MAKING IT WORK
October 25, 2004, Volume VI, Issue 9
Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin
The purpose of this newsletter is to provide
information, inspire involvement, and make things work
in this great city.
FUTURE OF THE ALASKAN WAY VIADUCT
MERCER CORRIDOR IMPROVEMENTS
FUTURE OF THE ALASKAN WAY VIADUCT
The City Council is expecting to take final action in November on two resolutions relating to the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall, along with a set of recommendations about the preferred configuration for the replacement project. Copies of the proposed actions can be found at http://www.seattle.gov/council/viaduct.htm.
Seattle cannot afford to wait until the Viaduct becomes unusable to move forward with a plan. A replacement project will be the largest and most expensive public works project in Seattle's history, and raising funds for it will be a daunting task. It is our responsibility to the public to fully explore every option that might be available before making a commitment to a $3 to $4 billion project. I have asked that every possible alternative, from interim repairs to the tunnel option to not replacing the highway facility at all, be fully explored so that we understand the consequences and can make a clear case to the public for the solution that is ultimately chosen.
The Council has worked with the Mayor, Washington Department of Transportation and Seattle Department of Transportation to develop an approach to this critical issue. Our first task was to develop a set of principles that make it clear that this project is about community development, not just transportation.
The Council's proposed core principles call for:
- Integrating human activities, economic development, nature, and transportation to create a functional, ecologically sound, and beautiful front door to Seattle.
- Maintaining or improving mobility and accessibility for people and goods through the Alaskan Way Viaduct Corridor, including giving priority to the movement of freight and of pedestrians, bicycles, transit, and HOV, not single occupancy vehicles; improving pedestrian connections between other Center City areas and the waterfront; and including no net increase in road width on Alaskan Way north of Yesler.
- Promoting a healthy economy and attracting investment to the Puget Sound region, including keeping public right-of-way in public ownership and promoting the development of the waterfront as a modern, urban, working waterfront.
- Designing the Seawall replacement for ecological sustainability, including opportunities to be ecologically restorative, enhance marine habitat and salmon migration, and integrate natural drainage strategies.
- Informing and involving the public during the decision-making process.
The Council will join with the Mayor and State to recommend a final project design. The draft recommendations include a tunnel through the central waterfront, a lowered Aurora north of the Battery Street Tunnel with a recreated street grid crossing it, and a surface street through the Port and railroad area south of downtown. The Council recommends that the central waterfront be primarily open space with limited surface roadway. The entire area underneath the Viaduct and extending to the waterfront will remain in public ownership.
While I have supported the tunnel as the best long-range option, I have also called for a full review of the proposal to not replace the Viaduct. The 'no-highway' or 'distributed traffic' alternative has not been adequately studied. It is difficult for traffic engineers to effectively evaluate alternatives that would require major shifts in transportation strategies, as their models are fundamentally based an assumptions that traffic will always increase, meaning that any capacity reductions lead to 'gridlock'.
In the past, Seattle has challenged these models on several occasions, such as when the City declined to put a north-south freeway through the Arboretum. Other cities have also found that carefully choosing a different path can be successful, e.g., San Francisco's decision not to replace the Embarcadero elevated highway on its waterfront, or Vancouver's decision not to allow any freeways to enter the city.
Generalities or other examples, however, cannot determine whether this is a viable option for Seattle. The decision about the Viaduct must be based on careful analysis of our specific constraint of a narrow north-south corridor between First Hill and the waterfront.
Fully analyzing the 'distributed traffic' alternative will help us make an informed judgment as to its viability. This analysis will also assist in the design of a "Safety and Transition Plan". This Plan will include making pedestrian, bicycle, and transit systems flow more effectively, along with a targeted investment strategy for vehicle traffic. The goal is to:
- Improve our odds of managing mobility if the Viaduct has to be shut down due to further damage;
- Evaluate the feasibility of closing the Viaduct during construction to save money and time, and help us to manage the construction period to minimize economic impacts;
- Make investments to create a transportation system that can function as well as possible if funds are not available for the replacement of the Viaduct, or if they are only available over a period of time and the replacement must be undertaken in stages.
The investment strategy to increase the flexibility of the transportation system and provide long-range transportation system benefits could include major investments in increased capacity to bypass downtown such as reconnecting the grid as part of a two-way Mercer plan, completing railroad overpasses south of downtown, expanding the Spokane Street viaduct, reconstructing the Spokane Street/I-5 interchange, and taking advantage of the repaving of I-5 to reconfigure and improve capacity on I-5.
A core task for the Viaduct/Seawall project will be to develop a realistic financial plan with options and contingencies to accompany decision-making that can be updated on a regular basis. The case for the investment can be made most effectively by evaluating costs and benefits through a life cycle cost methodology on the basis of a 50 to 100 year timeframe. However, finding the resources will be challenging. The 5-cent gas task increase adopted by the Legislature last year raised some $3.5 billion over a twenty-five year period for all projects statewide, and this was the first new transportation funding in a dozen years.
The proposed funding packages have consistently relied on a combination of state, federal, and regionally raised funds that can only be achieved by very effective lobbying and support in public votes. The assumptions are optimistic, and there is no guarantee of success. Imposing tolls on either the viaduct or the regional system and variable pricing of lanes to facilitate the smooth flow of traffic during peak hours can make a modest, but important contribution.
Given the very high demand for transportation funding for a myriad of other projects, investing this level of resources in this corridor will be assessed against other priorities. Legislators, voters, and local elected officials must weigh ensuring the current free flow of traffic on State Route 99 against easing congestion on Interstate 5, State Route 520, or other key corridors, or investing in transit that can mitigate traffic on several corridors.
The Alaskan Way Viaduct project is required not because of transportation bottlenecks on the current facility, but because it is not safe. We must emphasize that, but also recognize that there is a lot of work to do to find a fundable and effective project, and that careful and effective contingency planning will be required.
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MERCER CORRIDOR IMPROVEMENTS
On Tuesday, October 14, the Transportation Committee voted 6 to 1 to approve two pieces of legislation relating to the Mercer Corridor in South Lake Union (SLU). A resolution sponsored by Councilmember Steinbrueck recommends exploring a two-way Mercer and a narrowed Valley Street to reorganize transportation in SLU in response to increasing development in the area. I sponsored an ordinance specifying that a two-way Mercer project must include certain performance improvements. The two pieces of legislation will go to full Council November 1.
My ordinance reflects my concern that, while the two-way Mercer is appealing as an urban design, it is not yet clear that it will improve the pedestrian and bicycle environment, support increased transit use, and provide smoother and more consistent flows for freight and passenger vehicles. As SLU becomes more like downtown in the character of its development, mobility to and through SLU will require careful planning and investments.
Changing the character of Mercer from a freeway on-ramp to a two-way boulevard between I-5 and Fifth Avenue North at the Seattle Center could be the center of a series of changes to reshape transportation in SLU. Adding my recommended improvements does more than straighten the westbound traffic pattern between I-5 and the Seattle Center. The proposal also restores the street grid by reconnecting streets between Denny and Mercer across Aurora, develops new pedestrian, transit, and bicycle facilities, and addresses freight mobility concerns. This package would better integrate the SLU transportation system and has strong conceptual support on the City Council.
The initial proposed alternative for the Mercer Street EIS included only changing Mercer and Valley between I-5 and 9th Avenue. It did not include extending this to 5th or removing Broad Street, which will be reviewed under the Viaduct EIS. It also did not include pedestrian and bike or other improvements that might make South Lake Union work more effectively. The small version of the Mercer improvements lacked many of the benefits that a larger version could include.
A Council staff analysis called into question the benefits for mobility in South Lake Union from the smaller version of the two-way Mercer. Data shows that many intersections would become more difficult, that mobility for buses and automobiles might not be improved, and that benefits to bicyclists are questionable. Cost projections for the Mercer reconstruction are high for the likely benefits to mobility, particularly from the smaller version. Ultimately, the Council should decide what level of service is an acceptable return on this large investment, and whether it is competitive with other transportation priority needs.
I have been able to negotiate an agreement with the Mayor's staff to add key components that will make the project more successful from a transportation standpoint. This new and expanded version of the two-way Mercer appears to have much greater likelihood of succeeding in improving all modes of transportation, and the revised ordinance specifies the components to be added to the project to make it work.
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"Any institution, including a government agency, that is bent upon ecological destruction or an outrage upon the built environment, argues its case or bullies its opponents by righteously citing the jobs that supposedly will materialize or, even more effectively, the jobs that may be forfeited or jeopardized if the ugly deed is not done."
Citizen participation and engagement are critical for maintaining democracy -- fostering it is a key task of elected officials. It's my hope that this newsletter will inform you about issues, inspire you to get involved, and that together we can make things work better in this great city. Please send me your feedback, so we can keep things lively, interesting, and useful. And please forward it along to friends who might be interested. You can get more information or send me feedback through the City Council website at http://cityofseattle.net/council/
Your Seattle City Councilmember
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