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Originally published December 27, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 27, 2005 at 12:39 PM

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Guest columnist

For the sake of safety and jobs, let's rebuild the risky viaduct

A lot of people tell me they are scared to drive on the Alaskan Way Viaduct in its current state. I've heard from others who admit that...

Special to The Times

A lot of people tell me they are scared to drive on the Alaskan Way Viaduct in its current state. I've heard from others who admit that when they drive across this aging and battered stretch of highway, they hold their breath.

Let's stop holding our breath on this one. For the sake of safety and jobs, Seattle must act now and replace the viaduct by rebuilding it.

Jobs and safety are serious concerns of mine, and the deteriorating viaduct is a stretch of highway that poses critical threats to both. The viaduct suffered significant structural damage in the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. Although it still stands and functions today, it is seismically at risk.

Engineers estimate that it has a one in 20 chance of failure in an earthquake in the next 10 years. As of March 2005, it has physically moved 4-½ inches. This may not sound like much, but should it shift another 1-½ inches, major damage will occur and possibly shut down the viaduct for good. The nearby seawall is also deteriorating because of underwater organisms that are damaging the timbers.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct corridor is a critical piece in our transportation system, carrying about 110,000 vehicles per day, or one-quarter of the vehicle trips moving through downtown. Continued deterioration or failure of the viaduct and seawall represent a serious threat to our region's public safety and economy.

Nearly a year ago, the Seattle City Council said that a tunnel would be our preferred option for the replacement of the viaduct. However, since then, times have changed. The reality is that we are living under different circumstances. Hurricane Katrina changed everything. It changed the federal budget picture and was a reminder of what can happen when infrastructure is not safe.

Sure, many of us may prefer the open views from the waterfront a tunnel may open up — but let's be real. The money for a tunnel, no matter how much you juggle the figures, is not there.

Our safety is at risk each day that we hold out false hope that there's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Given the new constraints that the federal budget is under, I don't think it would be realistic or responsible to count on federal dollars to help us build a tunnel.

During the 2005 legislative session, the Legislature appropriated $2 billion in gas-tax monies to go toward the viaduct. Voters' sound defeat of Initiative 912 safeguarded that money, but it is not realistic to think there is more state money from where that came. Voters have given us some certainty. We owe it to the public to provide some certainty. The safety risks are grave and they are real. Do we really want to risk people's lives betting on an aesthetic point of view?

The full tunnel option is estimated by the state to cost between $4.1 billion and $4.4 billion and is projected to take between seven and nine years to construct. Alternatively, building a new, stronger viaduct is estimated to cost between $2.7 billion and $3.1 billion and is projected to take between six and eight years to build.

Funds are available now to rebuild the viaduct. I can't stand by in good conscience and let safety, jobs and transportation take a back seat to a gold-plated alternative.

We've seen what happens when we hold onto a transportation dream for too long. This time, the stakes are higher — safety, lives and jobs are at risk. This time, we can't afford to sleep through the alarm — it has been more than four years since the Nisqually earthquake and the clock continues to tick. It's time for our city's leaders to act and exercise responsible leadership.

David J. Della is a Seattle City Council member and chairman of the council's Committee on Parks, Neighborhoods and Education. He is a former union organizer.

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