House speaker Chopp warming to tunnels for viaduct, 520 Bridge
House Speaker Frank Chopp, the single biggest political obstacle to replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel, is apparently softening his stance toward the $4.3 billion project.
Seattle Times staff reporter
OLYMPIA — House Speaker Frank Chopp, the single biggest political obstacle to replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel, is apparently softening his stance toward the $4.3 billion project.
In a rare interview this week, Chopp indicated the proposal is much improved over past versions. When asked what odds he'd give for the tunnel legislation in the House, he said, "I think decent odds."
The comments represent a sharp change from January when Chopp sent out a news release comparing the project to Boston's Big Dig, which cost billions more than originally estimated.
In recent months, Chopp had pushed his own plan for the viaduct replacement: an elevated freeway along the waterfront with retail, office and living space below it.
But Tuesday evening, Chopp had praise for Senate Bill 5768, which passed the Senate by a 43-6 vote and is now being considered in the House. The bill would direct the state to replace the viaduct with a deep-bore tunnel.
He noted the legislation would limit the state's investment to $2.4 billion for the cost of digging the tunnel, plus removing the existing viaduct. He also commended the city of Seattle for promising to pay for a significant chunk of the work, including fixing the waterfront sea wall and making street improvements.
In addition, Chopp talked about legislation that would use tolls on the Highway 520 floating bridge to help pay for a replacement and his support for an interchange on the west side of Lake Washington that includes a tunnel under the Montlake Cut.
The state Department of Transportation says the Highway 520 option that includes the tunnel would cost $6.6 billion — the most expensive of the three alternatives being considered.
Chopp, however, said the costs can be reduced.
Here are excepts from the interview:
Q: The bill calling for the Alaskan Way Viaduct to be replaced with a tunnel is expected to pass out of the House Transportation Committee this week. What happens then?
A: "There's language being talked about. My concern I've had for at least six years is the cost of the effort to replace the viaduct and then who will pay for it if it goes too much. So the fact the Senate bill has $2.4 billion in it, and that's it, in state funding is a very good sign.
"Secondly, the fact that [Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels] finally agreed to take some of the cost is incredibly different than two years ago. Literally the governor and I sat down with him two years ago and said, 'Mayor if you want a tunnel can the city pay for part of it?' and he said 'No.'
"So that was a major change in terms of limiting it at the originally budgeted amount ... (and) having the city finally own up to some responsibility for the thing is a major change."
(Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said the city did have money on the table for one of the previous tunnel proposals, but this time around the city and state are dividing up responsibilities differently. For the current proposal, the city would provide more than $900 million.)
Q: So, will it get a floor vote?
A: "Potentially yes. There still needs to be thought about ... who pays for costs beyond $2.4 billion? We have to consider options there."
Q: What odds do you give it passing the House this session?
A: "I think decent odds."
Q: Do you support a provision in the Senate bill that calls for raising $400 million by tolling the tunnel?
A: "They've done tolling studies before and found out it didn't really work. In that particular corridor if you put tolls there for this particular deep-bore tunnel, the portals are much less accessible. Tolls just don't work. That's what they told us before. "
Q: So if a bill made it out of the House you don't think it would have tolls attached?
A: "I think there needs to be some thought given to who pays and how is it paid for beyond $2.4 billion."
Q: The Highway 520 bill is expected to come out next week. I understand you support "option K" for the west side? (That option includes a tunnel under the Montlake Cut to connect the highway to the University of Washington.)
A: "The community was very organized and working in good faith with the Department of Transportation. In previous years the community groups would be divided about what their points of views are, but now, literally, all the community groups of note in the west side are unified behind plan K. So I support my constituents."
Q: Do you want to get language in the Highway 520 bill that talks about that option and gets it in there?
A: "Yes, absolutely. I don't think we'll say only this plan but rather these components need to be included in order to make it work for both transportation and also the community. ...
"The original option K was more extensive and more expensive, but then they revised it to basically lessen the cost. By the way, the community met with the governor today on their plan and reiterated again that they're willing to work with the state to get the costs into a reasonable range. These original cost estimates are large but we know already they can be reasonably reduced."
Q: You're supporting this option, which includes a tunnel, but you've opposed replacing the viaduct with a tunnel. Why the difference?
A: "I've always been for whatever works. I've worked to make sure we meet the transportation needs as well as do it in a fiscally responsible manner. The original [waterfront] tunnel that was on the ballot two years ago [and was rejected by Seattle voters, along with another elevated freeway] is now recognized as being way too expensive and way too risky."
Q: How do you feel about tolling both bridges, 520 and I-90?
A: "We support tolling, where it makes sense. With 520, yes there's consensus we need to toll 520. And then down the road ... if it makes sense to add additional tolling elsewhere for specific corridor improvements then it makes sense.
Q: But not now?
A: "I don't think it works right now."
Staff reporter Andrew Garber: email@example.com or 360-236-8268
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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