Friday, January 23, 2009

The Viaduct Monologues

I think I mentioned that I’ve mellowed on the Seattle Viaduct. Yeah, the relic of the 50s has to be replaced, if for no other reason than a portion may come down in a heavy shake, but I have a hard time rustling up the venom against it. I don’t think its particularly ugly, nor does it block much of the waterfront (the hills rise right behind it). In its time, Seattle has moved from a working waterfront in that patch to more of a tourists digs - aquarium, restaurants, nice shops, and the parking beneath the viaduct made those locations more accessible.

So it was a shrug and a nod that I heard that the various ideas being pitched were reduced to two – a surface street option and new elevated structure. Either one works, but they do two different things, and that’s what the battle has really been about.

The surface street option is all about moving traffic inside the city. A lot of intersections, a lot of choices, but not a lot of speed. Mind you, I’ve driven through downtown Seattle, particularly when my goal is the Seattle Center and the Mercer Mess has I-5 tied up in knots. And while the lights are nicely timed, the continual traffic from all sides (people turning off side streets, street parking, pedestrians, driveways, all manner of drop-offs and pick-ups) makes the experience a cross between a highway safety film and the car chase from Bullitt.

The elevated idea is all getting traffic PAST Seattle. The city itself is located on a thin neck of land between Lake Washington and the Sound, and the two main thoroughfares through are SR-99 (The viaduct) and I-90 (which for reasons known but to the gods goes from 5 lanes to 1 ½ at one point). If I’m going north of the city, I’d prefer to use the viaduct as opposed to slogging through the street grid.

So suddenly the city, county, and state have announced a compromise – a tunnel. Whathehey? How is a tunnel a compromise between a street and an elevated? Well, it’s a compromise in that it does both things. The viaduct is replaced with the surface street option, while the tunnel takes the traffic intended to go THROUGH the city and pitching it cleanly out the other side. So the plan is really doing both.

And the current design answers my main concern about a waterfront tunnel (namely, that the land there is mostly fill to begin with, and any shake good enough to bring down the present viaduct would play hobbs with an underground. The tunnel concept sweeps inward to (slightly) more stable soil.

And it is not like we should be allergic to tunnels – we punched one through for the Light Rail System without a lot of hand-wringing or supplemental damage. Though I am leery of the idea that a tunnel should be easier since tunnel tech has improved in the ten years they’ve been arguing about it. With that logic, we should argue about viaduct replacement for another ten, because by that time the stargate tech should be coming on line (And here’s my thought on that – not going to happen).

No, the final argument will be the price, and while they’ve already got some funding lined up and good arguments for public works projects to patch the economy, I’m a little unclear on the idea of who’s going to pay for the durned thing. Seattlites will balk because the line will go through Seattle without even touching the sides. King County and State folk might bridle at the idea of funding a excavation with no immediate use for clearing THEIR streets. And tolls? Well, that may be a good, solid idea, but might shift some of your traffic right back onto the I-90 that is overloaded.

As for me? I’m back to being a bit mixed about the whole thing. A tunnel sounds like an awful lot of cash at a time when we’re trying to keep schools open, but something’s gotta happen before viaduct itself comes down and forces our hands. I’m dubious about the rah-rah state of the times in supporting it, and similarly doubtful about the claims from the anti-camp. So color me mixed, but I know I’m going to miss the old girl when they finally take her down.

More later,