In 2001, the Nisqually Earthquake damaged the Alaskan Way Viaduct and its supporting seawall, and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) was forced to invest $14.5 million in emergency repairs. WSDOT further determined that the viaduct had a 1-in-20 chance of being shut down by another earthquake prior to 2010. As a historical backdrop, the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 destroyed San Francisco’s Cyprus Street Viaduct, and forced the closure and demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway. Memories of Loma Prieta were very much in everyone’s minds as the City and State began the process of dealing with the Viaduct issue.
Over the span of six years, local and state government fought bitterly over a potential solution. The State, represented by Governor Gregoire, Speaker of the House Frank Chopp (D-Wallingford), and WSDOT were most concerned with maintaining vehicle capacity through the SR 99 corridor, and with the overall cost of the project. Despite a near supermajority in the Legislature, the House and Senate Democratic leaders were concerned that “yet another megaproject for Seattle” would be used throughout the rest of the State as a political issue, and could cost the party seats in the 2010 elections. As a result, both the Governor and the Legislature came down on the side of rebuilding the Viaduct as an elevated freeway and refused to spend more than $2.8 Billion on the project (their estimated cost of rebuilding the elevated freeway). In fact, Speaker Chopp (himself a Seattleite) proposed a substantially larger elevated structure, which would have a park on top and street-level shopping. This solution was widely panned in Seattle as further cutting off the city from its waterfront, and as unrealistic in design.
Public opinion in the city was divided. Auto enthusiasts lamented the potential loss of what is admittedly a beautiful drive past downtown, and many were in favor of rebuilding the viaduct. Most everyone else, however, was more concerned with the historic opportunity to reconnect Seattle’s downtown to her waterfront. Many pointed out the similarities between Seattle’s current situation and that of San Francisco following the Loma Prieta earthquake, and a consensus began to grow among Seattle residents who favored an “anything but elevated” solution.