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Gentle People, Fear Not The Return Of The Abominable Elevated Freeway On Seattle’s Waterfront

2011 March 29
by dan bertolet

Note: This post was originally published yesterday on Slog. Coincidentally, a new Elway poll was also released yesterday showing that 38 percent favor “new or repair viaduct,” a result that would seem to contradict the premise of this post. My belief is that a poll taken today cannot be expected to accurately reflect sentiments that would arise if a rebuild was on the table for real, and that opposition leadership would play a major role in the outcome.

< The Alaskan Way Viaduct - click image to enlarge; photo: Dan Bertolet >

Of all the spurious reasons for supporting the deep-bore tunnel put forth by tunnel cheerleaders—and many there are—the silliest of all has to this: We better let the State have their way with the tunnel or we’ll end up with another elevated freeway.

That’s right: Seattle, home to one of  the most highly educated, civic-minded, and ecologically conscientious urban populations in the nation is going to just lay down and let the State build an even more monstrous elevated replacement for the much-loathed Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Seattle, where opposition to the deep-bore tunnel got the current Mayor elected, is going to politely accept a new elevated freeway that is environmentally just as noxious as the tunnel but ten times worse because it would also create a horrendous blight on the beloved waterfront.

Can somebody please pass the crack pipe?

The reality is that if the Alaskan Way Viaduct was rebuilt, Seattle would become the laughingstock of progressive cities worldwide. As the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Scott Bernstein recently wrote, one major reason for opposing the deep-bore tunnel is that “you don’t want to lose your world-class reputation for addressing energy and climate change.” Imagine how much more that reputation would be trashed by a new elevated freeway that not only is a ridiculously expensive piece of dinosaur transportation infrastructure that exacerbates car-dependence and its associated greenhouse gas emissions, but also does all that literally right in everyone’s face—a massive visual, aural, and spatial clusterfuck right on Seattle’s front porch.

Seattleites successfully opposed new freeways before, when in the late 1960s activists killed the Bay Freeway and R. H. Thomson Expressway. Today, if anything, the populace is even more aware of how freeways are anathema to urban livability. On top of that, we now have peak oil, climate change, and environmental mayhem in general to deal with, while at the same time a growing demographic wave is beginning to reject the suburban, car-oriented lifestyle that has dominated the past half century. And last month over 1,000 people packed a public meeting to hear initial design ideas for a Viaduct-free waterfront from the City’s design team led by James Corner Field Operations.

So, can we all agree that in the face of all this, the idea of spending a big pile of our precious public funds on a new elevated freeway ain’t gonna fly, no matter how big a hissy fit the State might throw?

Now, there is another option that may call for some concern, though not much, in my opinion, and that’s  a retrofit of the existing viaduct. But the State has long been opposed to that option, and the latest study estimated it would cost nearly as much as a new elevated. And the fact is, pretty much everyone wants that embarrassing, ugly hulk to go bye-bye ASAP.

Compared to a replacement elevated freeway, the deep-bore tunnel is far more divisive. Some see it as the best of both worlds, while others recognize that all it really does is sweep the big problems under the rug. A public vote on that would be fascinating barometer of Seattle culture, and all indications are that we will indeed have that vote. Protect Seattle Now is reportedly on track to have enough signatures to put a referendum on the City’s August 16 municipal primary-election ballot.

So then, over the next several months we can expect to be entertained by a heated PR war over the deep-bore tunnel and the I5/Surface/Transit alternative. Those of you who believe that the tunnel is a bad investment for the future of Seattle and the planet shouldn’t let fear of viaduct spawn dampen your passion for joining the fight for a more sane solution.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. March 29, 2011

    That poll had the elevated in position one at 38%, the tunnel at 35% and surface at 21%.

    After years of PR and all types of boosting, the surface street shows at 21%?

    That’s a terrible showing after all these years. And another indication that it is best, to go with the next best thing, the tunnel.

    The alternative is a protracted war that drives people and jobs away from downtown Seattle for decades and sends billions now captured for city building into roads to feed exurban sprawl.

    Let’s change the subject. Time to focus on other things to grow a great city.

    • zefwagner permalink
      March 29, 2011

      What universe are you living in where the surface option has had years of PR and boosting? Surface/Transit/I-5 (which is what it is actually called) has suffered because it has gotten almost no PR or boosting the way the tunnel has. This poll is to be expected: lots of people support a rebuild just because people crave the familiar. Lots of people support a tunnel because the tunnel has been relentlessly promoted over the years by the politicians who came up with the idea.

      Surface/Transit/I-5, on the other hand, has relentlessly been trashed by politicians and the Seattle Times who all call it the “surface” option or the “gridlock” option as if it just means closing the viaduct and that’s it. With proper surface street improvements, dramatically increased transit service, and an extra lane on I-5 through downtown, the viaduct can close with little increase in travel time for most trips. All for way less money and risk than the tunnel. I think people oppose this option in the poll because it has been mischaracterized by the media and politicians, is supported by environmental and community groups that do not have deep pockets to hire PR firms, and because it is the most complex. People inherently fear and misunderstand complex solutions, even when it is the best solution. If Surface/Transit/I-5 is framed correctly in a big referendum campaign, I think these poll numbers will change.

      • Wells permalink
        March 29, 2011

        Zefwagner is correct. The surface/transit/I-5 option actually has more potential to decrease the surface street traffic mess downtown than the bored tunnel which will actually make it much worse. Wsdot “intentionally” rigged their studies of surface boulevard alternatives and cut/cover tunnels to favor first the elevated replacement monstrosity and now the bored tunnel disaster about to happen. SDOT too has failed Seattle with the proposed “Mercer West” and the current and terrible design for the Alaskan Way boulevard and inappropriately scaled wide plaza.

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