that time, significant consensus among Seattle decision leaders was emerging around doing Surface / Transit / I-5 now, with continued study of also doing a single-bore tunnel.

By January 2009, the political playing field shifted, and the Governor, KC Executive, and Mayor announced a different decision: the State uses their money to dig a bored tunnel and help pay for the new Alaskan Way surface street, and the City and County do a scaled-back set of the proposed transit and street improvements with other money the State would help secure. The state legislature recommitted the state’s $2.8 billion to their part of this deal in March, called it final, and WSDOT is moving ahead.

It’s worth noting that officially, the State’s bored tunnel proposal is not a done deal, since a) WSDOT is not supposed to start a project before completing an EIS where the costs, risks, and environmental impacts are made public, and b) it isn’t fully funded. The County’s transit improvements– which would have been funded with $190 million in new Motor Vehicle Excise Tax – fell through when the 2009 legislature did not grant authority for King County to raise MVET fees. The City’s projects—streets improvements, the seawall, utility relocation, and transit enhancements ($930 million total, all good and necessary projects) – are moving forward with varying degrees of certainty and funding.

Many reasonable people like this compromise, are relieved the arguing is over, and are happy the waterfront is back safely in Seattle’s hands (29%- 49% of Seattleites, depending on how the question is asked). Many reasonable people don’t like this compromise (43% to 64%), and think that the bored tunnel is too risky, doesn’t fit Seattle’s future, goes against our City and State’s mandate to reduce Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), and is too expensive given other unfunded priorities. Some of these tunnel opponents like surface /transit /I-5, and some like the elevated.

This fall, Seattle is in the midst of a Mayoral election where the tunnel is a key issue. We’ve heard a lot of arguing over the decision that happened 9 months ago. At this point, it would be really helpful to know how the new Mayor will move forward from here. Here are some key questions we should all be asking both candidates:

1. Mobility within Seattle, with or without the State’s proposed bypass tunnel, will depend on well-connected streets, expanded transit service, better bike facilities, and a new surface Alaskan Way after the viaduct is removed. The recent stakeholder process thoroughly examined the local transportation system, and proposed a set of projects to improve mobility. What street and transit projects are in your plan for Seattle, and how will you fund them?

2. The EIS for the State’s proposed tunnel is underway, and will reveal crucial information about the tunnel’s cost, risk of overruns, constructability, effects on Seattle’s urban fabric, and environmental impacts. Other alternatives are not being considered in the EIS, and neither are the broadly supported I-5 improvements. What information do you expect to come out of the EIS? What will you do as Mayor if the tunnel’s cost escalates, if the risks are too high, or the environmental impacts are excessively harmful?

3. Even though the viaduct is primarily used for short in-city travel (85% of trips), the State holds a lot of power in this decision, and gets to decide what they do with their $2.8 billion. Whether you stop the tunnel (McGinn) or if the tunnel becomes infeasible (Mallahan), what is your alternative? How will you work with the State and regional players to fund your alternative and ensure it serves Seattle’s mobility needs well, removes the unsafe viaduct structure in a timely schedule, helps reduce VMT long-term, and redevelops the waterfront with the future of the city – and not just cars – in mind?

4. The State legislature added a provision to the tunnel funding bill requiring a handful of unsuspecting Seattle citizens to pay any cost overruns WSDOT or their contractors might incur. This betrayal of public trust is absurd, and probably illegal. Do you think this is unfair, and how would you remove it?

5. When the viaduct is torn down, our generation gets to reweave the urban fabric and connect future Seattle to the waters of Puget Sound. How will you lead the effort to make a magnificent place, where the new street, the seawall and beaches, new parks, pedestrian and bike paths, and bordering properties all function beautifully together as the civic heart of Seattle?

This is not the only issue, of course, but it may be the most complex challenge / opportunity our next Mayor will face.

The People’s Waterfront Coalition is currently working hard with our allies on three things:
- organizing the waterfront planning framework so the waterfront unfolds to its most brilliant potential,
- helping define smarter goals and more innovative ideas for the seawall project, and
- helping build political momentum for more sustainable funding for bus transit.
More soon on those topics.

– Cary Moon

11 Responses to “A Message From The People’s Waterfront Coalition”

  1. All Tired Out

    “our generation gets to reweave the urban fabric and connect future Seattle to the waters of Puget Sound.”

    I hate to sound like a curmudgeon but this has always seemed, to me, like the weakest argument in the whole discussion because it simply isn’t true.

    Are the Old Curiosity Shoppe and Red Robin what we’re talking about here?

    After work can I take a beach blanket and umbrella and sit out on the beach?

    Of course not. There isn’t a major downtown that I can think of that has a beach on it. Maybe Rio?

    Does the PWC and Allied Arts propose razing the current crap on the waterfront including the Aquarium so I can weave into the waters of Puget Sound? Great idea.

    Otherwise the surface solution is just taking away a visual speed bump between the federal building and a hot dog or a bowl of chowder.

    Please, let’s just keep focused on the real issue here which is not blowing a wad of cash on a really bad project.

  2. Matt

    Excellent questions, PWC, all of ‘em. The tunnel “agreement” is, in retrospect, swiss-cheesed with unanswered questions such as a) design, b) cost, c) funding, and d) overruns and, oh yeah, e) what sane businessperson or politician could conceive of greenlighting such a mammoth project BEFORE the answers are known to these? Granted, we are all exhausted by this topic, but, that doesn’t change the fact that the politicians who formulated the ‘plan’ did an extraordinarily poor job of positioning it for success. The tunnel is coming back no matter who becomes Mayor – it has too, because there are too many holes in the “agreement” and legislation.

  3. Joe G

    Very well written. It is exciting to think of what potential our waterfront has. It may be an actual neighborhood one day, or feel like one at least.

  4. Michael

    In response to the first comment…

    Vancouver to our North has a huge beach on one side of the peninsula. Of course it seems as though it was always that way and was never used for commercial port operations, but I could be wrong. I don’t think the point is that it needs to be a beach but an interconnected part of downtown and the city as a whole. Right now its about the worst waterfront short of my hometown of Cleveland Ohio. Something along the lines of the embarcadero in San Fran or the east side of Vancouver’s downtown, or New York’s Hudson river. All very nice places to be. San Fran is probably the most similar and would be a great model I think.

    We can and should do much better!

  5. MikeP

    I don’t think anyone is talking about making a beach on the waterfront, but a great urban space that is not dominated by a looming freeway.

  6. ktstine

    Thanks for posting. I have been eagerly awaiting word from Moon on where the PWC stands on the race. This was a great set of defining questions…any chance the two candidates will respond directly here? dan, can you make that happen? As for @1, a beach is absolutely not needed for a successful waterfront, but i am damn sure that fewer cars, the removal of a hovering highway and a more walkable space will be integral to the success of the new space. my hope is that some of the ticky-tacky shops remain, and some go, creating opportunities for some great public spaces, eating establishments (besides ivars) and solid local businesses.

  7. alexjonlin

    All Tired Out: By “connecting the city to the water” we don’t mean we want to make it so everyone can go swimming after work. We mean we want to make it so everyone can enjoy a great neighborhood along the city’s waterfront. As Michael says, places such as New York and San Francisco have great waterfronts now. Portland also has a great riverfront right next to its downtown.

  8. Sirkulat

    Thank you, Cary, for keeping Seattle’s best interests in heart and mind regarding the downtown waterfront. Take pride in knowing that PWC’s campaign to force state and local DOTs to incorporate all modes of travel into their calculations was a significant achievment. It does not however mean the DOTs have reformed. It only means they know the public is more knowledgeable in these regards and that a complete dismissal of mult-modal considerations will be even more cleverly arranged.

    I recall meeting you early in the campaign to show my drawings of the waterfront sans AWV drafted in late 2001. I recognized early the conundrum Seattle would face: that the surface boulevard option is possible but requires regional development to reduce cross-county VMT. Development since has been mostly Seattle-centric and increased VMT (or travel demand) despite dramatic hike in the cost of gasoline followed by the recession.

    All that said, I support a formal reconsideration of WsDOT’s Scenario ‘G’ 4-lane Cut-n-cover tunnel as better than the Deep-bore principally because it maintains the Western/Elliott access, also costs less, has a manageable construction process, creates more jobs, better emergency evacuation system, rebuilds the seawall at the same time, includes a desirable bridge over the railroad tracks at Broad Street, etc.

    I’m convinced Mike McGinn will take the more analytical and comprehensive perspective on transportation planning, and figure Joe Mallahan as more an heir apparent at a time when a clean sweep of City Hall is in order, especially SDOT. Either candidate will discover the inside information more revealing than they imagined, I’m sure.

    I cannot stress enough the dire necessity to replace Grace Crunican and establish a more transparent and accountable SDOT. Seattle needs a mayor who can convey confidence to the general public in troubled times ahead, not one who’s more likely to act like a CEO.

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