Future Of Shaky Viaduct Divides Seattle Residents

Aug 16, 2011
Originally published on August 16, 2011 9:39 pm

Downtown Seattle is one earthquake away from a transportation catastrophe. The city's last big quake in 2001 seriously weakened an elevated highway called the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and engineers say another good shake could bring the double-decker structure down. Although the city has been living with the threat for 10 years, residents and politicians still can't agree what to do about it.

The elevated highway runs along Seattle's downtown waterfront, and when you stand underneath it, it's hard not to think of those pancaked freeways in the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. Elliot Kreeger recently stopped there for a hot dog — right below Seattle's Viaduct of Damocles.

"I'd like it taken down before it falls down," Kreeger says of the viaduct.

Kreeger lives near the waterfront, where you get gorgeous views of the Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound. That is, where the viaduct isn't in the way.

"I've always thought it was a shame that Seattle has not taken advantage of the water and this area. And this definitely is a scar," he says.

But a lot of native Seattleites are kind of fond of the old highway, like hot dog vendor Torben Bernhardt.

"It's OK ... you get a good view when you're driving on it," Bernhardt says. "It's much easier getting home on the viaduct than it is a lot of other ways downtown."

Tunnel Referendum On Ballot

This ambivalence has dragged out the debate about what to do with the viaduct. It's been through all the hoops — a stakeholder committee, City Council, a mayoral veto, a veto override. Finally, there's a plan.

King County Executive Dow Constantine, with a phalanx of business and labor reps, recently made the case for replacing the viaduct with a tunnel under downtown.

"We need to be able to keep people and freight moving," he says.

In theory, the tunnel is going to happen — the Washington Department of Transportation has already signed the contracts — but the fight is still on.

Among the tunnel's opponents are members of the group Protect Seattle Now. The group got a tunnel referendum question on the Aug. 16 primary election ballot. Some of them would like to see the viaduct rebuilt; others don't want a highway at all, just more transit. But they all agree on what they're against:

"The tunnel is the absolutely worst and most expensive alternative," says Anitra Freeman, a member of the group.

Freeman says the price tag — $4 billion or so — is just one reason not to like the tunnel. Yes, the state is paying most of the bill, but the city could get stuck with the overruns. And what happens if the tunneling machine gets stuck under downtown? Or if there's a cave-in under somebody's skyscraper?

"The people I talk to who are against the tunnel have a whole list of reasons, and have really thought about it," she says. "Everybody I've talked to who supports the tunnel, it's all for one reason: 'I'm just tired of this; I want to do something!' "

Tunnel Supporters: Americans Afraid To Think Big

It's not for nothing that the pro-tunnel campaign — funded in part by the tunnel contractors — calls itself Let's Move Forward. Campaign spokesman Alex Fryer says the ongoing resistance to the tunnel reflects the national mood — a time when economic crisis makes voters shrink from big projects.

"Your mentality kind of just starts spinning into a negative vortex where you just can't do anything. You're just paralyzed. You can't make big investments; you can't dream big dreams and make them reality, because you're sinking under this nonstop negative news," he says. "We gotta get out of it!"

Tunnel opponents worry about the opposite mentality.

"They're cutting basic health, they're cutting our K-12 system, they're cutting our highest education system," says spokeswoman Esther Handy. "And we have a transportation department that's saying 'We just need to build something, we've got billions of dollars, let's just do anything.' It's just crazy!"

This week's referendum probably won't be the last word on the issue. In the meantime, the state has installed seismically triggered gates on the viaduct, to try to limit the number of cars that are up there if and when the big one hits.

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Downtown Seattle is one earthquake away from a transportation catastrophe. The city's last big quake weakened an elevated highway called the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and another good shake could bring it down. Despite that urgency, the city has spent the last 10 years trying to decide what to do about the highway.

And as NPR's Martin Kaste explains, Seattle takes one more step today with a referendum on the matter.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

MARTIN KASTE: Standing underneath the Alaskan Way Viaduct, you can't help but think what's happened to similar double-decker highways in earthquake zones like California and Japan.

Elliot Kreeger has stopped here for a hot dog, right below Seattle's Viaduct of Damocles.

ELLIOT KREEGER: I'd like it taken down before it falls down.

KASTE: Kreeger lives near the waterfront, where you get gorgeous views of the Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound - that is, where the viaduct isn't in the way.

KREEGER: I've always thought it was a shame that Seattle has not taken advantage of the water and this area. And this definitely is a scar.

KASTE: But a lot of native Seattleites are also kind of fond of the old highway. Like the hotdog vendor, Torben Bernhardt.

TORBEN BERNHARDT: It's okay. I mean it's like you get a good view when you're driving on it. It's much easier getting home on the viaduct than it is a lot of other ways downtown.

KASTE: This ambivalence has dragged out the debate about what to do about the viaduct. It's been through all the hoops - a stake-holder committee, city council, a mayoral veto, a veto override and, finally, a plan.

DOW CONSTANTINE: I'm here today to re-emphasize my support for the downtown tunnel.

KASTE: County executive Dow Constantine, with a phalanx of business and labor reps, endorsing a state project to build a tunnel under downtown.

CONSTANTINE: We need to be able to keep people and freight moving.

KASTE: In theory, the tunnel is going to happen. The Department of Transportation has already signed the contracts. But, this being Seattle, the fight is still on.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Whoo.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hey.

KASTE: A Hummer waved at us. That's a good sign.

These sign-wavers are with Protect Seattle Now, a group that got a tunnel referendum question on today's primary election ballot. Some of them would like to see the viaduct rebuilt. Others don't want a highway at all, just more transit. But they all agree on what they're against.

ANITRA FREEMAN: The tunnel, it's the absolutely worst and most expensive alternative.

KASTE: Anitra Freeman says the price tag, four billion or so, is just one of the reasons not to like the tunnel. Yes, the state is paying most of the bill, but the city may have to cover the overruns. And what happens if the tunneling machine gets stuck under downtown? Or if there's a cave-in under somebody's skyscraper?

FREEMAN: The people I talk to who are against the tunnel have a whole list of reasons, and have really thought about it. And the people - everybody I talked to who supports the tunnel, it's all for one reason: I'm just tired of this, I want to do something.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

KASTE: It's not for nothing that the pro-tunnel campaign, funded in part by the contractors, calls itself Let's Move Forward. Campaign spokesman Alex Fryer says the ongoing resistance to the tunnel reflects the national mood, a time when economic crisis makes voters shrink from big projects.

ALEX FRYER: Your mentality kind of just starts spinning into a negative vortex where you just - you can't do anything. You're just paralyzed.

KASTE: Tunnel opponents worry about the opposite mentality. Spokeswoman Esther Handy.

ESTHER HANDY: They're cutting basic health. They're cutting our K-12 system. They're cutting our highest education system. And we have a transportation department that's saying: We just need to build something - we've got billions of dollars, let's just do anything. It's just crazy.

KASTE: Today's referendum probably won't be the last word on the issue. In the meantime, the state has installed seismically-triggered gates on the viaduct, in hopes of limiting the number of cars that are up there, if and when the big one hits.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.