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April 03, 2005

Crunching the numbers on the viaduct

Over at Cascadia Scorecard, the ever-mathematical Clark Williams-Derry crunches some numbers on the $4 billion cost of replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel.  Setting aside for a moment the question of whether a tunnel is a good idea (hello, Boston?), Clark considers whether it's even possible imagine how we might raise four billion clams.

Clark adds up all the out-of-city money such a project might possibly garner, and finds that there's still $2.7 billion unaccounted for.  Financing that over 30 years would require about $150 million per year in debt payments.

To put this in perspective:  $150 million is about three-quarters of all property taxes (pdf link, see page 31 for exact figures) Seattle expects to collect for its general revenue fund in 2005.  And it's about $25 million more than local taxpayers' contribution to the city's public schools.

On a per capita basis, the story is just as grim.  An annual payout of $150 million amounts to about $270 per person -- or nearly $1,100 for a family of four.  And that's just the first year -- payments would continue for 30 years, though the per-capita share would likely decline with inflation and population growth. 

Yow.  Assuming Clark's math is even close to correct, this suggests that a tunnel is just simply not going to happen financially.  The sooner we accept this as reality, the sooner we can start having a sensible discussion about how to meet our region's transportation needs with solutions we can actually afford.  Maybe thinking about whether we really need the viaduct at all is a good place to start. It's time to question all of our assumptions, people.

Posted by Jon Stahl on April 3, 2005 at 10:47 AM in Policy | Permalink

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Well, WSDOT did look at a no-build option. It seems to me that the PWC really understate how much their plan alters the way people have to move through the city. The AWV is used by people getting from points north of downtown to points south of downtown. The PWC plan doesn't really deal with the fact that we will have lots of capacity on Aurora and Elliot and Marginal Way, 509, and the West Seattle Bridge leading into downtown, and then this capacity will simply disappear once we get to downtown. Downtown will be the bottleneck in the city's north/south traffic flow, which means the street grid will be filled to capacity largely with people who aren't going to or coming from downtown. This would make downtown Seattle a not so great place to live and work, and it would make it about impossible to have an efficient bus system. I'm really not sure what to do about the viaduct, but having looked it over, I'm not impressed with the just tear it down option.

Posted by: Eric L | Apr 3, 2005 2:22:24 PM

Eric-

The PWC proposal definitely has problems, but when the finances (appear to) take your number one option off the table, it's time to go back and look at your other options with an open mind.

The flow of traffic through downtown could definitely be improved -- maybe by making a busway ala Portland.

People don't seem to have much problem getting through Vancouver without a huge highway -- and we still have I-5/405 to carry the freight through-traffic (unlike our Friends Up North At The End of the Road).

My point, though, is not so much that tear-it-down is the way to go, but that the idea ought to be in the mix as we move forward.

Posted by: Jon Stahl | Apr 3, 2005 3:38:54 PM

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