Seattle to the World: A Better Plan for the Viaduct


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Demanding an innovative solution to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct

Sometimes when we live with a problem for too long, we forget that it is a problem. Such seems to be the case with the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the strip of 99 that currently runs through downtown Seattle, parallel to the waterfront. The elevated highway -- which tops CNU's list of Freeways Without Futures, not only encourages polluting automobile traffic to pass through the heart of the city, it also damages the entire downtown by creating cold, shadowy and often dangerous stretches of underutilized real estate in an area of the city where we could have thriving pedestrian corridors, inviting recreational space, and a healthier relationship with Puget Sound.

But mistakes don't need to last forever. When the Nisqually Earthquake greatly damaged the Viaduct in 2001, Seattle gained an opportunity to correct the error of the previous century and reclaim a vibrant urban waterfront. In the nearly eight years since then, officials at SDOT as well as Mayor Nickels, Governor Gregoire and King County Executive Ron Sims have been struggling to come up with the best plan to replace the aging structure.

The first proposal gave voters a choice between rebuilding the Viaduct and replacing it with an underground tunnel – both ideas that assume the downtown highway is a necessary part of transportation infrastructure. That's when the People's Waterfront Coalition (PWC) stepped in, with the rallying call that these options weren't the best available, and that the wrong decision would cost more than Seattle could afford ($4 billion in funds plus a minimum seven years of construction), in addition to re-shackling the waterfront to bad design. The PWC, a non-profit advocacy organization led by Worldchanging ally Cary Moon, has worked to identify solutions that are both progressive and possible, and to convince Seattle residents and legislators to change their thinking.

The plan has worked, and local officials are now acknowledging the benefits of alternative plans. The State, City and County have committed to reaching a decision by the end of 2008, and the advisory committee has developed a total of eight plan proposals. Tunnel and elevated highway designs are still on the table, but three of the eight plans use modifications to street-level transportation infrastructure and to I-5 to re-route existing traffic (including freight). And the research is solid: There are other ways to serve the city's transportation needs effectively, and even the possibility that redistributing the traffic from 99 would significantly improve, rather than worsen, downtown congestion.


Why it's Worldchanging:
The Viaduct dilemma is a metaphor for the nationwide struggle with existing infrastructures and the pursuit of sustainability. Harsh realities like climate change, peak oil and booming global population make automobile-centric infrastructure an outdated model. But can we imagine a different solution to the needs that we now address with cars, highways, parking lots and fossil fuels? Because infrastructure is expensive, and because it will become a feature around which we design structures as well as policies for decades, the pressure is on to create infrastructure in a way that addresses the needs of the future, and directs growth in the direction we want to go. And it takes strong action on the part of concerned residents to speak up for the kind of city we really want to live in. Replacing the Viaduct with a better overall plan for waterfront, seawall and transportation would present Seattle with an opportunity to improve a vital corridor for residents, businesses and tourists, while sending a powerful message to the rest of the nation about the possibility of a future where we design cities around people, not cars.

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Photos courtesy of the People's Waterfront Coalition.

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This post is part of the series, "Seattle to the World: 100 Best Innovations from the Emerald City."

Comments

I've always loved the viaduct, and as someone who knows how to get from Seatac to I5 north of the U District via Burien, 99, and Greenlake, I can tell you that it has saved me several times from dying outright in the traffic on I5. It is a great outlet route.

Posted by: Galen Burghardt on October 1, 2008 9:10 AM

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