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Originally published Sunday, January 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Stakeholders took initiative with viaduct tunnel option

A group of business leaders, neighborhood activists and environmentalists were organized a year ago with a single mission: Analyze all data the state Department of Transportation was collecting on how to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Instead, the 29 so-called stakeholders came up with their own plan — a tunnel — and it may well be chosen by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A group of business leaders, neighborhood activists and environmentalists was organized a year ago with a single mission: Analyze all data the state Department of Transportation was collecting on how to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Instead, the 29 so-called stakeholders came up with their own plan — a tunnel — and it may well be chosen by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

The chief advocate for the tunnel was Tayloe Washburn, a land-use lawyer and chairman of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce. He was convinced the two finalists for viaduct replacement — another elevated freeway or a network of surface streets — wouldn't work.

While traffic volumes could be maintained with an elevated highway, too many interest groups, including the city of Seattle, oppose it. And many people consider the surface option and its 23 stoplights along the central Seattle waterfront unworkable.

So Washburn brought to stakeholders a third option: a deep-bore tunnel that the state had considered and discarded as too expensive.

Even environmentalists who support the surface option said a tunnel should be explored.

Now Gregoire said she is considering the tunnel and expects to announce a decision soon on how to proceed with a viaduct replacement.

"What Tayloe did was actually facilitate planting a seed with the governor," said Ron Judd, senior adviser to Gregoire. "She was busy with her re-election and the deficit issue, and when she came up for air she said, 'OK, waterboard me with all the data.' Part of that data was information about the bored tunnel."

Judd, hinting that the tunnel may be Gregoire's choice, said the governor has heard from many people who said the only way to maintain traffic capacity and open up Seattle's waterfront is to build a tunnel.

But the state is constrained by the $2.8 billion the Legislature budgeted for viaduct replacement, and even the most ardent tunnel backers don't expect the state to contribute any more money.

That raises the question: Can the tunnel and other planned improvements along the corridor be built for $2.8 billion, or could other money from the city, Port of Seattle or even taxpayers be tapped to make up the difference?

"Tayloe's a great thinker; he was the master organizer," Judd said. "He was very thoughtful both at the approach and working with his colleagues at the (stakeholders committee) to bring folks together to problem-solve this issue."

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Washburn doesn't like to take credit for catching the governor's ear on the tunnel. Indeed, the letter sent to the governor in early December advocating a tunnel was signed by Washburn; Rob Sexton, with the Downtown Seattle Association; and David Freiboth, head of the M.L. King County Labor Council.

Washburn, 58, managing partner of the Foster Pepper law firm, said the tunnel idea evolved because stakeholders weren't told they had to agree, or vote, on a viaduct option. "Since there was no tension to reach agreement, that made it easier," Washburn said.

He said the two preferred options announced by transportation officials last month weren't going to happen, so he suggested two tunnel alternatives — one drilled beneath the surface, and the other a trench that is then covered. The trench, however, would be too disruptive to waterfront businesses so it was abandoned, leaving the so-called deep-bore tunnel.

The stakeholders who might not have favored a tunnel as a first choice at least considered it as a second option to replace the viaduct. At the stakeholders' final meeting, there was almost unanimous consensus that the tunnel should be studied.

That led to a flurry of phone calls and e-mails among committee members. Gregoire also called some members to ask their opinions.

At the same time, the Discovery Institute's Cascadia Center, a think tank that studies transportation issues, also was pushing a deep-bore tunnel and brought in experts to talk to stakeholders.

Freiboth, with the Labor Council, said the committee could have gone the "easiest, dirtiest way" and supported another elevated highway.

"Tayloe was good at keeping us thinking about the political realities of taking that path," Freiboth said. "If we had been polarized, (Gregoire) would have to make an Olympia decision. Now she can consider a more comprehensive decision."

Washburn says the ball is now on the elected officials' plate.

"All we did was set the table."

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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