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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Seattle Times’ Credulous (Viaduct) Reporting

posted by on April 30 at 11:37 AM

In today’s Seattle Times, Susan Gilmore credulously reports that the state has reopened the process for replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct—“juggling 10 options — what [the state] calls ‘families’ — to replace the one-mile stretch of the viaduct along Seattle’s central waterfront.” Those options, Gilmore reports, include three tunnels, three surface proposals, and four aerial viaduct options.

Well, not exactly.

The group of 30 “stakeholders” that is considering those ten options is supposed to adhere to a set list of “guiding principles.” Those principles include efficiently moving people (not cars) and goods; enhancing the waterfront, downtown, and adjacent neighborhoods for use by people; creating fiscally responsible solutions; and improving the environment, “with a particular emphasis on supporting local, regional and state climate change, water quality and Puget Sound recovery.”

At the stakeholder group meeting at Puget Sound Regional Council HQ on April 24, Seattle Department of Planning and Development director Diane Sugimura noted that any viaduct replacement would have to focus particularly on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and creating “a great waterfront city.” Although some, including lone rebuild supporter Gene Hoaglund, lamented that plans to improve the waterfront were only “great if you’re a land speculator or a developer,” there seemed to be general consensus that the elevated rebuild was no longer a viable option.

By the criteria being considered by the stakeholders, in fact, the vast majority of the ten options Gilmore cites drop off the list. Among those that are likely to fall aside: the (fiscally irresponsible) deep bore and cut and cover tunnels; the (environmentally irresponsible and non-waterfront-enhancing) retrofit and elevated roadways; the (non-waterfront-enhancing) “surface expressway”; and the (infeasible on many levels) “Elliott Bay Crossing,” which would include a 900-foot-high (!!!) tower right out in Elliott Bay adjacent to the waterfront.

So ridiculous were some of these options, in fact, that members of the 30-person Stakeholder Advisory Group giggled audibly when they were presented last week; as advisory group member Mike O’Brien (the chair of the Cascade Chapter of the Sierra Club) recalls, “people couldn’t keep straight faces. I mean, it was laughable.”

So while all the options are technically “on the table,” only a limited number will be seriously considered. A quick look at the guiding principles should have made that abundantly clear.

RSS icon Comments


You still seriously believe that we are going to tear down the Viaduct? Hope springs eternal, I guess, but why not work on something realistic such as pogo sticks for everyone.

Posted by David Sucher | April 30, 2008 11:45 AM

Lovely use of the word "credulous."

Posted by Spoogie | April 30, 2008 11:49 AM

Phew, I was nervous there for a minute, but then Erica rushed in on her magic unicorn/magic-pony hybrid that runs on dreams and fairy dust and lectured us on credibility.

It was scary there for a second!

Posted by Lacks Tact | April 30, 2008 11:59 AM

All I can say is if they think the Sierra Club won't kill any plan that increases global warming emissions, pollution, and runoff (a risk for any tunnel system), they're out of their gourd.

You can only get 52 percent if we don't turn 10-20 percent of the pro-vote into an anti-vote, and that's not rocket science, it's cold hard reality.

That said, some of the elevated and surface plans look good, and one of the minimal cut plans with crossovers might work if tweaked.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 30, 2008 12:01 PM

It looks like we're back to square one, except for the statement of principles. If it's taken seriously, Erica's right that most of the options are off the table.

The only three that fit the principles are:

1. Depressed lidded roadway (maybe, though it's probably too expensive and basically cut and cover done piecemeal)
2. Alaskan Way boulevard
3. Alaskan Way/Western

I don't really see what's gained by splitting traffic into two one-way roads when you could just as easily have two two-way roads with the same capacity. And I imagine any boulevard would be supplemented by routing some traffic onto Western (and other streets). So 2&3 represent the surface option, which will probably involve elements of both.

When you've eliminated all but one option, the option that remains is the one you're going to do. The hard part will be getting people to accept that a major freeway through downtown is going away.

Posted by Cascadian | April 30, 2008 12:56 PM


1.) Several of these choices are put on a ballot for yes/no votes that will ultimately be meaningless
2.) No choice receives a majority "yes" vote
3.) ECB and Cary Moon declare victory for a choice that wasn't even on the ballot

Posted by joykiller | April 30, 2008 1:03 PM

What a funny post - supporters of the so-called "Surface/Transit" option are going to be sold down the river by WSDOT, and they don't even realize it.

In case you didn't notice, they're retrofitting the most damaged section of the AWV as we speak.

Posted by Mr. X | April 30, 2008 1:16 PM

I love it: The Stranger learned a new word recently!

Seriously, how many times can you guys use "credulous" and its variants? Is it, like, a contest?

Posted by wordsmith | April 30, 2008 1:25 PM

"and the (infeasible on many levels) “Elliott Bay Crossing,” which would include a 900-foot-high (!!!) tower right out in Elliott Bay adjacent to the waterfront."

What's disturning was the Oct. 2006 draft EIS whitepaper on the feasibilty of long span bridges in Eliott Bay that was commissioned by WSDOT. One would suspect it might have been the the origin of the 900 foot tower comment, and it appears the paper's conclusions are still being utilized and floated around for public digestion and the promotion of policy.

The stated purpose of the whitepaper was to look at long span bridges in Elliott Bay and dismiss them without consideration based on a high level look. Consequently there was never any mandate to undertake a serious look at this alternative or do any cost comparisons to the other two concepts being fielded at the time. What is particularly interesting is that the paper contradicts some of the recommendations made for a cable stayed bridge concept done by WSDOT's urban corridors and bridge and structures office in a paper dated Nov. 2005....only one year earlier. When this was questioned by one of the peer reviewers, the response referenced that this 2006 whitepaper was being done with the intent of dimissing the concept from consideration based on this high level look.

The 2006 paper's peer review comments are
insightful, and on a number of the paper's assertions, incredulous. AFAIK, the City of Seattle and WSDOT never bothered to submit review comments of the paper, and one wonders if anyone in the city goverment bothered to read it or take note of its purpose and conclusions.

Posted by Getting Tired | April 30, 2008 2:05 PM

After the governor is re-elected, we're going to rebuild the Viaduct, and Erica and Will and the Sierra Club can just go piss up a rope.

Posted by ivan | April 30, 2008 2:51 PM

Seems like the Seattle Times did its job and reported the number of options on the table. Even if the Sierra Club thinks otherwise.

Principles can be stretched to mean anything, and won't save you here. Affordable housing is now about publicly subsidized condos. Police accountability means not doing anything to make police officers accountable to anyone other than the Chief. Efficient public transportation is building a light rail line to the airport that takes more time than an express bus. You're "progressive" if you're a Democrat with a pulse, "radical" if you actually stand up to Republicans. So why can't environmental sustainability mean building an 8 lane freeway instead of a 10 lane one?

Posted by Trevor | April 30, 2008 3:00 PM

@1: David, we've heard you say many times that you believe the viaduct will be retrofitted. But what do you believe OUGHT to be done with the viaduct?

Posted by Henry Miller Lite | April 30, 2008 9:57 PM

#12, Henry Miller Lite.

Short answer:

Ideally, I too would like to see the Viaduct disappear. But I think we are stuck with it. There is no practical alternative. And that's not such a bad thing.

— Repair the damn thing, save the money and use imagination to make it a plus for the downtown rather than a negative. (Yes it is possible and people who can't see it should reconsider. There are many ideas of what one could do. I've written about some of them on my blog. My favorite one is to copy what they did in Paris to an old viaduct. What's tragic about the media -- I am looking at you, _Stranger_ — is that it has played along with WSDOT's basic assumptions and not challenged the government "experts" -- sound familiar? think Iraq.)

— A surface boulevard is a fetching idea, except that I think it would create far more of a barrier than does the current Viaduct.

— A high bridge along the lines of the Millau in France would be great but there is neither the imagination nor the governmental skill/vision.

What is going to happen is just what Mr. X says is happening: REPAIR. Play along with the surface/transit fantasy and then when it is obvious that there is NO consensus, throw up your hands and say " Well we have to do something! So let's just repair!"


But yours is a very good question, and I am glad that you see the difference between what I (or anyone) would personally prefer and what the political dynamics will give us. You ask a very layered question. Some of my response:

First of all, I put the issue of the Viaduct in the context of all the possible "good things" which we could do with $3 billion in the city of Seattle. (And remember that the initial budget for this "emergency" were up in the $10-12 billion range, so the issue was even more extreme 5-6 years ago.) Putting it in the context of city-wide possibilities, improving 1.5 miles in one neighborhood just doesn't make sense. Is tearing down the Viaduct a "good idea?" In the best of all possible worlds, of course it is. But when consider the costs versus the benefits to the daily lives of 600 thousand people, it's not even on the table.

Governmental ability.
There is no way that state/local government is capable of the enormous transformation required by the liberal herd fantasy (i.e. the "surface/transit" option). In order to replace the Viaduct you'd need to re-route traffic which bring on its own law-suits. Then you have to increase the size of the bus fleet. Etc Etc Etc. Taking out an artery like the Viaduct and expecting the traffic to just filter away is not an experiment which local politicians will take when they realize that they are betting there own careers on the opinions of traffic engineers and Stranger reporters. It's a huge disruption and we are not capable of doing a project of such scale with grace. This is not Dubai and we have SEPA. To give you an idea of the fantasy world in which tear-it-down people live, they rejected what was their only chance: "Repair & Prepare."

Truth in government.
We have been lied to. There is no emergency. The Viaduct needs repairs but those repairs have been blown up as an excuse for an expensive project which would not pay. The Viaduct is our local Iraq war. A bad situation -- a dictator in Iraq and a road needing repair -- is used as an excuse for some wild-assand poorly-conceive and pointless adventure. So that's probably more background than anything else but the context of this project is governmental dishonesty.

Posted by David Sucher | April 30, 2008 11:10 PM

@10 - last time I checked, rebuilding the viaduct was my first choice, ivan. But the surface plus transit options are viable alternatives.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 30, 2008 11:15 PM

@12 and 13,

Just to pile on, as someone who has been a retrofit advocate since 1994 when WSDOT first decided to make the AWV a public-private toll tunnel project, I am very much of the view that WSDOT should do a least-cost temporary retrofit that will survive the next likely earthquake (which, given the predictability of Seattle's recurring and likely 30 year 6.3-6.9 seismic events, will probably occur somewhere around 2030 or so) and focus our limited resources on figuring out what to realistically replace the AWV with.

The notion that we can just tear down an essential transportation facility absent any alternative is just lunacy, and flies in the face of the intent and letter of the GMA, at least as far as transportation facility concurrency goes.

The City has handed out a whole lot of building permits in West Seattle predicated on the carrying capacity of the AWV, and suggesting we can simply tear down a road that carries 110,00o+ trips a day and replace that infrastructure with nothing is profoundly ignorant.

Oh, and the fact that a Cascadia subduction quake could occur tomorrow or 1000 years from now is not an excuse to wait for a perfect plan to protect against a far more seismic threat we can feasibly deal with now at a reasonable cost.

I say punt!

Posted by Mr. X | May 1, 2008 1:45 AM

I'm not quite sure why so many people seem to have a fixation on "where will the traffic go" if a surface/transit option is finally selected.

The old saying is that "Nature abhors a vacuum". My addendum to that is "Nature also abhors an empty freeway lane". What people tend to ignore is that much of the traffic that uses the Viaduct uses it BECAUSE IT IS THERE. If it had never been built this traffic would be using other routes.

There is a real world example that I think is very relevant, the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco. A waterfront freeway carrying thousands of vehicles a day shut down because of the the Loma Prieta earthquake. There were dire predictions that downtown San Francisco would become gridlocked if the Embarcadero wasn't rebuilt. It wasn't and guess what happened? Basically nothing.

People adjusted. They changed their routes and times of travel. They utilized what was there. It's amazing (to some people anyway) how people can adapt to changes like this. Now the barrier between San Francisco and its waterfront is gone and it has a waterfront boulevard and light rail line that seems to be handling traffic and people quite well.

There was traffic before the Viaduct and while the traffic volumes are much higher nowadays people will adjust their driving habits if the Viaduct was gone.

Posted by Steve | May 1, 2008 8:29 AM

Steve @ 16:

How many times do we have to repeat that the Embarcadero was a *spur* and the Viaduct is a *throughway* before this idiotic, inapplicable, invidious comnparison goes away?

Will @ 14:

All the king's bloggers and all the king's men cannot make the "surface-transit option" in any way viable. There is no getting around the Colman Dock clusterfuck, which is bad enough as it is. The through traffic must be separated from grade, as it is now, and no surface option accomplishes that, nor will it ever.

Posted by ivan | May 1, 2008 9:24 AM

Steve @ 16,

Try getting from the Golden Gate bridge/Hwy 101 to I-80 (or even North Beach, for that matter) by car and get back to me on that.

Posted by Mr. X | May 1, 2008 11:24 AM

Obviously, you didn't live in the Bay Area before the Embarcadero was taken down (I did). Yes, it was a spur but it was also a thruway as well. If you were coming up the 101 and going to North Beach or from the East Bay and going to the Presidio and the Golden Gate Bridge you would most likely take the Embarcadero.

Just because it's a spur doesn't mean that people using it don't continue on to other places, especially in a place like San Francisco where you didn't have any other choice. I lived in the East Bay and if I was driving and I wanted to go to Ghiadarelli Square I took the Embarcadero. If I was going to Marin County, I took the Embarcadero. I didn't stop driving just because the "spur" I was on ended.

But you miss my point. If an earthquake were to happen tomorrow and the Viaduct had to be closed, people would adapt. The world would not come to an end with the Viaduct gone. Seattle wouldn't come to a screeching halt. People would adjust. Would it be a mess for a while? Of course it would. Would it eventually settle down? Of course it would. Would it better or worse than before the Viaduct was gone? I have no idea and neither do you, all we can do is make a guess.

What you CANNOT say it that the surface-transit option is not viable. You can say "In my opinion, based on everything I know, I don't think it is viable". Are you right? I don't know. You don't know. Unless it is tried no one knows.

It could be you are right; a lot of people seem to agree with you on that. It's equally possible that you are wrong; a lot of people seem to agree with that opinion as well. All anyone can do is make their opinions known and wait and see what the final decision is.

Posted by Steve | May 1, 2008 11:30 AM


Don't give me that false equivalency crap. Run that past some college freshman or somebody.

It is not "equally possible" that I am wrong to say that the ferry traffic to and from Colman Dock would cause a major clusterfuck trying to get on or off or across a surface roadway that would replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

It is not "equally possible" that the ferry traffic would cause a total stop-and-go clusterfuck to north-south traffic on 99. There would be 3-4-mile backups every time a ferry docked during rush hour and the traffic had to get across the "surface option." Is that "viable?"

People would "adjust?" Nice to say when you aren't one of them.

Posted by ivan | May 1, 2008 11:45 AM

Ivan, I have to say that you seem to be a very negative person. You keep saying "this won't work" and "that won't work". You don't seem to be able to come up with anything other than "fix what we have and hope it doesn't fall down in the next earthquake". Even with a retrofit there's no guarantee the Viaduct won't suffer major damage. Just look at all of the overpasses in Southern California that were built to withstand an earthquake and still fell down in the Northridge quake. Would YOU want to be driving on the lower level of a retrofitted Viaduct during an earthquake (think Nimitz freeway in Oakland in '89).

Yes, people will adjust. That's the amazing thing about people, how adaptable they are.

Would the things you described happen? Possibly. But the idea is to look at the situation, determine where the problems are most likely to occur and develop solutions to them. If there's a problem with the ferry traffic causing backups then come up with a solution to alleviate the problem (and since I used to take the ferry to work from Bremerton every day I do know a little about this). If there are backups, what is causing them and what can be done to fix the problem or at least make it more bearable?

Would everything be perfect, no but I don't know of anything in the world that is.

Posted by Steve | May 1, 2008 1:39 PM

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