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.)


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