Surface/Transit: Setting the Agenda

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

With the viaduct vote out of the way, The Stranger‘s Erica Barnett wastes no time in beginning the campaign for the so-called “surface/transit” replacment. It’s a well-reasoned argument, top to bottom. A couple of key points:

  • We’ll have to live without the viaduct for 9 to 12 years during contsruction. “if we can live without the viaduct for 9 to 12 years, we can live without it forever.”
  • Freight mobility is not as big an issue as some have maintained: “the approximately 4,000 trucks that use the viaduct daily primarily use it when it’s least congested…during rush hour, only about 250 trucks use the viaduct daily.”
  • We’re about to get a Metro Bus Rapid Transit system, which will include “a new, 56-mile line along SR-99 from Shoreline to Federal Way and a 22-mile link across the Spokane Street Viaduct to West Seattle.”

One argument that Barnett doesn’t spend much time on is the idea that removing the viaduct means that I-5 would be the only N/S freeway through the city. That has a lot of people worried, because in the event of a major shutdown on I-5, there would be few alternatives. It’s a concern, but not a serious one: there are still many surface streets through the city, including little-used alternatives to I-5 like Airport Way.

The other piece of the puzzle that Barnett neglects is the funding piece. A surface/transit option would still cost in the ballpark of $2B, including seawall replacement. The state legislature is not inclined to spend that much on something that would reduce capacity, and thus might limit the funds. That would mean that the cheapest option could, perversely, end up costing Seattle the most.

Still, the article’s a cogent outline of what a surface/transit option might entail. it’s very much a first salvo, an attempt to shape the agenda. With the legislature about to go out of session, it’s going to be a long battle.


Transportation Bill Proposed

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The bill, which commits $7.4B over two years, would set aside some of — but not nearly all — the money needed for the 520 floating bridge replacement and the Viaduct replacement:

Lawmakers and Gov. Christine Gregoire said for the first time that Olympia must proceed with some projects, most notably the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge, without knowing entirely where the money is coming from. The bridge needs at least $2 billion more.

About $78 million is set aside to cover additional overruns in the next two years and a $1 billion risk pool is created for the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement and rebuilding the 520 bridge.

The plan assumes $915 million worth of initial work on replacement of the viaduct and would include $120 million in early spending on the 520 bridge.

More on the unique process from the P-I:

Gregoire and other transportation leaders said it makes sense to start building huge highway projects – many of which could take a decade or more to complete – before final designs and total cost estimates are in established.

While it’s true that there are certain non-negotiable aspects of these projects that can be started right away (like new pontoons for a new floating bridge), it seems awful risky to start pre-construction before all the financing is in place. It just kicks the problem down the road.

That said, it is an interesting way to get around the “Seattle way” of talking projects to death and never pouring any concrete. That’s because citizens generally don’t get worked up until fairly late in the process. By the time people start holding neighborhood meetings to oppose a given project, it’ll be half-built.


Gregoire Wants to Start Work Now

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

From the Seattle Times:

The work includes:

• Stabilizing viaduct footings near Washington Street.
• Building a new interchange near Qwest and Safeco fields to help trucks and commuters to move between the waterfront and south downtown.
• Relocating two electrical transmission lines and five feeder lines from the viaduct to Western and First avenues.
• Adding lighting, fire suppression, seismic upgrades and ventilation to the Battery Street tunnel.
• Strengthening steel structures from Lenora Street to the Battery Street Tunnel.
• Replacing the highway from Holgate Street to Royal Brougham Way.

Mayor Nickels, clearly chastened by the result, says he “will not be advocating any particular solution.”


Gov. Rossellini’s Viaduct Memories

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Former Governor Albert Rosellini offers his memories of the viaduct in this slide show.

The 97-year-old Rosellini jokes at the end that he hopes they’ll have decided what to do about the waterfront roadway before he passes. Ironically, the next big item on Seattle’s transportation agenda is replacing the 520 floating bridge, a.k.a. the Governor Albert D Rosellini Bridge.


WSDOT’s Responsibility for Transit

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Ezra Basom writes:

Lets call a spade a spade, and stop pretending that WSDOT offers this state a plan for transportation. The “Washington State Department of Transportation” has a plan for building, maintaining and expanding highways, at a time when we need to be rethinking our auto-centric transportation system. We simply haven’t been asking the right questions about how to solve our transportation problems. By revising state transportation goals, we can reframe the questions and have the ability to explore more innovative solutions.

It’s certainly true that WSDOT is still very highway-centric. However, it bears noting that there are several unsexy-but-vital rail projects that the agency is working on in the state. Here’s the complete list.

Basom might still call this is a “spade” and argue that the state has shirked its rail obligations. And that would be a fair point. But if you want to encourage WSDOT to do more, I think it’s important to acknowledge what they’ve already done.



This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The Sea-Tac light rail staton is going to be a bit pricey:

Sound Transit will have to reevaluate its proposed light-rail station at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport after the agency received just one bid to build the stop.

Mowat Construction presented the sole offer to do the job for $95.3 million, far more than the $51.8 million Sound Transit engineers and consultants had expected.

The airport extension itself seems to be progressing pretty rapidly. I hope they figure out how to get a station at the end of it.


Leaders’ Takes on the Viaduct Issue

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

In advance of the March 13 viaduct referendum, the P-I has a nice roundup of various local leaders’ opinions. A couple of things stand out.

First, Council President Nick Licata, who’s pro-rebuild, focuses on the affordability of a new elevated structure. With all due respect to Mr. Licata, a half-billion dollars amortized over a century is not a lot of money. Better to do it once and do it right.

Second, Mayor Nickels frames his position as anti-rebuild and not pro-tunnel:

But again I think the most important question and the most important voice that we need to hear from Seattle is ‘no’ to an elevated structure in the 21st century

In other words, he’s setting himself up to save face if the tunnel vote fails: he can still claim victory if the rebuild also fails. The question is whether he’s subtly pivoting to the so-callled surface-transit alternative, or whether he just wants to go back to Olympia with a big fat “NO” from Seattleites. We’ll find out after the 13th.


Rails-to-Trails Moves Forward

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Looks like a deal is inching ever closer:

The trail would be designed as a “dual-use facility” that could accommodate a high-capacity passenger rail line sometime in the future, said one of the architects of the deal, County Executive Ron Sims.

If a final deal is reached in the coming months, the Port would pay $103 million for the rail line, then swap it with King County in exchange for county-owed Boeing Field.

The Port would also give the county $66 million to build a biking and hiking trail south of the Snohomish County line. Freight trains would continue to run between Woodinville and Snohomish.

So the Port is paying $169 million for an entire airport, or roughly one-tenth of the cost to add a third runway at Sea-Tac. Not a bad deal! The county gets to divest itself from the airport business, which makes sense, and it gets to preserve the right-of-way for transit use down the road.

The P-I adds:

Operations [at the airport] would not change at least until 2022, when SeaTac Airport, which is owned by the port, is expected to reach capacity, Sims said.

That’s when the pedal hits the metal. Remember that Sims was able to halt Southwest’s proposal to build a passenger terminal at Boeing Field in 2005. The Port objected to Southwest’s proposal, mainly because Alaska Air would have moved to match it, and the resulting decrease in gate fees at Sea-Tac would have hurt the Port’s funding for the afore-mentioned third runway.

Now, with the Port in control of Boeing Field’s destiny, it will be able to dole out passenger service as it sees fit. And, wouldn’t you know it, 2022 is just about the time Sea-Tac, third runway and all, is expected to reach capacity. Georgetown residents probably ought to get ready to fight again.


P-I Says “No-No”

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

The Seattle PI today endorses a NO-NO vote on the viaduct:

The message behind this no-no vote might be lost on Gregoire, Nickels and Chopp, who each appear immovable on the issue, and have abdicated their duty to lead. We’d like to send them back to the table to study carefully, and without prejudice, all possibilities, including a surface-plus-transit option. In the meantime, the state is responsible for safety on the current viaduct. Perhaps it ought to retrofit the thing while decisions are being made so that we don’t risk it crumbling over our heads or beneath our wheels.

The Stranger concurs:

Instead of spending our limited transportation tax dollars on more concrete for cars, we should be doing what cities across the country, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to San Francisco, to Portland, Oregon, to Chattanooga, Tennessee, are doing, with universally positive results: tear the viaduct down, implement all the surface-street improvements we’re going to be doing anyway during the 9 to 12 years the viaduct will be closed for construction, and see if we can get by without it permanently.

And that seems to be the nut of it: if we have to close the corridor for a decade anyway, we may as well close it for a few years and see what happens.


The Bus Apocalypse

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Brian Miller, writing on the Weekly‘s blog, notes that the downtown condo boom means that Seattle’s rich will be able to avoid traffic, while the poor will be pushed out to the auto-dependent suburbs:

So those affluent enough to trade addresses from Mercer Island or the Sammamish Plateau or even Laurelhurst would be able to avoid paralyzing, permanent gridlock. Horrendous traffic jams would be something to enjoy, even laugh at, while looking out the windows of Smith Tower, martini glass in hand.

…a pattern emerges: Commuting is for the poor, for the powerless, for those dispossessed from Seattle and its politics.

In other words, in the not-too-distant future, the rich will walk to work every day while the folks who do their laundry will be bused in from Renton and Federal Way, a grueling two-hour bus trip.

He’s exactly right. But it’s a pattern common to all of America’s gentrifying cities, from Philly to San Francisco, not just Seattle. And it has little to do with the Viaduct. Overall, shrinking commutes are a good thing. If a downtown apartment becomes a symbol of “the good life” in America (as opposed to a lawn and a two-car garage), that’s even better, because it will increase demand for density.

Nonetheless, it’s a real problem for the working-class and poor in the city. There are really only two ways to mitigate its effects:

(1) Low-income housing in the city, which can never solve all of our problems, and doesn’t address the core issue: Why would a working-class family want to live in a downtown where the only grocery store is an unaffordable Whole Foods?

(2) Transit, transit, transit. A true regional rapid transit system will allow people to spread out and avoid a traffic-clogged commute every morning.

It should be clear to anyone who reads this blog that I’m a fan of the latter solution. But the poor alone don’t have the muscle to advocate for rapid-transit. So the question, to bring it back to the meat of Miller’s argument, is whether or not the city’s elites, the ones living in the new Smith tower and working in nearby city hall, will advocate for more rapid transit, or whether they’ll just hole up in their downtown condos and take a rooftop helicopter to the airport when they need to. The latter is the true apocalypse scenario Miller’s hinting at.

Given how spread out the region’s employment centers are (Redmond, Bellevue, Downtown, Renton…), it’s almost impossible to spend your entire career living and working within walking distance. So I have to think that it’s in everyone’s interest, even if you live downtown, to build a true regional transit system. Because even if you never ride the bus, you still benefit from its existence, in the form of decreased traffic on the highways. With that in mind, I think the trend of wealth moving downtown could actually be a boon for the poor, because it will increase demand for transportation alternatives. And that’s a good thing for everyone in the long run.


The Not-so-simple Viaduct Calculus

This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

On March 13, Seattle voters (well, all 5 of them who mail in ballots) will face two questions:

1. Tunnel: yea or nay
2. Rebuild: yea or nay

You can vote yes on one, both, or neither. The Times breaks down the possible results here. The most likely option seems to be no/no, which is what the folks at The Stranger have been hawking.

The second most likely option is no/yes, which would almost certainly bring the debate to an end and result in an elevated rebuild. Even the Mayor would have to concede that he’s lost this one. If you gamble on a referendum, you have to be willing to accept the results.