Viaduct fight: Could streets be the answer?
Seattle Times staff reporter
Doug MacDonald has a prediction.
With Gov. Christine Gregoire saying a tunnel cannot replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels vowing a new viaduct will never mar the landscape, the state transportation secretary says he's expecting pressure for a third option.
Long talked about, but never given a political chance, the idea of just tearing down the viaduct and making improvements to streets and transit is gaining momentum.
Maybe it would be smart to turn Alaskan Way into a boulevard, some say.
Run more buses and water taxis. Encourage car pools and bicycling to work. Build ramps for freight.
A so-called "surface plus transit" option is the City Council's official backup choice, if the tunnel is truly dead.
King County Executive Ron Sims is already taking up the cause: talking to state leaders, writing an op-ed piece, conducting studies of the costs and traffic impact. This week, he talked up the surface option with Gregoire, who has long opposed the idea of removing one of only two main north-south highways serving Seattle.
After the tunnel's political meltdown, MacDonald says, "The surface discussion is coming like a freight train."
Gregoire wants new viaduct
Anti-viaduct activists face long odds, after Gregoire declared Tuesday that she supports a new six-lane, $2.8 billion viaduct to replace the one built in 1953.
Seattle's city government sought a $3.4 billion, four-lane tunnel, whose shoulders would be converted to exit lanes at rush hour. That would have saved money compared to an earlier six-lane tunnel plan, but the state Department of Transportation said this week the narrower version is too dangerous to warrant further study.
Nickels hasn't surrendered. He promises to campaign for the tunnel in the run-up to an all-mail advisory vote, in which Seattle citizens will be asked to support a tunnel, or an elevated highway.
Previously, at least three surface concepts were aired:
• Put traffic onto a new surface-level highway on Alaskan Way, and remove the viaduct. This option was repudiated by the state DOT, because cars would move at a dispiriting 8 mph from heavy traffic and stop lights.
• Create a six-lane boulevard resembling the Embarcadero in San Francisco. Suggested by City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck, this would be a street lined by trees and trails. It could handle 40,000 to 70,000 trips a day and still be pleasant for pedestrians, he said. Currently, 120,000 vehicles a day use the viaduct and the surface street below.
• The People's Waterfront Coalition's "Surface plus Transit" concept calls for wholesale changes in travel patterns. For $1.6 billion or less, the group says, there could be express bus service, a big interchange for freight and cars near Qwest Field, street overpasses, a wider surface street at Alaskan Way, and parks along the shoreline.
Coalition co-founder Cary Moon says that for now, "we don't have enough details for anyone to argue with." The idea is that people agree to use transit and existing streets.
The state DOT says it is not studying surface proposals.
"I would say emphatically no," said David Dye, the agency's urban-corridors administrator. "We're taking our lead from the statements of legislative leadership and the governor's office. We're focusing on working on the elevated design."
But DOT itself has temporarily reassigned staffer David Hopkins, who was helping craft a regional highway package, to gather information about surface and transit ideas that Sims and King County transportation staffers are developing.
The county will soon hire consultants to help study cost estimates and traffic effects of a surface option, and release a technical report, said Harold Taniguchi, the county's transportation director.
"We are open to being wrong," Sims said. "We are not saying we have the answer, we are putting the effort into it ... to have a transportation system that works on behalf of citizens of King County. We want to reduce our impact on global warming."
In published comments this month by Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, and House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, "neither one of them quashed it," Sims points out.
What might a surface option look like?
King County has suggested "49 things" that could be tried, mostly to improve bus travel -- either without a highway, or if the viaduct is closed during construction of a new highway. These range from adding trolley wires for Lower Queen Anne to adding a second bus lane on Second Avenue -- so buses can "leapfrog" each other when one pulls over to pick up riders.
Steinbrueck's idea includes a bus rapid-transit system that would have to be built, with its own lanes near the waterfront.
Third Avenue would become a permanent bus corridor, Moon said, something the city has considered anyway. Just north of downtown, Sixth, Seventh, Ninth and Westlake avenues are underused and can take some incoming traffic, she said.
She accuses the Legislature of a "monomaniacal focus on car capacity," as opposed to moving people.
Strain on transit
Questions remain about whether removing the viaduct would hurt transit by pouring excess traffic into downtown and Interstate 5.
If more than 35,000 cars a day are diverted, that "would negatively impact bus transit, and require significantly higher investments in high-capacity transit" to preserve mobility, said a study for the Seattle City Council by DKS Associates.
Last fall, local voters approved more taxes for street projects and buses, which might help, while an upcoming regional ballot measure includes millions for nearby Mercer, South Lander and South Spokane streets, plus suburban rail extensions.
Two leading elevated-highway supporters, Ballard Oil owner Warren Aakervik and retiree Gene Hoglund, say a viaduct is the only option that Seattle's maritime industries can endure, because some highway lanes can stay open during construction.
"All of the transit that can be done -- can be done with the elevated, too," Hoglund said. "Those things all need to be done."
Times staff reporters Susan Gilmore and Andrew Garber contributed to this report.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © The Seattle Times Company