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Yes and Hell Yes

What We Voted For When We Voted Down the Tunnel and the Rebuild

From the moment the votes came in at the "No Viaduct" party at the Edgewater Hotel the night of March 13—when it was clear that Seattle voters were giving a thumbs-down to the waterfront tunnel and a new elevated viaduct—everyone began attempting to make their definition of "the will of the voters" the one that would stick. The outcome of the vote itself was unambiguous: no to a larger new elevated viaduct (losing, at press time, 57 to 43 percent) and hell no to a four-lane cut-and-cover tunnel (losing 70 to 30 percent).

The interpretation of that vote, however, was a matter of feverish jostling among political leaders who had supported one option or the other—or neither, as was the case with City Council Member Peter Steinbrueck. Although all the political leaders gathered at a press conference in Olympia the morning after the vote agreed that the voters want "collaborative," "consensus-based" discussions about how to move forward, they differed dramatically on what a collaborative solution might look like.

Mayor Greg Nickels interpreted the vote as an unambiguous signal that voters "do not want a freeway on our waterfront," either "above ground or below.... This is the 21st century. We must put aside our 1950s mindset." Nickels also took pains to redefine "capacity"—traditionally understood in highway-planning circles as the number of cars that are able to fit on a road—as "moving people and goods," a definition environmentalists have long embraced, but which politicians have been slower to get behind.

Governor Christine Gregoire, however, still seemed open to the possibility of a new elevated freeway, despite voters' clear rejection of her $2.8 billion rebuilt viaduct. Gregoire paid lip service—sort of—to Nickels's new definition of capacity. "Capacity means if we can find a way to stop 110,000 cars from being on that road, that would be great," she told reporters cagily. But Gregoire was unwilling to say whether she'd respect the results of the election. "It's just premature to say anything," Gregoire said. "We have looked at a [non-freeway] option before and we have not agreed on a way to make it work."

Meanwhile, right-wing bloggers and City Council Member Nick Licata labored under the delusion that a 55 percent "no" vote was actually good news for supporters of a larger new elevated viaduct, because it didn't lose as badly as the tunnel. "[The vote] will definitely keep it alive," Licata told the Seattle Times Tuesday night.

We at The Stranger believe the vote clearly showed that voters are looking for a better way. The surface/transit option—which landscape architect Cary Moon dreamed up three years ago as a set of guiding principles for a waterfront boulevard augmented by transit and improvements to surface-street connections downtown—is now the leading option.

Surface/transit certainly has the momentum. The mayor and the city council have both adopted the surface/transit proposal as their "backup" option. More and more elected leaders, like Nickels, are defining "capacity" as the ability to move people and freight—not just single-occupancy cars. More and more people are beginning to understand that a viable transportation system—and the future of our air and water, which are increasingly threatened by greenhouse gases produced largely by cars—must focus on investments in sidewalks, bike facilities, and transit, as well as dedicated land use that makes them easy to use.

THE ERA OF BIG FREEWAYS

The era of big freeways is over.

The voters know it, Mayor Nickels at last claims to know it, and the federal government, which has stopped writing blank checks for multi-billion-dollar megaprojects, clearly knows it. Building more freeways to accommodate more and more cars is not compatible with Seattle's stated goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent. From an individual point of view, driving alone is an increasingly costly proposition: From 1987 to 2004, annual driving expenses rose from $5,100 to $8,500 in the Puget Sound region, with the average household spending $10,000 a year maintaining and operating cars—almost one dollar out of every five spent in the region.

Nonetheless, there are still plenty of people living in the past—the governor apparently included—who continue to insist we can't live without an elevated freeway through downtown Seattle.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) claims it studied a "no replacement" option as part of the study it used to reduce the number of viaduct-replacement options to two. But that option simply removed the viaduct and redistributed all its traffic onto I-5, through the downtown street grid, and onto Metro buses, while making no investments in freight mobility, adding no new programs to reduce demand, and making no efforts to better utilize existing road capacity in the street grid. Given those limitations, the conclusions of the WSDOT report are hardly surprising: Simply dumping viaduct traffic onto surface streets would slow travel speeds to a 15 mph crawl through downtown, and would increase traffic on the surface Alaskan Way from 11,000 to 74,000 cars a day. Traffic on I-5, meanwhile, would increase by 22,000 trips a day, or about 6 percent.

Clearly, we couldn't live without the viaduct—or could we?

While it was claiming that tearing down the viaduct would result in gridlock downtown, the state was preparing a $200 million plan for traffic during the construction of a new viaduct. That mitigation plan predicts that 41,000 car trips would be absorbed by transit or simply disappear, leaving a much more manageable 77,000 trips to redistribute onto surface streets and new transit.

Another report by WSDOT consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas found that a new boulevard on the waterfront could accommodate 30 percent of the viaduct's 110,000 cars, the street grid could accommodate 42 percent more, and 28 percent would simply disappear, eliminated by greater use of mass transportation and more efficient trip planning by individual drivers. And that study, like WSDOT's, didn't account for street mobility improvements, demand-management programs, or the massive increases in transit (and improvements in transit mobility) that Metro is planning.

The need to do something to combat congestion is clear from WSDOT's own figures, which predict that replacing the viaduct's full car capacity would only delay the inevitable I-5 gridlock—around 370,000 cars a day—for between 9 and 13 years, only slightly longer than it would take to rebuild the viaduct in the first place. And that's assuming no major investments in transit, no significant improvements to surface streets, no changes in downtown land use (people moving downtown and walking to work, for example), and no changes in commuter behavior. Despite what pro-freeway alarmists predict, the street grid downtown already has a huge amount of unused capacity. Yes, First Avenue is clogged at rush hour; however, according to the city's own Center City Circulation report, only a handful of downtown streets—including Stewart Street, Denny Way, and streets that feed I-5—have "significant gridlock." The street grid downtown west of I-5 actually has twice the capacity of the viaduct.

Every study of cities that have removed freeways has found that people are far more flexible in practice than traffic models predict. Intuitively, that makes sense: You're much better off on a congested surface street than on a gridlocked freeway, because you can leave that street to access other parts of the grid. On a freeway, once you're stuck, you're stuck. The day before the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, 110,000 vehicles used the viaduct every day. After it reopened later that year, only 80,000 vehicles did. More recently, a WSDOT study found that if the state charged a $1 toll on the viaduct, 40,000 trips would disappear, indicating that "demand" is a very flexible concept; conversely, a recent UC Berkeley study found that for every 1 percent of new road capacity, traffic increased by 0.9 percent.

Freeway supporters often express concerns over freight mobility: Without the viaduct, they warn, Seattle's working waterfront (and industrial businesses in Ballard) will be killed by gridlock. Those concerns are, to some extent, legitimate; as proponents of both freeway options have noted, the viaduct is a (relatively) major freight corridor through the city. However, the approximately 4,000 trucks that use the viaduct daily primarily use it when it's least congested, in the middle of the day, and in trips to and from downtown, rather than areas north and south of downtown. During rush hour, only about 250 trucks use the viaduct daily. (The vast majority of rush-hour traffic is to and from downtown, contradicting the WSDOT claim that the viaduct is "a major regional highway corridor carrying long-distance trips through downtown.") Most of those trucks, moreover, don't serve the Port of Seattle, which relies primarily on freight trains to serve its container ships; and in any case, ports with more container traffic—such as L.A., New York, Oakland, and Charleston—all have fewer freeway miles per capita than Seattle.

For all its hell-bent dedication to preserving car capacity through downtown Seattle, even the state highway department recognizes that something must be done to accommodate travelers to and from downtown, at least during viaduct construction. To that end, the city, county, and state have all been working—collaboratively!—to come up with options to avoid gridlock during the 9 to 12 years of viaduct construction. However, as we've said before, if we can live without the viaduct for 9 to 12 years, we can live without it forever. So why not make some—or all—of these solutions permanent? It's hard to understand why, after routing traffic off our waterfront, we would invite it back after a decade. Instead, the city, county, and state should invest in a surface option that augments transit, improves surface-street connections, and encourages alternatives to driving alone.

MOVING AHEAD

One of the biggest challenges to acceptance of a surface/transit option is that no one knows exactly what it would look like. However, a look at some of the proposals the city, county, and state have suggested to deal with closure of the viaduct during construction provides an outline. Here are a few of the key proposals.

Improvements to the Street Grid

A surface street can't function without improvements to downtown streets that will allow cars that currently use the viaduct to access other routes; conversely, big arterials like I-5 will get clogged if people can't easily access other routes. And downtown traffic won't move smoothly unless planners get rid of bottlenecks to the north (at Denny Way) and south (where traffic arrives from the West Seattle Bridge).

To that end, WSDOT and the city plan to change many one-way streets in downtown to two-way streets, add two new lanes for cars and traffic on Spokane Street from West Seattle, reroute some I-5 through trips to I-405, improve traffic-signal timing, eliminate some downtown off-ramps from I-5, and remove on-street parking downtown, among many other improvements. Surface/transit proponents also want to reconnect the waterfront to the street grid, at least south of Seneca Street. (North of Seneca Street, the grade difference between downtown and the waterfront gets too steep.)

More and Better Transit

Transit service downtown will have to improve dramatically in terms of speed, frequency, and reliability if we're going to adjust to life without the viaduct. Light rail from downtown to Sea-Tac Airport will augment downtown bus service starting in 2009; however, much more will have to be done to accommodate the 28,000 riders WSDOT says will need to travel on Metro buses during viaduct construction (or after the viaduct is torn down).

King County Executive Ron Sims has proposed a plan, called "49 Things," to prevent transit from deteriorating in the vicinity of Alaskan Way, a plan that emerged when Sims's staff saw WSDOT's construction plan, which predicts that congestion on I-5 will increase to 12 hours daily during the 7 to 10 years of full or partial viaduct closure. "You can't say surface/transit is going to create this huge problem and then be cavalier about 7 to 10 years of gridlock," Sims staffer Ryan Bayne says.

Some of Sims's 49 things, which his office predicts could take 35,000 daily trips off the viaduct, would be funded from two city transportation initiatives approved by voters last year (Transit Now and Bridging the Gap); some would be funded out of a Regional Transportation Investment District on the ballot in November. (If RTID fails, the county would look to Transit Now to make up the difference.) The city and state have assumed similar investments in transit in their own planning for the viaduct closure; of the 49 projects Sims is suggesting, about 80 percent are included in the city's preliminary construction traffic-management plan.

Among the projects included in all these city plans: new transit-only lanes downtown; expanded water taxi service and a new pedestrian link between downtown and the waterfront; a new transit link between West Seattle and the downtown bus tunnel along the Spokane Street Viaduct; a new transit-only lane on Aurora Avenue North; making Third Avenue permanently transit-only; and, of course, expanded bus service (at least $10 million to $15 million a year above the improvements in Transit Now) and bus rapid transit (BRT) in dedicated lanes from North to South Seattle along the waterfront. In all, Sims's BRT system would include a new, 56-mile line along SR-99 from Shoreline to Federal Way and a 22-mile link across the Spokane Street Viaduct to West Seattle.

Bus rapid transit has many detractors, and with good reason: It's not real rapid transit. Because buses have to operate on the same streets as cars, there's always the possibility that even dedicated bus-only lanes (the closest buses can come to actually being "rapid") can be converted to car lanes in the future, eliminating the certainty that comes with rail transit like light rail and monorail. Nonetheless, dedicated BRT-only lanes with limited stops could be an improvement on the current clogged bus lines between Ballard, downtown, and West Seattle.

In Curitiba, Brazil—the city most often cited as a model of how BRT can work—planners have already made many changes to the transit system that we could make, too, if we had the will. Effective BRT systems operate on a dedicated right-of-way that isn't shared by private cars. Buses with more doors, and doors that open on both sides simultaneously (to allow riders to get off while other riders were getting on), reduce delays on Curitiba's BRT system; so do prepaid fare stations and station platforms set at the level of bus platforms, allowing wheelchairs to enter without long boarding times (and that annoying "beep, beep, beep" sound). Many BRT systems even include devices that let drivers change traffic signals as they approach. No, it's not a perfect solution; but in the absence of real rapid transit between Ballard, downtown, and West Seattle, it's better than the slow, dirty, overcrowded buses we have now.

Demand Management and Trip Reduction

People are basically lazy. They won't take transit unless it's easy and fast, and they won't get out of their cars unless they're given a reason to do so. Demand management works on both fronts. First, a demand-management strategy would make transit more appealing by providing subsidized bus passes, improving service, giving employers incentives to let employees work flexible hours or from home, and shifting land-use patterns to encourage housing near transit stops. Then it would make driving less appealing by increasing the cost of parking downtown, decreasing the amount of parking downtown, and (perhaps the most controversial and most crucial element) tolling I-5 at rush hour—the more congested the freeway, the higher the toll. "We've started to talk about tolling on I-405, [SR] 520, and I-90, but the real failed transportation infrastructure is I-5," says Jessyn Farrell, director of the Transportation Choices Coalition. "For any surface/transit alternative to really work, we have to talk about tolling I-5, too."

Improvements to Access for Bikes and Pedestrians

The state's own plan to "keep people and freight moving during construction" calls for temporary new bike routes, temporary walkways to allow pedestrians access to Colman Dock, and temporary programs to educate people on bike routes and places to walk downtown. But there's no reason bike access to downtown couldn't be expanded (how about a dedicated bike route through downtown, instead of a dangerous half-lane that bikers must share with parking spaces and turning cars?) and the changes the state has suggested made permanent.

Freight Mobility Enhancements

Although only 4,000 trucks use the viaduct daily, those trucks need a way to get through downtown, especially during rush hour. One strategy that city planners have suggested is adding designated freight-only lanes (or HOV and freight) through downtown.

Instead of looking at the destruction of the viaduct as a crisis, we should see it as an opportunity—a chance to create a transportation system that works. Building another freeway is a step backward. The surface/transit option, while still nascent, points Seattle forward.recommended

barnett@thestranger.com

 

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