All Politics Is Local

The Viaduct Killer

Who is this charming rogue? He says he is Doug MacDonald, Washington state Secretary of Transportation, the man in charge of our region's most vexing problem. But that can't be so. The secretary of transportation should be wearing a suit and speak in a gibberish comprehensible only to those high priests of highways—traffic engineers. This man is casually dressed, cracks jokes, and illustrates his points on the back of napkins when they get too technical. Even if you could understand him, the secretary should follow the standard bureaucratic rule of never really saying anything at all. This man keeps biting his tongue, saying, "I really shouldn't say this," and then launching into something very opinionated and controversial.

MacDonald had hoped to drop by unannounced at the Seattle Weekly offices, but he got tied up (probably in traffic), so he called us to make an appointment. I can't ever remember an unelected bureaucrat doing that before. Not only that, MacDonald actually had read the Weekly, comprehended it, and came to tell us, albeit in a wisecracking, thoroughly disarming fashion, that we didn't know what the hell we were talking about.

I don't know whether I agree with MacDonald or even if he's doing a good job, but I do know he's gotten my (and quite a few other people's) attention and generated quite a bit of goodwill. That means I'm willing to listen when he talks.

And he likes to talk. A lot.

Since the Alaskan Way Viaduct's ugly, noisy, hulking self sits a block from our office, naturally he held forth on that topic.

He says the media and politicians such as Seattle City Council member Nick Licata have misunderstood the debate over the viaduct.

Replacing the viaduct is not an $11 billion proposition, he claims. And replacing it—either with a new, elevated structure or with a cut-and-cover tunnel—is the only option; retrofitting it is no longer on the table.

"The key slogan," says MacDonald, "is worst first." Using that yardstick, the viaduct, a crumbling, seismically un- safe, 50-year-old structure that carries 110,000 vehicles a day along Seattle's waterfront, rises to somewhere near the top of the state's list of projects that need immediate attention.

MacDonald admits his Department of Transportation (DOT) recently made two big mistakes in educating the public and the politicians about the viaduct. First, it released the entire cost of renovating everything from West Spokane Street to Roy Street—$11 billion—in a proposal that was represented as the cost of replacing the viaduct. But replacing the viaduct itself is $3.5 billion to $4.7 billion, not $11 billion, MacDonald claims. For $11 billion, you get to rebuild the Battery Street tunnel, fix the Mercer Mess, and on and on. The rest of it doesn't need to be done anytime soon.

MacDonald says the DOT's second mistake was "treating the retrofit option as an option when it was D.O.A." He says there are two reasons the structure has to come down. First, if we don't take it down, it will fall down. The viaduct "is not everything it should have been when it was built. You are running out of its useful life," he explains. It's like when you go in to see if you should replace the head gaskets on your Honda Civic and the mechanic says the 250,000 miles you got out of the engine was pretty good.

Secondly, MacDonald submitted the DOT's retrofit plan to the American Society of Civil Engineers for evaluation. They said the retrofit was "fatally flawed, not a phrase engineers use lightly," according to MacDonald. The retrofit idea, as MacDonald explains it, was to put the equivalent of ball bearings under the viaduct so that when the next earthquake comes, the elevated roadway would roll with the shock waves. The reason the American Society of Civil Engineers rejected that plan is that the viaduct is a bridge made of Lincoln Logs, MacDonald says. During an earthquake, according to MacDonald, "everything will be moving every which way. The expansion joints have three inches of play. They pound together." And the viaduct will most likely collapse.

So MacDonald says we just need to choose between a cut-and-cover tunnel and a new, elevated roadway.

Council member Licata doesn't buy it. More importantly in terms of the politics of the whole thing, neither does state Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, powerful chair of Appropriations. Licata wants to get the retrofit into the next phase of DOT's study. "It could buy us another 25 years," Licata insists.

Licata and Sommers currently have the upper hand in the spin wars. They are shouting $11 billion real loudly, and everybody is suddenly wondering if we can even afford to replace the viaduct at all.

Sommers lives in Magnolia. She hasn't got much of a re-election race this year. Licata can be found most days on the 11th floor of the Municipal Building.

Doug, you ought to just drop in on them.

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