Crumbling concrete on the pillar of the Alaska Way Viaduct in Seattle. (Washington State Department of Transportation)
The Viaduct was closed this past weekend for its semi-annual inspection, but it was also a chance for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to give public and media tours of the aging facility, the first opportunity for folks to walk the upper decks and see the creaky structure up close since the March 13 "No No" vote. Despite the public's expressed skepticism over the tunnel and rebuild options offered, there seems to be one clear winner: incrementalism.
Seattle often tries to dazzle itself with huge, reality-shifting concepts that will transform the city at a blow: The Commons, the Monorail, a waterfront tunnel! Mayor Greg Nickels even preposterously said tearing down the Viaduct was like the fall of the Berlin Wall. Our civic projects often collapse under the weight of utopian expectations.
The ambiguity of the election – which highlighted what we don't want with no firm sense of what we do – has forced the hand of Gov. Christine Gregoire and WSDOT to proceed with what they call "early safety and mobility improvements." What it really means is that the state will spend close to $1 billion fixing and replacing 55 percent of the Viaduct, mainly the north and south sections, without any further ado. In other words, more than half of the rebuild is taking place without any more votes or discussion.
WSDOT says these fixes need to be done no matter what and that they will be compatible with whatever solution is chosen for the so-called "riddle in the middle," that 45 percent of the structure that runs along the central waterfront.
The highlights of the work: The north section of the Viaduct, roughly from Cutters Bayhouse restaurant to the Battery Street tunnel, will be stabilized, the tunnel's utilities upgraded, and the tunnel deepened to allow larger trucks through. That work is estimated to take from 2008 to 2010.
The south section, roughly from King Street to Holgate Street, will be rebuilt, most of it knocked down so that Highway 99 will become a surface street and will connect with the planned High 519 interchange in SoDo. That will connect 99 to both Interstate 5 and I-90. That work will take from 2009 to 2012.
In the meantime, WSDOT will be shoring up the waterfront section – provided they can stop it from sinking or a quake doesn't knock it down first. Asked how long the existing structure could last with aggressive maintenance and repair (and no quake), engineers estimated another 25 years. But WSDOT's project director, Ron Paanenen, said citizens and policymakers have only about two years to decide how to solve the middle riddle. In engineering terms, time is running out.
How risky is waiting? Another Nisqually-type quake could bring it down, but as Jugesh Kapur, WSDOT's bridge engineering expert (and remember, a viaduct is a bridge) pointed out, it could come down with a smaller quake depending on the duration, location, and magnitude. If the Nisqually (6.8) quake had lasted 15 seconds longer, Kapur said, sections of the Viaduct would certainly have fallen. Seattle seems to experience major quakes every 25 or 30 years.
Wandering around the Viaduct's brutalist concrete structure is enlightening. It's fun to stand still in lanes that one usually occupies at 50 mph. Just south of the Battery tunnel, you get a spectacular view of the historic Austin Bell Building, which rises like a red-brick Alamo above the roadway. Across the highway, you can see how buildings and condos crowd the road; in one place the corner of a building causes a gap in the guardrail, which had to be constructed around it. Any Viaduct solution is going to be improvised and will have to maneuver around and through an existing and mature environment, which means it will likely not be optimal in one way or another. Seattle is no longer a blank slate, no matter how much the utopians might wish for it to be.
You also feel that while the Viaduct is creaky and nearing the end of its years, it has played a role in the organic life of the city which has grown and been shaped around it. There is even moss growing on it. But one is also reminded that it is what it is: a big, man-made structure without much of a life left. Keeping it up, tearing it down, burying it underground: this will make a difference to Seattle, but wrapping solutions in utopian fantasies doesn't serve a city that is more comfortable with taking things step by step.