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May 23, 2006

Dig, Patch or Flatten?: Alaskan Way Viaduct

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Oakland's Cypress Street Viaduct collapsed, transforming automobiles into pancake-like objects, when the big 1989 earthquake struck the Bay Area. The viaduct was opened in 1957 and was structurally similar to Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct which was completed in 1953.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct still stands, though it suffered damage in the large Puget Sound area quake of 2001. How much longer it will stand is a matter of considerable local debate. That is, unless another earthquake intervenes to polish it off.

When new, the Alaskan Way Viaduct was a Big Deal. This was before Congress passed the legislation creating the Interstate system of freeways, so freeways of any kind were comparatively rare outside of the Northeast and Los Angeles. There were none whatsoever in the Seattle area until the Viaduct was built.

The Viaduct is a two-level affair, both levels raised, each level handling one direction of traffic, with parking underneath. It runs along the harbor next to dockside thoroughfare Alaskan Way. Downtown Seattle proper is on a hillside starting a block farther east of the northern part of the Viaduct. At the time the Viaduct was built, the parts of the city next to it were pretty ratty; First Avenue, for instance, was home to pawn shops, taverns, rescue missions, cheap movie houses, flop houses and houses of other kinds.

What the Viaduct did was divert U.S. Highway 99 traffic from having to creep through downtown Seattle (Interstate 5 was nearly a decade in the future). And as stated, this was a Big Deal. It received a lot of favorable press coverage (can you imagine the press giving any freeway totally positive coverage these days?). And it was a Big Thrill when my father drove us on the Viaduct for the first time.

Times have changed. First Avenue still boasts a couple token X-rated theaters, but the rest of its charming ambiance has given way to condos, the Seattle Art Museum, a Harley showroom, boutiques and restaurants. Moreover, the local intelligentsia has been grumbling about the Viaduct for decades. They contend that it's ugly and walls off the city from the waterfront.

In November 2005 a statewide Initiative was voted in, raising taxes for (theoretically) transportation infrastructure improvements. (For what it's worth, I voted against the Initiative because I think transportation moneys are not being wisely spent in Washington State. I think the local power structure of government officials, planners, liberal businessmen, etc. is all too sold on public transportation when what the region desperately needs is another beltway. But what do I know compared to those super-brainos.) A problem with the Initiative is that not enough money will be raised to actually complete any of the important promised projects, including replacing the Viaduct.

There are three basic options regarding the fate of the Viaduct:

  1. Simply tear the Viaduct down and widen Alaskan Way. This might be the simplest solution and would resolve all aesthetic issues. Its downside is that the Viaduct carries a lot of traffic, and that traffic will have to go elsewhere, creating a bigger mess than Seattle traffic already causes.

  2. Retain the Viaduct, but give it a more thorough earthquake-proofing than it got after the 2001 quake (the Viaduct likely cannot withstand a really severe quake, and such cannot be ruled out for the Seattle area). The downside to this option is aesthetic, the "wall" would remain, and the intelligentsia will stamp their little feet in rage.

  3. Do a Seattle version of the famed Boston Big Dig. That is, tear the Viaduct down and replace it with a lidded, below-surface roadway. This Dig also has the potential to be fearsomely costly because a sunken roadway would be below sea-level. The advantages to this alternative are that large traffic volumes would be handled while the "wall" will be gone.

To give you an idea regarding the aesthetic issues, here are some photos I took recently:

Alaskan Way Viaduct Gallery

Harbor Steps - 1.jpg
Viaduct From First Avenue.
Photo taken at top of Harbor Steps by First Avenue. The Viaduct is at the center.

Viaduct off-ramp - 2.jpg
A few blocks south from Harbor Steps is the Downtown off-ramp.

Under the Viaduct.jpg
Parking Area Beneath Viaduct.
Metered parking under the Viaduct is convenient for people visiting harbor attractions.

Viaduct from across Alaskan Way - 2.jpg
Viaduct From Across Alaskan Way.
This is the view from the piers side of Alaskan Way (where most tourists are). Most of the taller buildings are visible despite the Viaduct. Note the top of the Space Needle peeking from near the center of the picture.

And my personal opinion?

Obviously the Dig would be best if someone could wave a magic wand and have the deed done at zero cost. But that won't happen, and I don't regard the Dig option as being cost-effective.

I lean towards the tear it down and widen Alaskan Way alternative. It costs less than the Dig and not all Viaduct lanes would be lost if Alaskan Way were widened. The number of streets entering and exiting Alaskan Way might be reduced to help flow, and foot traffic crossing it could be diverted to below-surface passageways. And the displaced traffic?: why not let the market decide? Perhaps this might lead more people to take the beloved public transit.

The option of beefing up the Viaduct's structure also strikes me as reasonable. The Viaduct is not that awful a "wall" as the photos above indicate, especially from the downtown hillside perspective (though a seismically-sound structure would likely have thicker pillars). Furthermore, just how many people would benefit from the improved views if the Viaduct were to be taken down? Not very many on a full-time basis, I would think. Is that truly worth hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars?

* * * * *

The focus of this post was Seattle. But I suspect that similar issues are in play in a lot of other places.



UPDATE: It seems that David Sucher is also blogging about the Viaduct. Click here and look for 22 May and 23 May 2006 posts. (Thanks to Alan Kellogg for the heads-up.)

posted by Donald at May 23, 2006


I wish they would be willing to be more creative and sell development rights above the tunnel to help pay for its cost. The real estate there is gold, but the city wants it for open space if the "Seattle Big Dig" were to happen. Tolls would be nice too.

Posted by: AP on May 23, 2006 8:11 PM

Over at City Comforts there are a number of posts regarding the viaduct. Some have links to viaduct posts on other blogs.

In San Diego we have one viaduct of sorts in the Old Town area. And that because putting interstate 5 at ground level would've taken longer, been more disruptive, and cost more to build.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on May 23, 2006 9:44 PM


I am trying to grasp the geometry of the "widen Alaskan Way" option. Are you suggesting that the six-lanes of the Viaduct continue at grade from Massachusetts Street?

(If I knew how to put in links to Google earth I would do so that people outside Seattle can grasp the physical issues. Maybe someone else can help?)

And then continue along the waterfront? Narrowing to two lanes and climbing up the hill just by the Pike Place Market and then connecting with 99?

It's certainly an intriguing idea. I think most people believe a high-speed (>40MPH and no lights) road at grade is the worst possible solution if the goal is connecting the CBD to the waterfront. You'd have no one's support at all.

But if you agreed to slow down the traffic to boulevard speed (30MPH?) and allow for cross streets and lights etc,you'd have something similar to what the People's Waterfront Coalition (PWC) is urging.

I am curious what happens at the Pike Market, however. You have a huge flow of traffic climbing up a fairly steep grade and making a lot of noise. Would you cover it?

The conventional thinking among the power elite (and many others) here is that we need a second dedicated limited-access route through the Seattle CBD. So if your proposal is anything like the PWC's tear-it-down & disperse-the-traffic, you'll have serious resistance.

And if your Alaskan Way continues as a high-speed highway, then the Mayor and Council (others too) will hate it as they are trying to connect the waterfront and the CBD.

It's a tough situation.

My bet is on the Retrofit — simply repair/rehab it.

Posted by: David Sucher on May 23, 2006 10:11 PM

One my one trip to Seattle, in August 2001, I thought the Viaduct looked somehow appropriate for its setting, not unsightly at all. But then again, the city where I grew up and lived until 1997 (Waterbury, CT) has a big highway viaduct running right through the middle of town, so I'm used to that sort of thing.

Posted by: Peter on May 23, 2006 10:26 PM

AP -- A Big Dig strikes me as being a pretty short stretch for a toll road, especially considering that neither end connects to a freeway.

How much money would air-rights bring in as a percentage of the construction bill?

Alan -- How much of a visual impact did the SD viaduct create? And what is the community reaction to it currently?

David -- I picked up the widening notion from a DoT web page. So it's not my proposal at all. I assume they mean a couple lanes could be added where the trolley tracks and parking areas are. And I suppose (on reflection) a short viaduct section would have to be built to connect street-level traffic to the Battery Street tunnel.

As for the retrofit, I read a day or two ago on SoundPolitics blog that the engineering firm being hired to "evaluate" the retrofit option had come out against said option in a report written a while back. If this assertion is true, it smells of a stacked deck.

I have no strong objection to the retrofit plan, and I posted those photos in the hope that readers might understand that the Viaduct isn't nearly the "Chinese Wall" that the pre-Big Dig viaduct and SFO's Embarcadero freeway were. That is because of the nearby hill upon which downtown sits -- a feature relatively absent in Boston and San Francisco close to their viaducts.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 23, 2006 10:49 PM

Tear it down before it falls down on its own accord and widen Alaskan Way. The exits on the viaduct are a joke, you have about 30 feet to go from 55mph to 15mph. Great if your driving a horse and buggy but not a car. I would make I5 a double decker like they did to the 110 freeway in LA.

Posted by: kaos on May 24, 2006 2:45 PM

I guess we see what we want to see--or what our preexisting political positions require us to see. You say it's "not that awful a wall." High praise indeed; but it looks pretty awful to me in those photographs.

Posted by: Questioner on May 24, 2006 4:28 PM

Questioner is quite right. The Viaduct is not perfect and we probably wouldn't do it the way it is if we were doing it over today. But we aren't. It exists. There are limited funds for urban infrastructure. So what to do with the Viaduct comes down to priorities and possibilities.

One possibility for the Seattle is to do something similar to what has been done in Paris at the Viaduc des Arts.

Posted by: David Sucher on May 24, 2006 4:51 PM

I work as a highway engineer, and this type of problem crops up all the time on major projects. In my opinion, and the opinion of many I know the Big Dig was a huge waste of money. I think Boston only got something like 30-35 acres of open space, and the project cost 12-15 billion dollars. Figure that out per acre!

If aesthetics is the top priority, and the people in the region support it, I think the best option is to tear it down and widen the road. This option will be darn near impossible though, as the feds are unlikely to fund such a project which reduces traffic capacity without some other routes to pick up the slack. Maintenance costs would be much cheaper over the long run (no structures to maintain, or only minor ones. Also no siesmic fears due to earthquakes).

If the traffic uses both upper and lower decks, I don't see how the Paris option works, as it uses the abandoned lower level for development. Again, lowering capacity (by half).

My guess is that the feds will probably opt for rebuilding the original, but maybe open it up some with longer bridge spans or a somewhat higher upper level and better night lighting.

For what its worth (probably not much) we can't build enough lanes in major metro areas. If we do, the developers will just increase density along the route, and the new lanes just fill up. Money spent, problem still there. I somehow like the idea of saving the waterfront areas by simply erasing lanes, and letting the drivers suffer a bit. If people had to work downtown, more would be likely to move there to reduce commuting time, and the areas would be vital (and more livable without all the cars). That's a pipe dream though (at least until gas is $8 a gallon).

Posted by: High Drive on May 24, 2006 7:04 PM


The SD viaduct simply never comes up. The area had been (mostly) developed a long time before, and those who laid out interstate 5 through there had no real choice in the matter.

It does loom over you. Heavy roadway, heavy pillers. For the most part there are few buildings under it.

It comes down to; it's there, it works, it's not going to appear on post cards. So we focus our meaningless blithering on where to put a new airport.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on May 24, 2006 10:34 PM

High Drive,
Interesting points.

But the Feds really aren't the key players here as it's mostly state money. The Governor is the final authority and when she looks at the potential risk -- and you have to consider the danger to national Democratic Party from another Big Dig fiasco -- of cost overruns and political chaos, I suspect she'll go with the Retrofit.

As to the Paris model, take a look at Donald's photo titled "Parking Area Beneath Viaduct." That the area I suggest for development along the lines of the Paris model (to which I linked above.) That wouldn't impact the upper driving decks at all.

Posted by: David Sucher on May 24, 2006 11:26 PM

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