Best Practice

Pushing Past Impasse: The Alaskan Way Viaduct Story

Bennett Brooks , Scott McCreary

Learning together creates the space for common ground.

Scott McClearyThe City of Seattle had been struggling for years to find the elusive answer that would allow it to address a critical need: replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the at-risk stacked highway that separates downtown Seattle from its waterfront.

For nearly a decade, effort after effort fell short. Environmental advocates wanted a solution that would favor mass transit and bikes over more roadways. Major corporations and business interests wanted to ensure there would be sufficient capacity to keep their employees and products on the move. City officials were eager to reclaim Seattle’s waterfront. And taxpayer groups pressed for low-cost options. Even those committed to maintaining a major roadway couldn’t agree on an approach. The project was at an impasse.

In the wake of a failed public referendum, city, county, and state leaders committed to making another stab at forging a consensus approach among their respective governments. But how to succeed where almost 10 years of earlier dialogue had fallen short? And how to involve a public that needed to have a meaningful voice in the discussion but had had enough of what’s known as “Seattle process” or, less affectionately, “consensus through exhaustion?”

We (Bennett was then at CONCUR) worked with state, city and county officials – and a battery of transportation and public involvement experts – to co-invent a new (and, ultimately, successful) way forward. The new path had many important elements: a commitment by senior transportation staff and political leaders to reach consensus; a reframing of the problem to look at the region’s broader mobility needs; an independently led, integrated alternatives analysis; and, a joint pooling of agency technical expertise.

But a particularly interesting facet of the effort – and the focus of this piece – was the role of the Alaskan Way Viaduct Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAC), a group of thirty stakeholders convened to provide ongoing input to the three departments of transportation charged with developing potential solutions. The SAC proved to be an essential dialogue – creating a productive forum where stakeholders could raise questions, get answers and begin to build a common base of understanding. In fact, this non-consensus-seeking dialogue eventually generated many aspects of the agreement eventually adopted by the state, city, and county.

Elements of the SAC Process

Several crucial factors distinguished this “hybrid” process from other stakeholder dialogues.

Information-sharing, but not delegated consensus-seeking. The SAC, by design, was established as a sounding board, a place where representatives of the varied interests could track and provide input into the three agencies’ collaborative decision-making process. This charge – one that focused on information-sharing, not forging consensus – proved instrumental, as it enabled stakeholders to engage more freely. For most, discussions became an opportunity to understand the trade-offs among the possible solutions, rather than a chance to convince others of the “rightness” of their position.

Rotating facilitation by top agency staff. Unlike most dialogues, this discussion was chaired monthly by senior leadership within each of the three transportation departments. This revolving chair model impacted the deliberations in several key ways. For one, senior leadership was keenly engaged. Additionally, it demonstrated to stakeholders the import of the SAC process. Finally, it created a monthly opportunity for each agency to speak candidly about its interests and assessment of the evolving analysis.

Transparent analysis in the raw. More often than not, the various analyses presented to the SAC were “hot off the presses.” Part of this was by design; the intent was to invite stakeholders to “learn along with the decision-making agencies.” Part of this was also driven by the tight timeframe; there was little opportunity to polish presentations before bringing the latest data to the SAC. This “in the raw” style helped to build credibility in the process and created an opportunity for real-time joint fact finding, as stakeholders and agency staff alike struggled to interpret the ramifications of the latest findings. “Stakeholders were able to see the complexity of it all,” said one participant.

SAC as forcing function. The SAC served as a critical forcing function – both for getting the analysis done and for integrating staff perspectives. Meeting on a monthly basis at the outset (and shifting to bi-weekly or even weekly meetings later), the SAC became a driver for setting and meeting project deadlines. Moreover, with the agencies on tap to jointly – and publicly – present and engage difficult issues at each monthly meeting, SAC planning meetings became the impetus for surfacing and working through agency differences; divergent views were simply not able to fester.

Focused sidebars. On several occasions, there was insufficient time at the SAC’s monthly meetings to adequately engage the thorniest (or most controversial and technically dense) issues. In these instances, rather than pushing past the topics with inadequate deliberation and understanding, the agencies set up separate briefings that allowed interested SAC members and others in the community to delve deeper. This approach proved highly effective. As one person put it: “It really did shift some people.”

As the year-long SAC process ground towards a close, city, state and county transportation staff were leaning towards recommending two options to their chief executives: either a new elevated roadway or a hybrid that would rely on transit expansion and improvements to both city streets and the north-south I-5 corridor. SAC members, concerned about limitations associated with the two options, pressed for ongoing consideration of an appealing but costly third option discussed during the process: a bored tunnel. This feedback proved pivotal and it created a potent (and earlier elusive) constituency for implementation of the eventual $4.2 billion approach selected and endorsed by the three executives: a deep-bored tunnel under downtown Seattle, coupled with significant improvements to current transit service and city streets and the opening up of Seattle’s waterfront. The project – with the help of the world’s largest boring machine – is now under construction, with completion expected in late 2015.

Read a more detailed version of this article here: Knowing When Not to Push for Broad Stakeholder Consensus: The Alaskan Way Viaduct Story.

For more information, please contact Bennett Brooks, CBI Senior Mediator, or Scott McCreary, Principal and Co-Founder of CONCUR, Inc. at