Monday, March 05, 2007

Why A Duck?

This is a long one, so buckle in.

One of the big political firestorms out here in Seattle is the fate of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an elevated concrete highway that runs along the western side of Seattle, between the city and the Sound. NikChik has gotten a ballot on the issue, which gives a choice between two badly-thought-out and worse-explained options which are in any event not binding. On the other hand, at least they're asking her. Down here in the sticks, we're just supposed to put up with whatever others decide.

Let me give you a really brief history on the Seattle Waterfront so you know the background - does a nice job in general points. Seattle's waterfront was originally a working waterfront, set up to bring goods to the city by boat and trees away to the mills. The early waterfront was wood and burned to ground in the 1880s. The rebuilt waterfront had access by railroad as well, and started building out on piers into the sound. The resulting Railroad Avenue was a hazardous mixture of wagons (and later cars), engines, railcars, and wooden planking. The bits were filled in behind to form a seawall. Eventually, cargo capacity outstripped the limitations of the wharves, and a lot of the traffic moved further south.

Highway 99 (also called the Pacific Highway) at this time wound through Seattle. With the railroads winding down on that part of the Waterfront, the city (or state- this seems to be the "dark ages" of Seattle history) moved the route to waterfront, and in the early 50s built the concrete viaduct that we know today. Makes sense, since that was the line of least resistance. About a decade later, in the sixties, the federally-funded I-5 punched its way through, framing the OTHER side of the city. And I do mean punched. Houses were either moved or torn down that were in the way of THAT juggernaut.

All this is backstory - Working waterfront to rail lines to highway. It is important because one of the questions that is kinda-sorta being asked is: What do want to do with the waterfront? Since the 60s, a thriving tourist trade has grown up along the waterfront itself - hotels, restaurants, the aquarium, and all. But is has been separated from the city itself, for good and ill, by this big concrete highway.

And the big thing I want to throw in here is that the Viaduct is not so much a highway TO Seattle as it is a highway THROUGH Seattle. Its lone downtown exit is a perilous hard turn dumping one out on the streets. Whenever I am heading downtown, though I may take 99 in the general direction, I get off before it becomes the Viaduct to reach my destination. Oh yeah, that's another thing to consider - North and South of the Viaduct? Surface streets. With lights. Just so you know. Now back to the story.

A large, fifty-year old concrete structure on land filled in from the sea might be considered a risk in an earthquake zone, and with the Nisqually Quake in 2001, chunks of the Viaduct fell off, and general opinion was that it was probably time to retire the old girl before someone got hurt. But the question is: With what, and that's what we're all in a tizzy about out here. Sides have been chosen, mud is flying, power is flexing, and the people of Seattle are being asked to vote so that one side can claim the "will of the people" for this. Or just ignore them.

Actually, though there are two options on the ballot, and each of those two has a number of variations, I count no less than seven different options that I've seen at various times, and there may be more. Here's what we have:

Option 1: The New Viaduct. Replace it with another structure. Actually, to meet code, it has to be a lot wider than the present structure, pushing out further. Good news is you know what it will look like. Bad news it is another fifty years of the same sort of structure downtown. And it will be expensive. One particular option of this that was batted around was a wide, three story tunnel with baffles on the side and a park on the top. In effect, they created an elevated tunnel. And now you understand why this whole thing is strange. The Governor likes this option.

Option 2: The Tunnel, sometimes modified into a Tunnel/Surface option, which means "Its not ALL Underground". We submerge the roadway and lid it over. Out of sight, out of mind, people get past Seattle, seems to work. Plus, it will force us to address the seawall. Bad news - even more expensive, and tougher to repair if something goes wrong. The Mayor likes this one.

Option 3: Surface/Transit options. Not on the ballot. We tear the Viaduct down, replace it with surface streets and increase Transit options. Downside - traffic has to go somewhere. On the other hand, when we're doing ANY of the other options, that traffic is going to have to go elsewhere anyway. The time of "going elsewhere" varies according to whom you talk to from six months to 12 years. Given the history I've laid out above, this option almost makes sense - I-5 did come along 10 years later and negate a lot of the need of the old Highway 99. On the other hand, I-5 is pretty jammed up already, and the I-405 bypass now passes through another large city in Bellevue. Who likes this option? Us old hippies.

Option 4: The Park. Not of the ballot. Crank option 3 up another notch. Tear down the Viaduct and build nothing in its place. Put out a big park along the waterfront. Pittsburgh did that with the Point, which long ago was a mess of warehouses and rail lines. Take the traffic that gets moved away from Option 3 and increase it because there is no traffic. Also crank up all the problems from Option 3. Sorry guys.

Option 5: The Bridge. Not on the ballot, and stop laughing. Instead of building on land, we turn the viaduct into a bridge that parallels the shore, swooping out in the north and rejoining near Elliot Bay. Of course, now we're sinking piers into the sound, and if you don't like the idea of the viaduct blocking your view, boy-howdy wait for the bridge. And of course, we'll have to make it tall enough so the Ferries can clear it.

Option 6: The Sunken Bypass. OK, this is the one I am partial to, and the only way I've heard about it is that I was at a bar, and another former engineer pitched it to me (I wish I had kept his name - I would credit him accordingly). We dig a tunnel and don't put a lid on it. No exit for downtown Seattle - that moves to surface streets north and south. Traffic passes below grade level, so it opens the view. Bridges cross to improve connection between city and waterfront. Fixes the seawall problem. I've been trying, and can't come up with a way to punch a hole in it. Of course nobody seems to know about this one.

Option 7: None of the Above: So we keep patching what we have, and hope that it doesn't fall down, or if it does, it doesn't take too much with it. At its most positive version, it is called "Repair and Prepare" - give the money to duct tape it together now, and make long-term plans to fix it (because, of course, such construction will be cheaper in the future). There is a bit of wishful thinking about this proposal which involves plate tectonics, but I have to be fair - I have spent more time underneath the viaduct (parking) than on it (driving), and never really worried about it.

OK, so we have a right bloody mess at the moment, with a lot of sides are shouting at once. And there are lot of things given the short shrift here - container traffic moving north, the creation of urban living space downtown, the ongoing improvement of the waterfront, the local businesses, and the commuters. And we have this handy gallon of gasoline called an advisory ballot going out that gives two gray, fuzzy versions of Options 1 and 2, which can be rallied around should one prevails, or ignored if the various factions involved choose to. Sort of voter participation as magic eight-ball.

So I wish those involved good luck with the vote. Alas, they don't ask the rest of us that might be using that highway on occasion, but them's the breaks.

More later,