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Debate Rages over Raised Highway in Seattle

August 23, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT
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LEE HOCHBERG, NewsHour Correspondent: In the wake of the Minnesota bridge disaster, cities and states are eying their aging roadways. But in Seattle, it didn’t take a disaster to make residents aware of their road problem: 110,000 cars per day whiz along the Seattle waterfront on a two-mile-long, double-decker waterfront bridge, the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Built in the 1950s and damaged by an earthquake in 2001, engineers say it could collapse in the next quake. Some repairs have been made, but on the federal bridge sufficiency scale, the viaduct has a rating of only nine out of 100. The Minnesota bridge had a much better rating of 50.

The underside of the Seattle road has cracks, exposed rebar, and weakening concrete. Even before the Minnesota disaster, Washington state said it would spend $5 million this year and $175 million next year to patch up some spots, but it said the only real solution is to replace the viaduct. That could take 10 years.

Now, many in Seattle think the state must move faster. City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck.

PETER STEINBRUECK, Seattle City Council: When I saw the images of the Minnesota bridge collapsing within seconds into the water, I thought of the viaduct collapsing and thousands of people potentially losing their lives, getting sandwiched between the double decks of the freeway here and, frankly, surprised that that was not seen as a wakeup call.

LEE HOCHBERG: The city and state say they’re already doing all they can, but Steinbrueck says the state should immediately move to get some traffic off the viaduct.

PETER STEINBRUECK: To do nothing is to put people at greater risk. What we need to do is start to take the traffic off of the facility now. What are we waiting for?

LEE HOCHBERG: Even before the Minnesota tragedy, Steinbrueck was wary of the viaduct. Instead of replacing a road that carries one-quarter of Seattle’s north-south traffic, he had what seems like a radical idea: demolish it, and don’t replace it at all.

PETER STEINBRUECK: You get an idea that we’ve got to simply replace this aging structure with another, more massive public works project. But there are more sensible, more cost-effective approaches than thinking in those terms of mega-project terms.

New use for transportation dollars

LEE HOCHBERG: Steinbrueck has been one of an increasing number of advocates for using transportation dollars in an uncommon way, not on auto-based mega-projects, but on solutions that promote new ways to use the land. In Seattle's case, removing the noisy highway and opening up the city waterfront to parks and condominiums.

PETER STEINBRUECK: People are naturally drawn to the water, and yet we've got a noisy, overbearing, overshadowing, dirty, polluting, aging structure that is in the way. Why should cars and traffic dominate all the other goals, all the values that we hold dear for our city?

LEE HOCHBERG: In fact, Seattle's Pike Place Market, the centerpiece of Seattle's revitalized downtown, is there because of a similar fight waged 40 years ago by Steinbrueck's father, Victor. At that time, Seattle leaders planned to bulldoze the market. But the elder Steinbrueck, an architect, led what seemed to be a quixotic eight-year battle and saved it. The park across the street, overlooking the viaduct, is named in his honor.

PETER STEINBRUECK: My dad questioned authority, did not accept conventional wisdom, did not always agree with the experts, and didn't feel that they always had all the answers. He felt that a city should be beautiful.

Opposing plans for the highway

LEE HOCHBERG: Other cities have used transportation decisions to promote land use outcomes. Three hours north of Seattle, in Vancouver, British Columbia, the decision not to have in-city freeways was an effort to preserve neighborhoods. Vancouver is consistently rated one of the world's most livable cities.

Three hours south of Seattle, voters in Portland, Oregon, 30 years ago rejected an expansion of their riverfront freeway. The freeway was bulldozed instead and the money put into a park and light rail. Both have become jewels of the city.

In San Francisco, when the Embarcadero freeway was damaged in the 1989 earthquake, the city decided not to rebuild, and today the area beneath it has undergone an explosion of lucrative condominium and tourist development.

Back in Seattle, political leaders originally came up with two opposing mega-project plans to replace the viaduct. The governor of the state wanted to knock it down and build a bigger viaduct. Since it's part of State Highway 99, she was willing to use more than $2 billion of state money.

GOV. CHRISTINE GREGOIRE (D), Washington: The only viable option on the table today is an elevated structure. I can't see just tearing it down and letting it go. I think the citizens would be appalled.

LEE HOCHBERG: Seattle's mayor, Greg Nickels, argued for a $4.6 billion tunnel that would hide cars from the waterfront.

MAYOR GREG NICKELS, Seattle: It's important to move people and goods and services, but the opportunity to create a place where people want to live and want to be is a higher priority to me. You need to accommodate traffic, but you don't pander to traffic, as we have, I think, at some times in the past.

Voters reject new viaduct, tunnel

LEE HOCHBERG: He says the tunnel would increase downtown property values, property tax receipts, and tourist spending, while creating park-like pedestrian access to the waterfront. This spring, when Seattle voters were asked in an advisory election to decide between the two options, they threw both leaders a curve: They rejected both a new viaduct and the tunnel.

Both leaders then said they'd let the political debate simmer for a couple of years and announced the start on temporary repairs. Steinbrueck framed the vote as a repudiation of 20th-century automobile-based mega-projects and a nod to smaller, pedestrian-friendly development.

PETER STEINBRUECK: I think Seattle citizens want better, less polluting choices. We ought to be able to touch the water here.

LEE HOCHBERG: But what to do with those 110,000 vehicles per day? People like Warren Aakervik and his drivers at Ballard Oil make six trips a day on the viaduct to an oil terminus in Seattle to fill up their trucks and bring oil back for the fishing fleet.

WARREN AAKERVIK, Ballard Oil Company: So now we're on the famous viaduct.

LEE HOCHBERG: The viaduct is the best route by far. The only other highway is the usually jammed Interstate 5 through downtown. Aakervik says the viaduct saves him precious time.

WARREN AAKERVIK: If I knew it was going to collapse today, I'd probably still drive it until the time it was going to collapse.

LEE HOCHBERG: The effort to get rid of it and not replace it bewilders him.

WARREN AAKERVIK: Insanity. How's that? Insanity. That's all I can say. If you have to move people, you have to move goods.

Accounting for traffic needs

LEE HOCHBERG: At a Seattle town meeting just before the election, former State Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge agreed.

PHIL TALMADGE, Former Washington State Supreme Court Justice: Where are those vehicles going to go? All of the other pie-in-the-sky nonsense that you hear, look at these basic questions and ask yourself, what makes the most sense? Thank you.

WARREN AAKERVIK: Until Scottie comes back and beams us up, we cannot move these things by just wishing they moved. They believe that they can take down that kind of corridor. I mean, it's just ludicrous.

LEE HOCHBERG: Even the mayor doesn't know where the cars will go.

MAYOR GREG NICKELS: I'm not sure that I've got the answer to that yet, which, again, is why I thought the tunnel was a reasonable approach. But the people have told us pretty clearly they don't want another highway down on the waterfront, and I respect what they have to say.

LEE HOCHBERG: Steinbrueck says major construction this summer on another Seattle freeway is showing traffic can be redirected around a missing highway link. He has convinced the city of Seattle to invest $8 million to figure out how to move people, not cars.

He says completion of the city's new light rail, new passenger ferries, and bike lanes could eliminate 35,000 daily viaduct trips. Improving confusing signage on other highways and charging those who drive on those highways during rush hour could help those roads handle more traffic. He's also advocating Seattle add a bus rapid transit system on dedicated roadways, like these used in South American cities.

But in the meantime, he says the Minnesota tragedy has shown the need to devote more resources to maintenance of the transportation infrastructure, whatever its elements. He's decided not to run for re-election so he can devote himself full time to fighting for a safe, if highway-free, solution.