In Seattle, a ‘Big Ugly’ political mess

Times Staff Writer

When Mayor Greg Nickels uses the phrase “the Big Ugly,” he is referring to the 2.2-mile-long Alaskan Way Viaduct, the aging, earthquake-vulnerable elevated expressway that separates much of downtown Seattle from Elliott Bay, one of the city’s iconic natural features.

But the Big Ugly also is an apt characterization of the political debacle unfolding here over whether -- and how -- the 54-year-old concrete roadway should be replaced.

On an all-mail advisory ballot that many voters here complain is confusing -- not to mention “a sham and a fiasco,” as City Council Member Peter Steinbrueck puts it, or “meaningless,” in the view of state House Speaker Frank Chopp -- Seattleites are supposed to weigh in with a yes or no on two separate measures.


One would replace the viaduct with a tunnel. It would be a visionary reclamation of Seattle’s somewhat neglected waterfront, according to proponents, and a Boston Big Dig-style construction nightmare, according to opponents. The other measure would replace the viaduct with a new elevated expressway.

Nickels, backed by former governors, mayors and business leaders, is campaigning hard for a “yes” vote on the tunnel.

“Tear down this wall,” he said of the raised expressway recently, perhaps a touch dramatically, as he was echoing the famous Reagan-to-Gorbachev challenge about the Berlin Wall.

Nickels has been pushing the tunnel idea even though state transportation planners last month rejected the design as both unsafe and far more expensive than its $3.4-billion price tag.

Some local leaders are pressing for the new expressway. Others favor a cheaper retrofit of the existing structure.

And still others are pushing the so-called “no-no” option (or “no and hell no,” in the words of the Stranger, an alternative weekly here), a sort of “if you don’t build it, they won’t come” approach to traffic.


Ballots went out two weeks ago and must be postmarked by March 13 to be counted.

No one truly expects voters to have the final word on the subject, and many leaders seem dug in to their position regardless of how the vote comes out -- raising the prospect of years of litigation and prompting Joni Balter, a Seattle Times editorial columnist, to label the whole mess “Dysfunction Junction.”

Still, the advisory ballot gives Seattleites a chance to offer some general vision for the waterfront, a mishmash of port facilities, tourist shops, a ferry terminal and cruise-ship slips. It is hardly the city’s most attractive feature, and it is cut off visually and sonically from the famed Pike Place Market and the rest of downtown by the viaduct and its whoosh of traffic.

Council Member Steinbrueck, an architect, says he will fight a new viaduct to his dying day, whereas Chopp, a Seattle Democrat, has basically said a tunnel will get built only over (or, perhaps, under) his dead body.

Many non-Seattle lawmakers agree with Chopp, portraying the tunnel as a wasteful bauble -- and a dangerous one. The state Transportation Department said the tunnel would have “serious operational and safety problems” because it would be narrow and the shoulders would be used as exit lanes during rush hours, which could cause accidents and tie-ups.

“It makes absolutely no sense to replace an unsafe viaduct with an unsafe tunnel,” said state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, a Democrat who heads the Transportation Committee.

Meanwhile, “no-no” proponents envision Seattleites and visitors reaching the waterfront via surface streets and bicycle paths, and highway planners say that failure to replace the viaduct could make today’s already clogged “expressways” look like a picnic compared with traffic jams of the future.


Though there is widespread discord over what to do with the viaduct, virtually everybody involved agrees on this: The next time a major earthquake hits the region, the existing expressway could crumble like a sandcastle.

Engineers say the 2001 Nisqually earthquake here caused major cracks and the viaduct is now highly vulnerable to collapse in even a moderate earthquake.

In a way, the saga of the neglected roadway is a textbook example of what many call the “Seattle process,” or the reputed civic inclination here to seek so much public input and listen to so many sides of an argument that nothing actually gets done.

A light-rail line, some 25 years or so under discussion and litigation, is supposed to be up and running by 2009 -- assuming construction goes smoothly. Seattle voters were asked four times over the last decade if they wanted the city to build a separate monorail system, and four times they gave it a thumbs-up. But opponents got it killed in a fifth referendum two years ago, amid concerns that it would be far more expensive than originally billed.

A strong pro-tunnel vote would strengthen Nickels’ hand and, conceivably, induce state engineers to work with him to develop a feasible below-ground option. Even if that happened, there would be a separate political battle over what to do with new space above-ground -- whether to create parks, residential buildings or commercial space, or a combination.

Approval of the rebuild option, with a loss for the tunnel, would probably kill the tunnel idea for good, though it wouldn’t necessarily settle whether the viaduct should be rebuilt completely, at an estimated cost of $2.8 billion, or given a less-expensive and potentially less aesthetically pleasing earthquake-resistant retrofit.


In the highly unlikely case that voters answer “yes” to both a tunnel and a new viaduct, no one seems to have any idea what message that would send or what would happen.

In the more likely scenario of a “no-no” vote, planners would be forced back to the drawing board to consider “surface options” lacking either a tunnel or expressway -- a great idea, according to Cary Moon, co-founder of the People’s Waterfront Coalition, a group that describes itself as advocating a “highway-free shore” along Elliott Bay.

By saying no to both a tunnel and a new expressway, Moon says, Seattleites could firmly seize their “once-in-a-century opportunity to create a shoreline downtown that works for residents as well as visitors, native salmon and the marine ecosystems of Puget Sound.”

But Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat who is up for reelection next year and faces a political migraine over the viaduct, said the idea might be appealing in theory but would be a dud in reality.

“I can’t see just tearing it down and letting it go and creating a parking lot on I-5,” she said in Feb. 19 remarks about the viaduct. “I think the citizens would be appalled.... They want congestion relief.”