Fearing Quakes, Gribbles

Fearing Quakes, Gribbles

Copyright 2004, Traffic World, Inc.

A Seattle coalition is following the lead of groups from California and Massachusetts in seeking at least $1 billion in federal funds for a transportation project to speed traffic through a crowded urban corridor.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall Coalition provides a lens into how powerful interests lobby for money from the federal highway bill, which was moving slowly toward a conference committee between House and Senate members. The coalition''s effort is aimed at rebuilding the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a three-mile stretch of highway that carries freight and commuter traffic along the Seattle waterfront. City officials estimate the highway, which provides direct access to Seattle''s port, carries 110,000 vehicles daily.

"We are watching it literally crumble," Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels said. "It''s an important corridor for the Port of Seattle, and we don''t think we can walk away and wait for it to be load-restricted."

State of Washington Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said part of the pitch to Congress is that the project is of national importance because of the volume of national commerce that enters through the Seattle port - 1.5 million TEUs annually. About two thirds of that freight moves east by rail and truck.

The highway also carries through freight as one of the nation''s "NAFTA corridors" that move goods between Mexico and Canada.

"It sits astride the Port of Seattle''s ability to offload freight and get it to the rest of the United States," MacDonald said.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct is one thousands of projects in the balance as Congress and the White House remain in a standoff over competing versions of the massive, six-year highway bill.

The $284 billion version of the bill that has passed the House includes $12 million for the planning phase of the Alaskan Way project. That House bill must be reconciled with the $318 billion bill the Senate approved in February. The White House has threatened to veto anything beyond its $256 billion benchmark, although the Bush administration is reportedly considering a compromise to spend $275 billion over six years.

The existing spending plan has been extended three times and is now due to expire June 30 and Congress remains bogged down in partisan disputes over how to proceed on the competing versions of the new spending map.

As it tries to keep its own plan alive, the Seattle group is modeling its effort after groups that lobbied for the Alameda Corridor, which put freight on a fast track through Southern California, and for the Boston''s sprawling "Big Dig" highway project.

In addition, the Seattle group is also looking towards the San Francisco Bay area and Kobe, Japan, as places where substandard infrastructure was decimated by subsequent earthquakes. The Alaskan Way Viaduct sits along the Pacific Coast''s earthquake corridor and is closed for a period every six months so experts can measure whether it has moved any farther.

"If it moves much more, you''re looking at load restrictions," Nickels said.

The Seattle project''s advocates say time is critical as they seek more money. The 50-year-old highway sustained structural damage in 2001 during Seattle''s Nisqually earthquake, which measured 6.8 on the Richter scale. In addition to seeking highway funding, the coalition also is looking for money to rebuild the adjacent wooden seawall, which is succumbing to microscopic crustaceans called gribbles.

Advocates estimate the total cost of the project will run from $2.5 billion to $4.1 billion. They have secured $200 million and want Congress to provide $1 billion. They expect state and local governments to pay for the rest. Construction is expected to last from six to 11 years.

"Nobody''s looking for a free viaduct out of this," MacDonald said.

The coalition charged with wresting out the federal money consists of traditional lobbyists, government and business leaders, including several from the transportation industry. Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Delta Air Lines, port workers and SSA Marine are all participating. BNSF has a lot of rail infrastructure around the highway. Other heavyweights include Boeing, Starbucks and Washington Mutual, all of which have headquarters or major operations in Seattle.