HE TRIED. Allied Arts board member Philip Wohlstetter did his best to keep the casual confab on track. We were gathered on Oct. 14 to hear from experts about how the Initiative 912 gas-tax rollback might affect the organization's preferred waterfront solution: a $4 billion tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The venue for the "beer and culture" evening couldn't have been better: a luxe high-rise condo with a panoramic view of the waterfront and the viaduct that blights it.
Banish the word "transportation" from the discussion, Wohlstetter told the audience and panel. Among the latter, his edict lasted about 30 seconds. If I-912 passes on Nov. 8, warned David Spiker of the Seattle Design Commission, "that may mean reduced expectations." Some $2 billion would immediately drop out of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) budget (ditto $200 million in federal funding), leading to a possible "no-build" viaduct alternative enthusiastically pitched by Cary Moon of the People's Waterfront Coalition. For her, "the larger holistic picture" means a more natural shoreline, with only a still-substantial $800 million repair of the crumbling seawall. Moon repeatedly cited the example of San Francisco's elevated Embarcadero freeway, fatally damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake—the notion being that Seattle traffic patterns would naturally shift without the viaduct, and Alaskan Way would become a quieter, happier, more pedestrian-friendly place.
Drivers on Interstate 5, carrying most of the viaduct's 110,000 vehicles per day should it be closed or collapse, aren't likely to agree with Moon. As WSDOT urban corridors administrator David Dye reminded the gathering, the viaduct—Highway 99—is state property, and its fate lies in the hands of legislators. And there from the Legislature was Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, who added that if I-912 passes, repealing a gradual 9.5-cent gas-tax increase to fund the viaduct and many other projects, his colleagues would be unlikely to throw a new tax at voters. This raised the dreaded "inertia" plan, in which we simply wait for the viaduct to crumble or be condemned—what Wohlstetter called the classic Seattle tendency toward the "least offensive, lesser evil." The city doesn't want the viaduct or an elevated replacement, the state won't fund a tunnel, so we cross our fingers.
That quieted the room. Then came a small ripple of opposition during the Q&A: Maybe I-912 won't pass—had we considered that? Katrina and Rita and now Pakistan have made people a lot more conscious of the value of investing in infrastructure. Someone mentioned London and "dynamic tolling," where cars are charged to enter the city core. Dye reiterated that, notwithstanding the desires of Republican political operative Brett Bader and the pro-I-912 gang, there really isn't room for more freeway lanes to reduce congestion. The age of the classic "free" way may have passed, leading to a digital-age variant on the turnpike.
None of this is official policy, of course. This was just people shooting the shit over beers. Allied Arts is still pro-tunnel, not "no-build," and I-912 might be defeated. Doing nothing may yet mean doing right by the long-neglected waterfront. In which case design, not transportation, may be the next issue on the waterfront agenda.