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October 10, 2005

They've Got A Bridge To Sell You

Noted in passing, a Seattle Times article with a mildly galling headline: Rebuild or replace the viaduct?  So, what then, are those the only two options on the table?  Obviously, no.  But it's hard to know that from the Times' coverage.

The article highlights the musings of a retired structural engineer and I-912 supporter who claims that the Viaduct could be patched up for the low, low cost of $200 to $300 million (perhaps using Viaduct tape), as opposed to a minimum of $2.5 billion for a whole new structure.  His reasoning:  only one section of the Viaduct needs to be replaced. "We think the rest is simply OK."  (One hopes that "I think it's ok" doesn't become the default health and safety standard for highway projects.)

Meanwhile, engineers who've actually...you know...studied the issue say that this is bunk, and the whole thing could come down in a big quake.  Repairing the Viaduct to meet reasonable safety standards is nearly as expensive as building a whole new one, and would extend the structure's working life by only a few decades -- which makes the high cost hard to justify.

Now, I don't personally know whether this retired engineer guy is onto something, or just a crank.  I suspect the latter.  But, quite clearly, the Times thought that the thoughts of a rogue engineer (I didn't know there was such a thing) were worth front-page coverage. So when do they start covering the rest of the debate -- including the people who think that replacing the Viaduct's capacity is still too expensive at $2.5 billion, let alone $4 billion for a tunnel?

Update:  It's a good idea to read the comments here -- seems like I was pretty unfair to suggest that the retired engineer, Neil Twelker, might be a crank.  Apparently, he's quite a renowned figure, and an exceptionally well qualified engineer.

And, just to be clear, I intended the title "They've got a bridge to sell you" to refer to the Times' coverage -- which seemed to assume that the two poles of the Viaduct debate were "repair" or "rebuild" -- and not to the engineers themselves.  Sorry if that seemed like a swipe at the engineers.

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Comments

I wouldn't be so quick to diss either Vic Gray or Neil Twelker. They are now retired but were very well-respected professionsals.

In fact, rather than dissing them, I'd listen up very carefully, rather than buying into the conventional wisdom of WSDOT -- the people who took four years to come up with anything even passing for an Emergency Closure Plan for the Viaduct.

And I'd consider drastically rewriting this post, in fact, as it doesn't reflect well on your own knowledge, which I generally respect.

Posted by: David Sucher | Oct 10, 2005 4:43:02 PM

Dr. Twelker is one of the best foundation/geotechnical engineers in the entire country. He's not someone who should be so easily dismissed. He practiced geotechnical engineering for nearly 60 years before retiring, most of it in the lower Puget Sound basin. He was responsible for what is still the largest earthen dam in the world --Chief Jospeph Dam; and one of the largest caissons constructed in the world --in the St. Lawrence Seaway. He came up with the technical solution that made the Mt. Baker tunnel construction econoomically feasible for the drilling contractor. In sum, this modest man is very nearly a genious w/ respect to geotechnical engineering. And he has no agenda ---like a bridge to sell you --or a bureaucratic fiefdom to expand. Vic Gray I don't know professionally--but if Neil Twelker respects him, I have no doubts about him.

Posted by: Randall Spaan | Oct 10, 2005 5:01:23 PM

As an outsider looking in (I live in Eugene), I find this debate fascinating -- especially since I grew up in Seattle and still use the viaduct when I visit family and friends there.

According to David Sucher and Randall Spaan's comments, Victor Gray and his associate engineer, Neil Twelker, make a formidable pair. But, according to the Seattle Times article, the team of engineers that Washington state hired in 2002, through the American Society of Civil Engineers, "looked at the Gray and Twelker report and found that some of the ideas had merit but concluded that the retrofit proposed by the two engineers would not work."

"It may be effective in keeping certain sections of the viaduct intact, but it will not serve the purpose of making the structure safe overall," the engineers said.

But, in my humble opinion from Eugene, at least the engineers are open to listening to each others ideas. Now, if they also listened to The People's Waterfront Coalition (which Clark also linked to), then all together, they'd really make a formidable team with a beautiful waterfront, viaduct or no viaduct.

And shore up that seawall as well.

Posted by: Michelle Parker | Oct 10, 2005 7:41:52 PM

Seawall clarification:

Ted Bell, who chaired the civil-engineering group, said that "any work done on the viaduct would have to include a large part of the seawall because if the wall collapsed, that could take out the viaduct."

Posted by: Michelle Parker | Oct 10, 2005 7:57:30 PM

I live here in Seattle and I say screw the Viaduct!

It is the ugliest waterfront highway I can think of in the U.S. and the people who use it the most don't want to pay an extra dime a gallon to keep it up so screw them. I don't remember any carping when the price of gas went from $1.50 to $2.50, but 9.5 cents will absolutely kill us it seems.

So I say let's starve the beast and tear that wall down.

Posted by: Jason | Oct 10, 2005 8:05:03 PM

Michele,
have you read the field studies on the seawall?
I suggest that you do so before you take anyone's word for granted.

Posted by: David Sucher | Oct 10, 2005 8:20:43 PM

Good question, David.

No, I haven't read the field studies on the seawall. However, according to the Seattle Times article, it sounds like Victor Gray has read them, and he also concludes that the seawall needs attention (which is, then, what convinced me that it does, too, since he's an expert engineer and I'm not). Though, he does think that "the seawall work should be separated from the viaduct and have its own funding source."

Posted by: Michelle Parker | Oct 10, 2005 8:35:17 PM

Ok, based on what David and Randall have said -- and I've no reason to doubt them -- it looks like I was at least hasty -- or, more likely, simply wrong. It's a silly bit of writing, and I probably shouldn't have posted it.

Not that I really deserve a chance to defend myself here -- but I had a long chat last week with an engineer who's spent much of his career specializing on soil liquefaction during severe earthquakes. I don't know about his qualifactions, either, really -- I've got no background to judge that sort of thing. But he was both a nice guy and a serious geek, in a good & confidence-inducing way. His opinion is that the whole viaduct is simply a disaster waiting to happen -- and should come down asap. Which has started to push my thinking from "let's take the time to make the *right* decision" to "maybe we should start by taking the existing structure down, then decide when/how/whether to replace it."

So that was the frame of mind I was in when I read the article. Clearly, Prof. Twelker's views -- especially the soft-pedalled "I think it's ok" -- seemed clearly at odds with the professional opinion of both WSDOT engineers (who, of course, have institutional pressures to high-ball the risk) and at least one soil liquefaction geek with no real stake in the issue. That doesn't make Twelker & Gray wrong, obviously, but it does put them squarely in a minority -- which made me wonder why, exactly, the Times gives that view front page play, but not other minority views on the issue?

That's no justifcation for a wrong-headed post, though.

David, it might make sense for me to simply delete the post, especially the "rogue engineer" bit. But I think I'll leave it up -- both as a reminder to myself that I should really, really think twice about hitting "post" when I'm feeling cranky and dyspeptic, and as evidence to other readers that I can be as unfair and biased as anyone.

Randall - just to be clear, the title of the post was intended as a reference to the Times -- who seem to see the necessity of a Viaduct as a foregone conclusion -- not to the engineers. Reading it over, that's not at all clear. All around bad job on my part, no?

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Oct 10, 2005 9:04:01 PM

I tend to agree with Jason's post about starving the beast. The Viaduct is not only ugly, but unnecessary. Proper transportation planning would make removing the viaduct relatively painless for the traffic flow into, through, and around downtown; would increase the amount of transit used, and decrease the number of single-occupant vehicles; and would give us a waterfront that would actually be worth visiting.

It may be that the seawall needs attention; but then again, if the highway is removed, then the main reason for having the seawall may go away. There are admittedly some buildings that still need protection from soil liquefaction in the event of an earthquake, but I suspect that a seawall rebuild to protect just the vulnerable buildings rather than a whole highway would be a whole lot easier and cheaper.

Vote for I-912 to repeal the gas tax increase and repeal our dependancy on roads in the downtown core, and thereby improve transportation in Seattle.

Posted by: Roy Smith | Oct 10, 2005 9:24:38 PM

I started my mea culpa before my daughter went to bed, finished it afterwards -- so I didn't see any of the cross-talk. By all means, folks, keep up the chatter! Like Michelle, I find the waterfront debate fascinating and strange -- and well worth every bit of attention that gets paid to it.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Oct 10, 2005 9:29:52 PM

>Vote for I-912 to repeal the gas tax increase and repeal our dependancy on roads in the downtown core, and thereby improve transportation in Seattle.<

Repealing I-912 also means worsening transportation _outside_ of Seattle: SR167 won't get its HOT/HOV lanes if 912 passes, f'r instance.

Just because $2B is going to the viaduct - which can get changed - doesn't mean everyone else has to suffer.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Oct 11, 2005 10:24:03 AM

I have also been intrigued about the waterfront/viaduct situation and have blogged on it with growing skepticism:

http://citycomfortsblog.typepad.com/cities/2003/05/seattledesign_v.html

http://citycomfortsblog.typepad.com/cities/2003/05/alaska_way_viad.html

http://citycomfortsblog.typepad.com/cities/2003/05/alaskan_way_sea.html

http://citycomfortsblog.typepad.com/cities/2003/05/location_of_sea.html

http://citycomfortsblog.typepad.com/cities/2005/04/here_it_is_four.html

Posted by: David Sucher | Oct 11, 2005 12:21:13 PM

I live in Seattle and absolutely love the viaduct. To me, it would be worth repairing the current structure even if it cost _more_ than building a stupid tunnel.

Every time I come home (to belltown) from the airport, I'm almost get weepy from the beautiful view from the viaduct. It really is one of my favorite parts of this city. I also don't think the object itself is ugly at all -- I think it adds interest to an otherwise somewhat pedestrian cityscape.

Posted by: Chuck | Oct 11, 2005 4:23:09 PM

>>Every time I come home (to belltown) from the airport, I'm almost get weepy from the beautiful view from the viaduct. It really is one of my favorite parts of this city. I also don't think the object itself is ugly at all -- I think it adds interest to an otherwise somewhat pedestrian cityscape.<<

It is fairly clear to me from this post that you like the viaduct because you like to drive around the city. As someone who does not own a car, to me the viaduct is nothing but a huge, ugly obstacle on the walk between downtown and the waterfront. Also, I think you would find that Seattle has a very interesting cityscape if you would get out of your car and experience it on foot.

Posted by: Roy Smith | Oct 12, 2005 1:23:19 PM

>>Repealing I-912 also means worsening transportation _outside_ of Seattle: SR167 won't get its HOT/HOV lanes if 912 passes, f'r instance.

Just because $2B is going to the viaduct - which can get changed - doesn't mean everyone else has to suffer.<<

This is one of those debates that gets me a little cranky, for two reasons:

1) Most of the state outside Seattle doesn't seem to care much about Seattle's problems, so why should I care about the rest of the state's problems?

2) In my opinion, anybody who structures their lives in a way that requires getting on a freeway in order to get to work deserves whatever inconvenience results from that decision.

Posted by: Roy Smith | Oct 12, 2005 1:26:49 PM

>Most of the state outside Seattle doesn't seem to care much about Seattle's problems, so why should I care about the rest of the state's problems?In my opinion, anybody who structures their lives in a way that requires getting on a freeway in order to get to work deserves whatever inconvenience results from that decision.<

That would be most of the people who work for a living, Roy.

They are looking for houses they can afford, which means distances from the CBD. It's how it works - it's called "drive 'til you qualify", and our society causes this inconvenience. Some are trying to correct these causes.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Oct 12, 2005 2:55:46 PM

Clark,

The irony of this post is that the title -- "They've Got A Bridge To Sell You" -- which does appear to be referring to Gray and Twelker, should be about all the well-meaning but muddles advocates of tunneling, such as Allied Arts.

Posted by: David Sucher | Oct 13, 2005 7:45:15 AM

One last thing -- many people do not get to the comments and so your mea culpa will go unnoticed. If you do indeed want to keep the post up as written as a reminder to yourself -- and I can appreciate the advice as I have posted far, far stupider things, myself -- then you might want to post a small update or direct people to the comments.

Posted by: David Sucher | Oct 13, 2005 7:47:32 AM

That would be most of the people who work for a living, Roy.

That's true, but aren't we all trying to find ways to flip the transportation equation over so that most of the people who work for a living find it lessconvenient to live far away and drive to work than to live close and walk or use some kind of mass transit system? Yes, half the problem is that we need to redesign our cities so that there are more places to live comfortably near downtown, but the other half is that we need to stop subsidizing long-distance commutes by investing so much money in the infrastructure that makes them convenient.

Posted by: Mars Saxman | Oct 13, 2005 8:50:20 AM

>That's true, but aren't we all trying to find ways to flip the transportation equation over so that most of the people who work for a living find it less convenient to live far away and drive to work than to live close and walk or use some kind of mass transit system? <

Absolutely. I completely agree and our little town here hopefully will end up being laid out to support non-motorized transportation. [ http://cascadiascorecard.typepad.com/blog/2005/09/ped_spread_inst.html ]

(my kingdom for HTML in comments, BTW)

However, today and in the short-term future, population growth will continue in the sub/exurbs and be dependent upon the automobile.

Society is a big ship to turn, and the expectation for many is to be able to live far out and drive to work. In southern King and this part of Pierce Co, likely there will be 50K TPD going toward Tacoma and Seattle, fueled by planned future development. Nothing is going to change that expectation until we get $5-6.00 gas.

You can't take something away from people. The infrastructure needs to be built for this expectation, and _at the same time_ we need to do something to turn the ship. Monorail debacles (sorry Kristina if you're reading this) don't help the case for transit in this region.

Until it's OK to fund transit infrastructure [transit that goes somewhere], we're done stuck with whut we's got, as it's just swell for many to sit in their cars for 2 hours a day.

The first thing, in my view, is to make it OK to have transit, then make it OK to fund it [perhaps via the t-word]. That takes leadership, and I'll be glad to drag a box of bats out there for someone to step up to the plate. Heck, I'll even pitch again, despite my torn rotator cuff.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Oct 13, 2005 10:19:37 AM

About the argument that we have to keep spending on huge extravagant road infrastructure now, to keep us happy until we've persuaded ourselves to *also* invest large amounts on transit -- well, that only makes sense to me if I also assume that we'll be at least as rich in the next fifty years as we are now. And, while I don't think our future wealth is impossible, I can see a lot of ways in which it could fail to happen and we'll seriously regret big piles of sunk cost that we can't heat (private) or afford the gas to use (public).

Of course, "Build transit now so we can ride it in the Second Depression" has got to be the least saleable political slogan ever. Rails in their various counts and weights at least look retro-elegant.

Me, I would like bus rapid transit, not least because one can build working prototypes without committing forever to their routes.

Posted by: clew | Oct 13, 2005 3:43:51 PM

"that only makes sense to me if I also assume that we'll be at least as rich in the next fifty years as we are now."

I don't think we'll be as rich in 50 years.

But, clew, your paraphrasing of my 'argument' misses the mark:

"we have to keep spending on huge extravagant road infrastructure now, to keep us happy until we've persuaded ourselves to *also* invest large amounts on transit"

That's too narrow. My argument is: people, now, today, drive out here to get the most house they can afford. They'll sit confined in a metal box for 2 hours a day to do so. Many won't fund transit because they can drive. I don't know where the transit money will come from, but it sure ain't coming from yessing 912. Likely this will encourage more cuts.

It would be really bad - a political non-starter - to suddenly tell folks that they can't drive out here to look for an affordable house anymore.

In 5 years, people, still, will continue to drive out here to get the most house they can afford (there are few near the CBD). They'll continue sit in a metal box for 2 hours a day to do so.

That's how it is. Many, many people want houses on a lot, in a suburb, where they can send their kid to school. They won't take transit unless it's convenient [HINT: if I want to ride the bus to, say, SafeCo field from my house, it's 2 hours one way if I don't go during rush hour. That's not convenient. I've taken the bus quite a few times, and it's easy to miss connections.].

These folks will be driving unless transit magically comes out here, funded by the money we have now, with no new taxes, and it's convenient.

Today, now, at this moment, many State Routes need capacity expansion. This will not go away magically in 5 years, unless there is some event that precipitates out-migration.

I'm an Environmental Planner. I want to reduce fossil fool combustion for many reasons.

But I can't change this unless I understand fundamental motivations of reg'lar folk. And reg'lar folk's fundamental motivations, today, now, are for a house on a decent-sized lot within a 'reasonable' drive from work. I have to work with that starting premise.

Now, the Boeing folk that live in Pierce Co and commute to Everett, or SE King Co and commute to Everett - they are making that drive. It's reasonable to them, because of their mortgages.

So, returning to the point: canning the gas tax will ensure traffic gets worse, without offering funding for alternatives. Just so some folk don't have to pay no ding-dang taxes.

I repeat: canning the gas tax will ensure traffic gets worse, without offering funding for alternatives.

Yes on I-912 cans funding for HOV lanes and capacity expansion.

So, canning the gas tax will take away a multimidal option without offering funding for alternatives, such as transit. Maybe the market will take care of that.

Hope is not a plan.

Best,

D

Posted by: Dan Staley | Oct 13, 2005 5:06:25 PM

>>In my opinion, anybody who structures their lives in a way that requires getting on a freeway in order to get to work deserves whatever inconvenience results from that decision.<

That would be most of the people who work for a living, Roy.

They are looking for houses they can afford, which means distances from the CBD. It's how it works - it's called "drive 'til you qualify", and our society causes this inconvenience. Some are trying to correct these causes.<<

I have lived in eight different cities in my working life, and have never lived in a place where I had to get on the freeway to get to work, and usually lived within bicycling distance of my workplace. This includes Seattle, where my family is considerably below the median family income for this region and I work in downtown. Instead of "driving till I qualified" I instead realized that I in fact did not need to own a 3500 square foot house in order to have suitable housing for my family.

Bottom line: saying houses are cheaper in the suburbs reflects a lifestyle choice, not a necessity.

Posted by: Roy Smith | Oct 13, 2005 8:57:35 PM

>Bottom line: saying houses are cheaper in the suburbs reflects a lifestyle choice, not a necessity. <

I fully agree. Absolutely. I never owned a vehicle when I lived in Wallingford. It was great.

It's too bad that so many people feel that they have to self-sort and move way out here to get what they want (quietude, open space, escape from the dirty city, slower lifestyle, not so much crowding, likely better public schools, peace of mind, less crime). If we could have all that in the city, people would live there instead of out here.

I don't know how to take away something from someone. Until gas is $6-7/gal and folk can't afford to sit in a metal box for two hours, they are going to drive, because we don't fund an alternative.

We _can't_ fund an alternative, because we can't even fund repairs to existing infrastructure. We're defunding local gummint, which usually takes the risk for transportation investment (see any free market mass transit out there?).

Regards, Roy

Posted by: Dan Staley | Oct 14, 2005 8:23:48 AM

"They won't take transit unless it's convenient"

That's true, but "convenient" is relative. Allowing highway traffic to continue getting worse is one way we could tip the balance in favor of mass transit.

You seem to expect that we can simultaneously support (and even expand) a highway system which makes solo, auto-based commuting easy, *and* build a brand new mass transit system so incredibly efficient that it draws people away from the shiny, high-speed freeways. In a perfect world, perhaps that's what we would do: but in this world I can't imagine where we would get the money for such a set of projects.

We need to approach the problem from both ends. We need to spend less money on highways and more on mass transit: less money on highways means that long-distance suburban highway-based commuting will steadily grow less appealing, while a transit system we actually take seriously will tip the economic equation back toward in-city living.

"Today, now, at this moment, many State Routes need capacity expansion."

Why? Why not let them remain congested, and let the people who moved out to the suburbs deal with the consequences of their decisions? Why do we need to continue subsidizing cheap suburban housing by building and expanding the infrastructure that supports it? The problem is big enough already: let's stop spending money on making it grow. If the highways clog, horror stories about endless commutes will grow common, and perhaps people will start thinking twice before moving to cheap houses many miles from their jobs.

Posted by: Mars Saxman | Oct 14, 2005 8:28:56 AM