Alaskan Way Viaduct: Interview with Ron Paananen

  • Posted 2/23/2012
  • Essay 10041

This is an interview with Alaskan Way Viaduct Program Manager Ron Paananen. Paananen oversaw the viaduct replacement project for six years, from 2005 through 2011. The interview was conducted in January 2012 by Dominic Black. 

The Interview

I'm Ron Paananen -- I was on the viaduct project from the end of 2005 until late 2011, and during that time period we worked at identifying possible replacement alternatives, ultimately leading up to the bored tunnel as the project to replace the viaduct.

DB: How does a project like this -- how is it first conceived of and then how does it get from starting point to finishing point? Who has the first idea for example?

Well the first idea when we look at old bridges in general is "Can they be rehabilitated?" And so the initial efforts were really focused on "What would it take to retrofit the Viaduct?" And then the Nisqually earthquake happened in 2001 and that really changed our thinking on what is possible with this structure. It has so many deficiencies structurally that we started to look at other alternatives -- retrofitting,  tunneling, tearing down, all sorts of elevated options, bridges across Elliott Bay, cable-stayed bridges built right up against downtown with towers that were 300 feet tall.

So we narrowed it down to five alternatives at the time and then further narrowed that in what was called the First Supplemental Draft EIS to a new elevated or a cut and cover tunnel on the waterfront. And all the work done from 2001 to 2006 was done with a lot of public meetings, but we never really got stakeholder consensus over the replacement, and that is what led to the vote in March of 2007 where the voters of Seattle were asked: "Do you support a new elevated structure, yes or no?" And the second question was "Do you support the cut and cover tunnel, yes or no?" And the voters voted no on both options. So at the end of 2006 it was clear -- I'm sorry -- in March of 2007 it was clear that we had a project that was in trouble.    

At that point we sat down with the City and we mapped out a new strategy. We looked at the south end of the project where there was less controversy: We decided we would break that off and advance a separate independent project to replace the southern mile -- and that's the part that's under construction now. But we spent the second half of 2007 and all of 2008 developing a process where we could work with our key stakeholders and the public on coming to a consensus on the best way to replace the central waterfront section -- which is the part people have the most interest in.

And so over the course of that time -- 2008 -- we held probably 20 different meetings with our stakeholder group, eventually suggesting to them that our recommendations would be, one, if you wanted a capacity replacement, the one that we saw as most viable was a new elevated. The second one, if you wanted to go a different route, would be to tear the viaduct down, improve city streets, beef up transit, make some improvements to I-5 and use that system to replace the viaduct.

We had looked at a bored tunnel -- our bored tunnel proposal was actually twin tunnels under downtown Seattle. We had screened it out right at the very end because it didn't meet one of our key criteria, which was that it had to be affordable.

DB: So then where does the current design of tunnel come from that point to now?

So when we presented the two alternatives to our stakeholders in December of 2008 we had a bit of a revolt. They had been doing their own homework on tunnel alternatives and they came back to us and they said "We want you to look more at this bored tunnel alternative and we want you to look at a single bore, large diameter bored tunnel."

So we took a step back. We employed the help of some international tunnel experts, and we did a lot of hard work to analyze whether there were significant cost savings in a single bored tunnel alternative, and when we looked at it we concluded that they were right. That a single bored tunnel was feasible -- it would save probably five or six hundred million dollars over the twin bore concept that we had.

At that point we still couldn't meet our budget criteria. So at that point the governor's office engaged the Port of Seattle as a fourth public agency partner in the project, and the Port, after they saw all the information, concluded that the project was important to them. It had value -- they had always advocated for a capacity replacement and they agreed to be a partner to $300 million to the project.

So when you brought them in as a funding partner, the bored tunnel became feasible and eh ... and so after that decision was made in 2009 we had to go back to work and we knew the parameters that were given to us. We had  to deliver a project within 3.1 billion dollars. We had a schedule that was very aggressive, and probably the most critical part of that was completing the Environmental Impact Statement. So we did that ...

DB: So 10 years of doing the environmental ...

Doing the EIS yes. But we ...

DB: Now is that good oversight or is that just incredibly ... slow ...

Well I think if you look around ...

DB: Slow ...

Well, the way that our national environmental policy works in this country, if you look at mega projects, that's not unusual. Because of the very intense public process that it entails, it takes time. so ...

So we completed the EIS and we developed the design build contract with the parameters that we thought would get us a successful bid and we did that -- we got Seattle Tunnel Partners -- so where we sit today I'm very confident that the project will be delivered on time and within budget.   

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