On my first visit to Seattle back in 1989, my future ex-wife took me on a tour of her beloved hometown, which of course included the downtown waterfront. Walking hand-in-hand through the shadows of the clamorous and crumbling Alaska Way Viaduct, I subtly remarked on how the structure dominated the sites and sounds of an otherwise charming tourist trap:
“I can’t believe they built a fucking freeway through the waterfront!” I gently screamed in her ear… to which she quizzically replied: “What?!”
Of course, I understand the historical circumstances that led to this gashing, open wound through a neighborhood that would otherwise enjoy some of the highest property values in the state. And I certainly share the pragmatic, financial concerns of those who oppose a more expensive tunnel replacement.
But really… can anybody honestly tell me that rebuilding this monstrosity is the preferred alternative, especially after we now learn that a replacement Viaduct would have to be 50 percent wider than the existing structure, with columns twice as thick, just to meet current seismic and traffic safety standards?
Let’s put this in perspective. Imagine the Viaduct had never been built, and SR 99 currently passed through the waterfront at grade, traffic lights and all, like any other street. (You know… the way it currently runs through much of Seattle.)
Now suppose we wanted to alleviate local traffic snarls by allowing 99’s thru-traffic to bypass Alaska Way. Do you believe for a moment that any politician in their right mind would propose plunking down a massive, double-decker, view-destroying, elevated freeway, essentially cutting off the waterfront from the rest of the downtown? Do you believe a single editorial board would come out in support of such an outrageously ugly, noisy and expensive transportation folly? Do you really think our state Legislature would have provided $2 billion of taxpayer’s money towards such a controversial proposal?
Of course not! Financial priorities, aesthetics, and common sense simply would not allow it.
A lot has changed since the Viaduct was constructed over 50 years ago, and modern, world-class cities no longer wall off their waterfronts with massive freeway projects; indeed, any urban planner who proposed such a project would be laughed out of the profession. Yet it’s the rebuild boosters who seem to be laughing as if their opponents are out of touch with reality: money is tight they patronizingly explain to us… we simply cannot afford a tunnel.
Over the last decade taxpayers have spent a billion dollars building and refurbishing stadia and arenas to the benefit of billionaire sports team owners, and maybe, just maybe, the bonds on the now demolished Kingdome will finally be paid off before the next round of extortion begins. Yet we’re told we can’t afford the extra billion dollars for the tunnel alternative, despite its estimated life-span of at least 100 hundred years… twice that of an elevated viaduct.
I find that hard to believe. And besides, it shouldn’t be up to state legislators to make that decision. The state has ponied up it’s $2 billion bucks, and if local voters want to tax themselves to turn our waterfront into a world class destination, well then, that’s up to us. Now that the Monorail has been permanently derailed, let’s give voters the opportunity to use the local MVET to help finance the tunnel and other road improvements. And why not start talking about a special taxing district — much like the one financing South Lake Union development — so that those property owners who stand to reap the biggest rewards from the Viaduct’s removal, also pay a higher percentage of the cost?
And if we still can’t find the money to pay for a tunnel, well… we can’t do what we can’t do. But that still doesn’t make a replacement viaduct the preferred alternative.
It’s time for our state and local civic and political leaders to get their heads out of the 1950’s, and start imagining the city with a fresh perspective. It’s time to start giving serious attention to a third replacement option, one which I would argue is far preferable to replacing the existing Viaduct with a new, bulked-up model: the waterfront boulevard.
That’s exactly what San Francisco did after the double-decker, Embarcadero Freeway collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta quake… a change that revitalized the waterfront. And citizens liked the results so much that they just opened a new 6-lane boulevard to replace a portion of the Central Freeway, right through the heart of the downtown.
I believe that much of the legislative opposition to the tunnel stems both from institutional timidity, and urban Democrats’ justified fear that their opponents will seize on the tunnel as a symbol of out-of-control, profligate spending on the part of the party in charge.
But I also think that opposition stems from a lack of imagination. The generation in power now grew up with a loud, ugly, double-decker freeway cutting through an otherwise spectacular waterfront, and they simply cannot envision the city without it.
Well not me. I came to this city as an outsider, and I’m here to tell you that the Viaduct sucks. And you know what…? Rebuilding it 50 percent wider can only make it suck at least 50 percent more.