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March 02, 2007

Can we tear down the viaduct, improve traffic flow on I-5, and increase funding for transit all at the same time?

The white elephant sitting squarely in the middle of the debate about the future of the Seattle waterfront is the massive congestion on I-5 and the inability of state and local officials to find a solution to getting Seattle and the region out of gridlock. In the debate over the waterfront, the pro-elevated, pro-tunnel and surface proponents would serve Seattle and the region by coming to the table and figuring out a compromise that creates a solution to the North/South congestion in the city and on I-5, removes the elevated freeway on the downtown waterfront, and improves freight mobility. This solution will require an investment in roads and a dramatic investment in transit.

Like many people jumping off the pro-tunnel ship, I have no particular attachment to a tunnel on the waterfront. What I am attached to is creating open space in the city and the once in a lifetime opportunity to reclaim the Seattle waterfront by removing a horrid elevated highway and creating a beautiful public space in the center of the city.

What holds me back from an enthusiastic endorsement of a surface option for the waterfront is the likelihood of an extension of Aurora Avenue North, an extremely ugly highway and a major source of blight that should have already been redesigned to fit into North Seattle neighborhoods. I’m ready to entertain a scenario with no tunnel on the waterfront, but I’m unwilling to consider an expressway for the waterfront. Pro-tunnel and pro-surface folks need to get on the same page and agree that they are not only against a new elevated highway, but also against a new expressway for the waterfront. If the expressway emerges as the preferred option in the coming months the tunnel must remain on the table if we preserve 99 as a highway, and there is not enough political will to downgrade it to a boulevard.

In the absence of the waterfront tunnel, the 2 Billion for the viaduct that has been promised from the statewide gas tax must stay in Seattle and be used to address the traffic problems in Seattle. The focus of that funding should be on getting local traffic moving through the city on arterials that are designed better and making I-5 a longer distance option. For example, what if I-5 was designed for commuters from outside Seattle to get into the city in the morning and out of the city in the evening, and conversely for commuters inside Seattle to get out of the city and back in. For in city trips improved arterials could be used instead of I-5. This could be accomplished by reconfiguring the on and off ramps in a way that removes the ability to make short trips on the freeway. I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily the answer to our congestion problems, I’m simply pointing out that we need a radical approach to begin to change the driving patterns that create traffic on I-5.

One of the worst proposals on the table is to slide the viaduct funding into the pot to widen a new 520. This would only dump additional cars unto I-5, and only worsen our congestion problems. The Seattle delegation in the legislature needs to work together and protect the funding that has been earmarked for Seattle and at the same time make a real effort to tackle congestion on I-5. I haven’t heard a peep from legislators or the governor about what they’d do to try to tackle the problem of congestion on I-5, they act like it’s not their problem.

Is it possible to favor putting billions of dollars into highway improvements and be pro-transit at the same time? The simple answer is yes. The fact is, funding for transit can not come from the gas tax, because of our state constitution. I’m all for constitutional tax reform, but that is a much more complicated issue. If the choice today were between 2 Billion for Highway 99 and 2 Billion for speeding up the construction of Sound Transit, my vote would be with Sound Transit. However, as we all know this is not the choice, and in reality we need to put billions into rapid transit and at the same time billions into improving our highways in Seattle.

Transit funding is more than a gimmick for the pro-surface option on the waterfront. Transit funding has consistently been missing in transportation public policy. In Seattle we’ve missed too many opportunities for transit funding already, with the failed monorail as a perfect example. I regret that the MVET tax in Seattle was not preserved for a light rail or bus rapid transit in that corridor. It’s a good lesson that advocacy for transit funding must remain a priority regardless of where the highway dollars are being spent.

Cross Posted on The Urban Environmentalist

Posted by EzraBasom on March 2, 2007 at 03:42 PM in Policy | Permalink


There is no solution that maintains present traffic mobility and capacity that does not include leaving that Viaduct right where it is. All the king's planners and all the king's men haven't come up with one yet because there isn't one.

You think traffic on I-5 is bad now? Remove that Viaduct and make it worse. Then we'll really have a "world-class city."

Sorry you think it's ugly. It isn't going anywhere. Deal with reality.

Posted by: ivan | Mar 2, 2007 4:25:52 PM

The solution is a recipe of ideas that will reduce cars and traffic in the cooridors where congestion is the worse. The desire to preserve or expand the viaduct is the same kind of transportation planning that has gotten us into the mess we're in. In this region we need a fresh approach to the problems we have to really start to change where people drive and the options and choices that go into making those trips.

Posted by: Ezra Basom | Mar 2, 2007 8:27:03 PM

Well, you're *not* going to reduce cars. Get over it. The population of the city and the area is projected to grow by what, 50 percent in the next 30-40 years? All those people are suddenly going carless?

See, this is the problem I have with people who want to tear down the Viaduct. They are not living in the real world, but that have convinced themselves somehow that they are. That most certainly includes you, my friend.

There is only so much space in downtown Seattle. We know where it is. We know where the chokepoints are. We can project how many people are going to live there, work there, travel to and from there, and live there.

The streets can hold only so many cars, buses, trucks, bikes, whatever. Until high-speed separated-from-grade mass transit is built, there has to be a through traffic corridor separated from grade to take that pressure off the city streets.

Whether you like it or not, that's the Alaskan Way Viaduct. All this "fresh approach" stuff is just so much feel-good rhetoric without a single cogent plan to support it.

You want to build a north-south skytrain? I'm for it. Light rail, separated from grade, like Tacoma? I'm for it. I don't know where you'd put it in Seattle. But even if we put it on Alaskan Way, instead of that stupid, stupid streetcar, where would it go from there and who would it serve?

Some of us were around in the 1980s when they built that dumb, awful bus tunnel. That was a disaster. Small businesses along Third Avenue went belly up and big businesses took their place. Some of us still suspect that was the idea all along.

They could have made Third Avenue transit-only. They didn't have the guts. If there is to be a surface street transit solution, it will be successful only if cars are barred from that street, but from that street only.

But it won't happen for one overriding reason. You "new urbanists" do not have the political clout to make it happen, and you won't have it in my lifetime or yours. And it certainly won't happen at the expense of one of Seattle's only two north-south through corridors -- not until high-speed, high volume mass transit is in place FIRST.

I'm for starting that ASAP, and I'm guessing you are too. But anybody who thinks the Viaduct is coming down first is just delusional. It moves too many people.

Posted by: ivan | Mar 2, 2007 9:21:45 PM

Maybe we should just drive the hell out of the current viaduct, and use the money saved to pay people not to drive. Give 'em transit passes for free, and fund that by overhauling the vehicle registration rules so that the fees for your tabs are assessed according to how many miles you drive.

Posted by: episty | Mar 4, 2007 11:34:36 AM

"...fund that by overhauling the vehicle registration rules so that the fees for your tabs are assessed according to how many miles you drive."

And that is the quickest way to put people like me -- who must use their vehicles in the course of doing business -- right into the unemployment line. It's more of that punish-them-into-submission philosophy that will do nothing to solve the issue, but will do everything to antagonize even more people.

Posted by: shoephone | Mar 4, 2007 1:07:29 PM

"And that is the quickest way to put people like me -- who must use their vehicles in the course of doing business -- right into the unemployment line."

Horsefeathers. The extent you use your vehicle for business is exactly the extent you get to deduct those fees on your 1040. For business use, you'd come out exactly even.

Posted by: episty | Mar 5, 2007 12:27:47 PM

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