Viaduct's bill of health is coming due

Unstable and serious: that is the state of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Professional attention has not negated the need for intensive intervention soon. The outcome is guardedly optimistic.

Roads are the vascular system of a city - our streets the capillaries and the viaduct a vital vein. The avenues of our neighborhood may be in good shape, but the viaduct is a grave concern. Diagnosis: terminally ill, injured by the Nisqually quake, afflicted by degenerative age and living a high-risk lifestyle by relying on a decrepit seawall for support.

Our city and state performed a triage and declared the viaduct's condition so critical it has top priority. Prognosis: either a one-in-20 chance an earthquake could permanently close the viaduct by 2011, or old age will do it in.

Initial emergency action taken included exigency repairs and restriction of use. Then, a thorough assessment by a vast team of specialists - including external consultant - produced a range of alternative treatments: a wait-and-watch strategy deemed totally unacceptable; periodic resuscitation-and-augmentation declared only palliative and inevitably unsuccessful.

Complete regeneration, or total replacement with a suitable transplant, is required. The best highway doctors available studied the patient and forthrightly outlined five treatment options for the, the public - the intimates who rely upon the viaduct directly and indirectly. These were detailed both in public meetings and a very readable-by-laymen Draft Environmental Impact Study document.

Earlier reports in the Magnolia News have outlined the treatment options and pointedly described, option by option, the resultant, specific consequences to us in Magnolia. (At least one treatment option is abhorrent and unacceptable.)

Strain from anxiously waiting outside an emergency room created a yearning for consolation from periodic reporting: so too regarding the viaduct. Word has just been delivered: the current status is unchanged, though there have been developments.

The public gave hundreds of comments on the proposed treatment alternatives to replace the viaduct. Briefly, the three top categories of comment were as follows: traffic, economics/funding and urban design.

The most favored alternative expressed was the six-lane "tunnel" followed by the "rebuild" and "aerial" alternatives. Notably, one resident, Gene Hoglund, gathered hundreds of Magnolia signatures on a petition he initiated that support the rebuild and aerial options. The petition cited capacity, cost and preservation of the Elliot/Western ramps as the citizen's concerns. One hundred and nineteen signatures were submitted before the deadline and officially are recognized in that summary.

Another input source to the attending staff has been the city and state created "Viaduct Leadership Group" that consists of approximately 30 community, private and governmental representatives. For two years they strongly advocated that maintenance of "capacity" (i.e. volume, speed and travel time) be the make-or-break criteria for a viaduct replacement.

Just what is going on now? When will we learn what the infrastructure physicians will do? The technicians (i.e. staff experts) and specialists (i.e. political decision-makers) are now conferring and will continue to do so for two months. They've stated their eventual selection of treatment will not be a popularity vote, but rather will be arrived at by an assessment of facts, input provided and realities faced. By the end of this summer, city, state and federal officials will announce the "preferred approach."

When then? Detailed environmental analysis of the preferred approach will commence and take until early 2006. "How-to-build" design work will occur concurrently but last through 2007. Construction could begin in 2008.

Assuming full finding is assured initially, construction would last 7.5 to 11 years, depending on the replacement alternative selected. Regardless of which alternative is selected, two good outcomes are promised. First, the decaying seawall will be rectified. Second, planned provisions will maintain some "viaduct" capacity during construction to minimize adverse impact.

Obviously crucial, funding is a serious factor. Considerable effort was made to determine reliable cost estimates as a basis for funding. Long-time, respected civic leader Dick Ford has been tasked to coordinate the multiple and various funding sources. He has met in Washington, D.C., with key congressional appropriation chairpeople (who are not from our state).

Ford exhibits optimism in the possibility of obtaining significant Federal monies if this region can demonstrate a reasonable local consensus on, and local funding toward, the replacement.

Viaduct staff have identified funding potentials from four federal, four state and five regional/city sources. Interestingly, the Port of Seattle, which asserts the viaduct is most critical to both the region and its interests, apparently has given no indication of its own intended contribution.

The other sources appear to have a potential collective total of a low $2 billion to a high $4.9 billion for the viaduct. Because this wide range is below the lowest and above the highest expected replacement costs, funding remains problematic.

We, the residents of our neighborhood and parties to a commercial enterprise, await outside the figurative emergency room door. The viaduct is vital. Indifference or avoidance-and-denial regarding the viaduct would be as detrimental to our personal interests were we ourselves patients in Harborview. The specialists heard our input and are now conferring. We must patiently wait until the end-of-summer announcement of the "preferred" alternative to replace the viaduct. Given all that has been done, the process will hopefully select the "best" option as the preferred option.

Let's look ahead. The individual medical patient wisely adopts a positive approach to treatment. With thousands of us involved, of course not everyone will agree and favor the selected approach. Yet we too would wisely unite in support to realize optimal replacement of the viaduct.

If we don't coalesce in our support, we won't secure maximum funding from all the needed sources. As in medical care, inadequate funding may well yield an inferior treatment - a replacement for which we would long suffer personally in congestion and regionally in economic consequences. Divided by bickering, we might only authorize a succession of Band-Aid treatments, until the viaduct eventually fails.

Dick Ford, the viaduct's finance coordinator, uses a different metaphor: "That would be like putting so much money in to an old car that you can't afford to get a replacement." If the car dies, you go nowhere. Viaduct failure adds 10,000 vehicles daily to our city streets, in which case you also go nowhere.

Frankly, for 50 years we've neither faced the degeneration in health a vital vein incurs, nor fully appreciated its susceptibility to serious injury. The reality of health is harsh. Now our role is patience, optimism and to garner the fortitude to pay the long-term installments on the inevitable bill.

At summer's end, the attendants will announce the treatment, the protocol and all attendant costs. When the prescription is filled, the regimen followed and the fees paid, the patient's restored circulatory system will yield not only health but vitality.

Steve Erickson is a Magnolia representative on the Viaduct Leadership Group.[[In-content Ad]]