Tuesday, August 07, 2007

More on the Alaskan Way Viaduct...

Coincidentally, I was planning on doing something on one of Seattle's own disaster-prone bridges for this week's toon before the disaster in Minnesota happened...

For readers outside Seattle, the Alaskan Way Viaduct is a butt-ugly, elevated freeway in the downtown area that has been a source of great controversy over the years. The viaduct is one good ground-shake away from completely falling to the ground, possibly in a manner similar to San Francisco's Cypress Street Viaduct, which came down during the '89 Loma Prieta earthquake. For quite a few years now, local government entities have bickered like children over the best way to handle the viaduct problem, with little progress made on coming up with a final solution.

Clearly, doing nothing with the viaduct is not an option, unless we want to see the thing collapse in rush-hour traffic like 35W did in Minneapolis. Democratic Governor Christine Gregoire has decided that the only option is to replace the viaduct with an even bigger, "butt-uglier" elevated freeway to accommodate all the people who just have to drive their cars everywhere. Mayor Greg Nickels wants a super-cool tunnel to replace the viaduct, a tricky and expensive project that would probably end up bearing a disturbing resemblance to Boston's Big Dig. Both of these choices are wrong, though...

What's the right choice? Tear the sucker down!

The People's Waterfront Coalition site has a good roundup of the arguments and numbers involved in the fight over the viaduct. A new elevated freeway would cost $3 billion, and wouldn't be fully open until 2020. A new tunnel could cost at least $4.5 billion, and who knows when that thing would be completely done. For that kind of money, the best choice would be to tear down the viaduct and invest in making surface street improvements, redirecting traffic out into arterials, and repairing the crumbling seawall.

But most importantly, we could afford to finally start investing in public transit. Every time I visit Washington, D.C., I am really impressed with how easy to learn and use their metrorail system is. And every time I get back from a city like that, I find myself pissed off that we Seattleites (who are supposed to be "enlightened" on environmental issues) don't have something like that here. Seattle has a bus system, but it is extremely unreliable and, of course, vulnerable to traffic jams.

Nickels has received all kinds of accolades for being an "environmental hero" and a "rising green star," but take one look at the ridiculous traffic here and something doesn't smell quite right (literally and figuratively). Any promises to cut greenhouse gas emissions in Seattle are meaningless unless something is also done to break Seattleites of our car addictions. As Erica Barnett notes in an outstanding article, no other city in the world is building a new elevated freeway; in fact, cities like Portland, Chattanooga, Milwaukee, San Francisco and Sydney, Australia are actually tearing them down. By contrast, building a big new freeway here in Seattle would be "inducing demand"... people are gonna drive on it.

The viaduct runs right down the Elliot Bay waterfront, along property which would otherwise be extremely valuable were it not for the gigantic concrete monstrosity hovering over it. The new viaduct that Gregoire wants to build would be 71% larger than the current one, and would put 50% more of the waterfront in shade. Consider instead this vision of the waterfront, which would finally put this "amazing civic resource" to good use. An analogous situation would the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, which was demolished in favor of a surface street after the '89 earthquake. The result there has not been gridlock, but rather a decrease in traffic. People sought other options.

On March 13, voters in Seattle overwhelmingly rejected both the tunnel option and the new elevated freeway (the surface street option wasn't even included on the ballot). It looks like the State couldn't care less, though... they're just going to do whatever they want anyway.

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