No Tunnel Alliance: Elevated structure the only way to go

They're bucking the majority of the city council, the Downtown Seattle Association and, of course, the mayor's office.

The No Tunnel Alliance is hoping to convince the public that a new elevated structure-instead of the four-lane "Tunnel Lite" plan-is a better, cheaper and quicker way to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

"This is our challenge: To get people to see what's going on," said Greg Buck during an alliance open house on Feb. 8. Among other things going on is something that has received little, if any, press coverage.

Based on a plan on a Washington State Department of Transportation Web site, the new elevated structure can be built while traffic continues to use the old viaduct for all but four to six months, according to Buck, a Queen Anne member of the alliance.

"But the tunnel construction, they think it would close for 39 months," he said of the original six-lane-tunnel version. As for Tunnel Lite, there are no estimates on the amount of time needed to build that, Buck said.

Here's how building a new elevated structure would work: The support columns for a new structure can be installed while the viaduct continues to be open because the new structure is wider than the viaduct.

A temporary extra lane would be added to the lower deck, so that two lanes each of traffic going north and south could be used while the upper deck is removed.

There would be some nighttime closures while a new upper deck is built, Buck said. "But during the day, it would be open," he said of the two-way lower deck.

Once the new upper deck is finished, traffic could be shifted to it while the lower deck of the viaduct is demolished and replaced with a new one, he said.

Gene Hogland, a Magnolian who chairs the alliance with John Fox, thinks Tunnel Lite would cause a huge increase in accidents because the breakdown safety lane would be used when traffic is heaviest during rush-hour commutes.

Using the outside lane hasn't been OK'd by the federal government, and Hogland doesn't think the state has signed off on the idea, either, he said.

Hogland also criticized Tunnel Lite because it would reduce traffic capacity by a third, since three lanes on each level would be reduced to two on each level.

The idea of a four-lane tunnel has been considered before, he said. But the idea was rejected because there would be no exits downtown, "and it would totally bypass Ballard and Magnolia," Hogland added.

Then there are the cost comparisons. Estimates peg the cost of a new elevated version at $2.8 billion, compared with $4.6 billion for the original tunnel proposal and $3.4 billion for Tunnel Lite.

"The funding is totally paid for by the state for the elevated," he said, "but no so the tunnel." Hogland said he considers the $3.4 billion cost for Tunnel Lite to be overly optimistic, and he noted that Seattle would on the hook for any cost overruns.

Even without near-certain cost overruns, Seattle Public Utilities and Seattle City Light ratepayers would have to pony up half a billion dollars for the Tunnel Lite project, Hogland said.

Furthermore, he added, a Local Improvement District stretching from Denny Way to Spokane Street would have to be formed and pay $250 million in extra taxes for the tunnel.

A public advisory vote that contains yes or no questions for both Tunnel Lite and a new elevated structure is scheduled for next month, but Hogland said he believes it's misleading. "This is a phony ballot; it's designed to confuse voters," he said.

Speaking at a Feb. 8 Magnolia Community Club meeting, Seattle City Council member Peter Steinbreuck also pooh-poohed the ballot measure. A vice chair on the council's transportation committee, he described the ballot as "a glorified opinion poll about the most important decision in the state."

Steinbreuck said he was against having a public vote on the issue, but he's also no fan of a new elevated structure, which he described as "the worst possible outcome for a generation to come."

Everything from the state's Growth Management Act to city shoreline zoning codes to the city's Comprehensive Plan would prohibit the construction of a new elevated highway in any case, the council member said.

And Tunnel Lite isn't any better, according to Steinbreuck. "I accept the tunnel is dead. That's fine with me." A better option would be to retrofit the old viaduct and improve surface traffic and public transportation to reduce demand on the viaduct, he said.

The No Tunnel Alliance wrote yes-elevated and no-tunnel statements for the voters' pamphlet. Both statements were endorsed by city council member Nick Licata, city council member and Queen Anne resident David Della, 36th District Representative and Magnolian Helen Sommers and former 34th District state senator Phil Talmadge.

Referring to the huge cost overruns for Boston's Big Dig, the no-tunnel statement also slams Mayor Greg Nickels. "Mayor Nickels' proposed tunnel is not a transportation solution, it is a huge downtown development scheme," the statement reads.

The yes-elevated statement notes the new elevated structure can be built now. "While plans for a four-lane tunnel have barely begun, the State Department of Transportation has been working on the Elevated design for four years," the statement reads.

"The tunnel is going to go down," predicted Hogland, who added that 37,000 marine-industrial jobs would be at stake if it didn't.

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at or 461-1309.[[In-content Ad]]