What if they close the viaduct -- and the world doesn't end?


The next two weeks of your life are going to be hell.

The gates of the viaduct will be shut for (hopefully only) two weeks as our beloved tunnel boring machine, Bertha, moles beneath the elevated Highway 99. With only two major traffic arteries in water bound Seattle, local infrastructure departments — WSDOT, SDOT, Sound Transit, King County Metro, Washington State Ferries, King County water taxis, even the Seattle Police Department — are losing their collective minds with worry that our already congested region cannot handle losing its waterfront route.

And they’re almost surely right that it’s going to be a mess. Private organizations like Inrix, which tracks traffic patterns, and the Urban Renaissance Group seem to agree.

But what if it’s not? What if, by some miracle of modern urbanism, our traffic stays just as frustrating as it already is, but no worse? It would sure make the tunnel look silly, wouldn’t it?

Again, to reiterate, this is probably a fantasy world — the same one in which a protected bike lane on one street connects to a protected bike lane on another and streetcars don’t get caught in traffic. But there is just enough precedent that it’s worth considering.

First, let’s back up. Once upon time, a tunnel — the biggest bored tunnel of its kind in the world! — would have slipped beneath our feet by now and pieces of the viaduct would have joined Galloping Gertie somewhere on history’s scrap pile.

But something happened (A pipe, say Seattle Tunnel Partners! Definitely not a pipe, says WSDOT!) and The Biggest Tunnel Boring Machine in the World has done little but destroy the name of one of Seattle’s most iconic political figures. (At least she’s still got the lovely Bertha Knight Landes room in City Hall.)

After two years of delay, two massive holes — one intentional, the other not — and just a bit of viaduct settlement, the machine is finally ready to take the dive under the viaduct. Of course everyone’s nervous about, well, everything, so the road’s being shut for safety and monitoring.

Insert Viadoom Part 2, the follow-up to the 2011 weeklong closure of the viaduct. The aforementioned government departments have pushed out their message of flexibility and patience in advance of the coming closure. Their message in brief: Work from home, ride the bus, adjust your hours and, above all, be patient.

The worst case scenario is that people sort of pay attention to these warnings for a few days, easing the pressure on roadways inside and around Seattle, but then slip back into old habits a few days later. This is what happened in 2011.

What’s the best case scenario? Nothing changes. It sounds crazy, but there is hope in history. In Los Angeles in 2012, the city prepared immensely for its own Carmaggedon, when a section of I-405 would be closed. But the city responded well and the hype was for naught.

Crosscut’s very own editor-in-chief, Greg Hanscom, explored the de-highway-fication of several major American cities for Grist back in 2012. Citing a report on the state of the American highway, Hanscom pulled out a few key examples.

Most relevant to Seattle are Portland and San Francisco. In 1970, Portland tore out its Harbor Drive along the Willamette River, replacing it with the riverfront park so many enjoy on their way to Voodoo Doughnut. In 1989, San Francisco tore out its earthquake damaged-elevated highway, swapping it for the Embarcadero Boulevard. Not only did land values go up, but neither city experienced additional traffic congestion.

Is it too much to hope Seattle couldn’t have similar results? Probably, but consider for a moment what it will mean if we have no spike in traffic. That cavern beneath Alaskan Way would not look quite so necessary. You have to wonder if WSDOT isn’t secretly hoping for a disastrous couple weeks.

That said, what happens in the next two weeks is not necessarily a sign of how traffic would behave if we just tore down the viaduct. Every transportation department is making special accommodations — adding routes on the water taxi, increasing transit, and actively encouraging people to work from home. But will Viadoom Part 2 offer a glimpse of what could have been with our own version of the Embarcadero? Maybe. Just maybe.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.