Alaskan Way frustration Sep 2007
Shani Wallis, Editor
- Transportation projects across the United States are falling foul of indecisiveness, lack of clear leadership, and infighting among warring political and social factions. The Alaskan Way project in Seattle is a mega highway rebuild or undertaking that illustrates the point. TunnelTalk met with the outgoing Secretary of State for Transportation, Douglas MacDonald, to discuss the implications of the dilemma.
- What to do about the damaged and deteriorating double-deck elevated Alaskan Way highway along the waterfront of Seattle remains a conundrum for State, City and local officials. A referendum of local voters in March 2007, designed to have the public break a dead lock, left the issue of the earthquake damaged structure more stymied than before.
- The choice on the ballot was for either a $2.8 billion rebuild of the existing, seismically undermined and vulnerable viaduct, or an estimated $3.4 billion cut-and-cover tunnel for an underground replacement solution. Neither prevailed. With about 25% turnout of the eligible electorate, voters said no to the viaduct - 57 to 42% - and more emphatically no to a tunnel – 70% against.
- Many blamed the wording of the ballot for the indecisive result. Others blamed voter apathy. Still others, in local media coverage, said it was a clear indication that citizens want more investment in public transit rather than billions more into “Big Freeway”.
- Whatever the spin placed on the vote, the outcome adds to the disappointment felt by out-going Washington Secretary of State for Transportation Douglas MacDonald. TunnelTalk met with the Secretary in late July just before his announced resignation.
- “We managed to achieve a lot during my six years with the Department, but it is disappointing and frustrating to have not made more progress on the Alaskan Way situation - and on the I-520 bridge replacement project.” He said: “the problem is there is no clear model for decision making between State, City and citizen levels when there is no consensus.”
- MacDonald was the State’s fourth Secretary of Transportation and a departure from traditional political appointees, coming to the post from his successful nine-year directorship of the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority where he managed the massive Boston Harbor cleanup program and the politically-fraught MetroWest water supply tunnel project among others.
- “Construction challenges are the same for the two different public infrastructure authorities but planning, programming and politics for transportation projects are much more complex. Money is not the problem. Once a clear decision of what to implement is made, the funding issue can be solved.” When asked his opinion of public private partnerships, he reflected: “Like everything, a PPP requires a well defined project before moving forward. Some of the PPP financing tools can be useful and many of the construction tools are certainly productive.”
Waterfront double-deck viaduct
- “No; the impasse on major highway projects is over who thinks they need what, and who is responsible for what, in a corridor that must provide for more than just local commuters. Take freight through-traffic on the viaduct – who is to represent that faction? Who is to decide the weight of parties representing the environment, local residents, public transit options etc? There is often mutual campaigns inconsistency between these and the referendum proved that the public cannot do what elected officials are failing to do – make the decisions. As for the impact of public campaign groups, they are usually better at stopping things than starting them.”
- According to MacDonald, there are two possibilities if the Alaskan Way stalemate continues. “A: another earthquake hits and takes the decision out of everyone’s hands” [a video simulation of such a scenario was presented by Gordon Clark of lead project engineers Parsons Brinckerhoff during an RETC session in Toronto in June] “or B: the Governor will shut down the viaduct as a public safety concern and out of total frustration. The worst plan is one that arises out of having no plan!”
- The referendum “was an unusual step” adopted by Governor Christine Gregoire to try and find guidance from the public but MacDonald said “it isn’t likely to be used again. Taxpayers elect representatives to do this job for them and they were not that engaged as a whole.”
- In closing MacDonald said: “The concept of public transportation, in all its facets, is in a great state of transition. What do we want of our transportation systems and what do we want them to look like in 50-100 years time? Collapse of the Interstate highway bridge in Minneapolis in early August places added pressure on public officials to act more urgently on the issue. It is hard to see from where the vision will come – be it Federal or local leadership; private or public initiative – but it is badly needed.”
- Bored tunnel for downtown Seattle - TunnelTalk