The Vote on Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct

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The results of Seattle's referendum on the Alaskan Way Viaduct are in and it doesn't look good for urbanism, transit, or Seattle's taxpayers.

The referendum, which asked voters if the city council alone should be allowed to finalize the city's support for the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel, was approved by roughly 60% of Seattle voters. While the anti-tunnel campaign was able to call into question recent decisions of the City Council by getting this issue on the ballot to begin with, they were ultimately not able to combat the pro-tunnel campaigns arguments and marketing. The pro-tunnel campaign, Let's Move Forward, raised over $450,000 from major businesses, including firms that hold contracts to build the tunnel and other firms like Microsoft, the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, and the Downtown Seattle Association. The anti-tunnel campaign, Protect Seattle Now, raised $95,000 with the biggest donation coming from the Sierra Club.

For a summary of this news, check out the Seattle Times article "Voters backing Seattle tunnel; fight may finally be over." We here at CNU have been following this developing story closely (see our most recent coverage here and here.) The potential of another elevated highway being replaced by a more sustainable surface street with transit seemed close at hand, especially in light of the tunnel design and the results of past referendums where voters previously rejected the tunnel option. Recent polling had also shown that support for the tunnel was only at 35%. Perhaps the combination of voter fatigue -- the city and state have been debating this issue for 10 years now -- and WSDOT's inability to draft a fair vision for how a surface and transit option would work led to this week's result.

What does this mean going forward?

The $4.2 billion project will now proceed and is slated to be completed by December 2015. The project will remove the elevated section of the Alaskan Way Viaduct along Elliott Bay and a tunnel will be built for the two miles that run through downtown. The tunnel will have four lanes, no downtown exits and will cost $5 one-way during rush hour. The surface street will be rebuilt as a boulevard. The project price tag does not include any funding for the redesigning of downtown streets or enhancing transit service. And given that tunnels often encounter cost overruns and a 2009 State law prevents the state from paying for it, Seattle taxpayers will likely being paying a lot more for the project in years to come.

The downtown is also projected to see more traffic on its city streets. The state's own report forecasts the same traffic conditions in Seattle with the tunnel or if they simply removed the viaduct and did nothing. Given the toll, the state projects that two-thirds of the vehicles that currently use the viaduct would shift to other streets to avoid the fee. The surface/transit option would also see a similar shift to other routes but would have been prepared for it by focusing funds to improve downtown streets and transit service instead.

How did this happen?

Publicola's Sandeep Kaushik has an interesting take on the results in his article, "Why the Anti-Tunnel Campaign Lost." In his first point, Kaushik argues that the anti-tunnel side didn't have a clear vision of what the waterfront could be like under the surface/transit opion. I find this point pretty vexing given that WSDOT, the public agency that is tasked with evaluating the alternatives, is ultimately responsible for providing the details on how the different plans could work. But from the beginning, WSDOT's internal bias towards automobiles and away from providing a multitude of choices for all of Seattle's residents never gave the surface/transit option a fair shake. The City of Seattle's Department of Transportation tried to make up the difference and their effort with the Urban Mobility Plan should be applauded. But let's face it, the Let's Move Forward campaign had the benefit of having their vision articulated in full detail by the state government charged with executing the project.

What can other Highway to Boulevard campaigns learn from Seattle's long debate?

Plenty! Seattle's anti-tunnel campaign had some major wins and those should not be ignored. They have kept this debate alive despite the forces against them. While the auto-focused tunnel project may be going forward, the city of Seattle has still learned a lot about the importance of surface streets and transit in moving traffic and building strong downtowns. What I find alarming about the Seattle debate is the level of business support for the tunnel given that the downtown businesses truly have the most to gain from the surface/transit option. Other Highways to Boulevard conversions have shown tremendous benefit to downtown businesses and property values. And stronger transit systems that help reduce vehicle miles traveled move money away from oil and into the local economy. I believe it is perfectly reasonable for Seattle to get even higher returns given that they could continue to perfect the highway to boulevard model. For other cities looking at alternatives for their aging highway infrastructure, the importance of showing business interests the value of a resilient transportation system with choices cannot be understated.


There is much room to take

There is much room to take some of the lessons learned in Seattle and apply them to the campaign underway in New Orleans to take down the elevated portion of I-10 and restore Claiborne Avenue.


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