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September 12, 2005

San Francisco, Here We Come?

As Joel Connelly points out in today's P-I, there's no guarantee that I-912 -- the Washington State initiative that would roll back the most recent hike in state gas taxes -- will pass.  That said, repeal of the gas tax looks pretty likely, in no small part because of the surprisingly tepid response from the state's business community, which had previously been outspoken in its support for higher gas taxes and transportation spending.

Come November, if the new gas taxes are repealed, the $2 billion in state money currently slated for Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct will simply evaporate.  And as Mayor Nickels has pointed out, without that money there's essentially no chance that the Viaduct will be rebuilt:

If Seattle doesn't get the $2 billion approved by the Washington Legislature to help replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the city will tear down the deteriorating elevated highway anyway because it is unsafe, said Mayor Greg Nickels.

So it's perhaps a good time to point out what just happened in San Francisco:  the city just opened a new 6-lane boulevard that -- get this -- replaced an elevated urban highway.  This is the second time the city has replaced an elevated freeway with a boulevard.  The first was the waterfront Embarcadero Freeway, which was torn down after it was damaged by the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.  The city put up a waterfront boulevard in place of the highway -- a move that, according to most observers, revitalized a waterfront formerly depressed by the blight of a freeway.  And city residents liked the results enough that they decided to do the same thing to a stretch of the Central Freeway smack in the middle of downtown.

Obviously, the Alaskan Way Viaduct plays a different role in Seattle's transportation system than the Embarcadero and Central freeways did in San Francisco's.  But that city's highway removals do serve as important reminders that, no, a big-city's transportation system doesn't necessarily grind to a halt when you put the budget for downtown highways on a strict diet. 

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Remember that groups like the People's Waterfront Coalition www.peopleswaterfront.org are already advocating for this approach. Soon, they will be showing renderings showing a transformed waterfront sans highway.

Posted by: Brice Maryman | Sep 12, 2005 6:11:08 PM

Seattle as a city gives lip service to sustainability. We’re all talk with no action. Taxing gasoline seems, at first glance, a progressive thing to do but in this case it’s more of the status quo. Removing a freeway is the single most effective thing we can do to foster denser land-use patterns in the region. Finally, the Alaskan Way viaduct is as unnecessary as it is ugly and dangerous and Mayor Nickle’s tunnel alternative is just lipstick on the pig. I-12 is the best way to kill the project for good. We can make like ‘Frisco and build a boulevard on our waterfront.

Join me this November in voting for my first republican cause ever. Vote yes on I-12

Posted by: Paul Chasan | Sep 12, 2005 10:03:39 PM

Uhh... make that vote yes on I-912

Posted by: Paul Chasan | Sep 12, 2005 10:28:16 PM

Paul, how will we get funding for replacement transportation? Are the receiving street capacities adequate to handle the additional truck traffic? [delivery trucks can't take the bus] What plan is in place to offset trips per day? As you well know, San Francisco had sort of a plan for the additional traffic from the Embarcadero - what is Seattle doing that is similar to SFO?

And I agree with you about the lip service to sustainability, sir.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Sep 13, 2005 8:31:03 AM

Danno, great questions, hope this is helpful:

In an ideal world, we (Seattleites) should pick the solution that makes most sense for the future city they want to become, and THEN find the funding that can be used for to build it. Not the other way around, where we troll for handouts for highways and shape our project to fit their constraints. This is an especially painful and difficult new reality to accept, but we all have to. There is no free money, since the federal gov't isn't handing it out like it used to. Projects have to be funded locally, and built within our means.

The No-Highway /Distributed Flow solution is cheaper by a long shot, and therefore easier to raise funding for. With RTID, local City investment, perhaps a LID for local property owners, and some smaller state contribution, it's totally feasible. (Especially if the seawall is unbundled from the highway, and we get the Army Corp, the Port, and the city to all contribute to that.)

There is currently excess capacity in the downtown grid and with a few tweaks, that capacity can be expanded upon. Currently our grid is optimized for funneling cars onto and off the freeway, yet we can make simple changes to optimize it to carry through trips.

We can be much more creative about how we move freight through the city. One way is to use the express lanes in I-5 for freight (and transit). The vast bulk of Port Traffic is trying to get to I-5. Finally we establish freight priority arterials in the city and improve signage connections etc…

The trips on the viaduct would be handled by:
1) Transit
2) Excess capacity in the downtown grid (and added capacity with simple tweaks to the grid)
3) Some trips will simply disappear. This is a kind of reverse latent demand effect. Latent demand is the curious phenomena where adding road capacity ultimately increases congestion. Countless studies have shown that if you remove freeway capacity, some trips do disappear.
4) As for a plan to handle traffic without the viaduct let’s start with the emergency closure plan for if there is another earthquake. If WS-DOT feels we can do without the behemoth for years of construction than why do we need it at all.

A Final note: When they proposed tearing down the Embarcadero Freeway, the traffic engineers howled. They predicted the same gridlock / anarchy / Armageddon in SF as WS-DOT tells us will happen here. San Franciscans myopically voted to keep the freeway, but then the earthquake destroyed it.

A decade later, they’ve just torn down their second freeway and are making noises about tearing down a third. People in that city are incredibly proud of their achievements and we can be too.

Posted by: Paul Chasan | Sep 13, 2005 11:11:03 PM

P.S. on transit:

Regardless of what happens to the monorail, we need some kind of fixed rail transit in the corridor. Once again I stress to you:

We should decide what kind of place we want to live in and build it. First we do the visioning then we say to the engineers: you have to accommodate X trips with transit in this corridor with this budget.

What we should not do is allow WS-DOT to tell us how we are going to solve our transportation woes. We can neither afford their bloated highway project economically or ecologically.

Posted by: Paul Chasan | Sep 13, 2005 11:27:48 PM

Paul is a fine Urban Designer, and in these replies I see lots of job securing design solutions. Be sure to include some woody plants in there, willya, so I can have a job specifying species and space. :o)

But to the point, I-912 provides transit funding for more than just the AWV. I'm counting on some of those relatively meager funds to do some long-delayed infrastructure maintenance around here. Funds that may be cut by yessing I-912 include non-motorized programs like Safe Routes to Schools and Pedestrian & Bicycle Safety.

I can't tax because of Timmy Eyman and I-747's restrictions (less than inflation, never mind health care costs which we are told may increase 10.5% this year), and I can't take my General Fund below reserve levels to do long-delayed maintenance (because we had other funding taken away by the car tab repeal). So what do I do in this ill-thought out era of starve th' gummint?

IOW, in this state, we want infrastructure but we don't fund it. Sure, defunding autocentric infrastructure may encourage other modes of transport, but the most flexible mode of mass transit runs on the same infrastructure as cars.

I-912 is merely a mechanism to continue to defund government. We have a recent example of what happens when we defund government, and the world is looking at us in shock. Is this the sort of society we want to live in?

Better to pass I-900 Paul and make sure the money isn't wasted than to ensure no money gets here at all, if'n you ask me.

BTW, I want the viaduct to come down. It's hideous. Not funding I-912 isn't the solution to the horror, however.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Sep 14, 2005 9:34:23 AM

I have mixed feelings on this. I'd like to see _something_ derail the tunnel project; it irritates me that the city government can go scrounge up billions of dollars to rebuild less than one mile of highway, while ignoring the problem of urban rapid transit (or worse, since they seem to have a grudge against the monorail project).

If 99 is so important that we have to spend billions of dollars and undergo a decade of construction to replace a mile of it, how exactly is it that we are going to be able to survive a decade of construction in which we have no route 99? If we can reroute traffic well enough to keep Seattle's economy working during the construction period, what do we need the new highway for? Why not just reroute the traffic, knock down the viaduct, skip the construction, and spend the money on something that will actually get us somewhere in the long run?

At the same time I'm really sick of all these half-assed government-crippling initiatives, and I think the gas tax is a really good idea. America has gone to amazing lengths to externalize the costs of auto travel, and now the cities we have built around our cheap cars are choking us to death. It's well past time to stop subsidizing highways and gasoline; a gas tax isn't exactly the same thing as eliminating the subsidy, but it's close enough to be a good start. I-912 is as bad an idea as a popular initiative gets.

I'm going to vote against I-912, but I'm going to be really irritated if people succeed in shutting down the monorail project while the mayor goes ahead with his ridiculous tunnel, and ten years from now we're back in the same fix all over again, but with more people and more debt.

Posted by: Mars Saxman | Sep 14, 2005 11:08:05 AM

Right on, Mars Saxman. Yes tunnel and no monorail seems to be where the city administration is headed, and that would be disastrous for future Seattle. We all have got to motivate everyone who cares at all about reducing car dependence to hammer on City Council and the Mayor. We need mass transit Ballard to West Seattle ASAP, and we need lightrail from Northgate to Sea-tac ASAP. We need to tear down the crumbling viaduct and rebuild most of the seawall ASAP because they're pretty serious threats to public safety. We should spend what little money we do have getting at the capacity already in the grid and getting transit going so we can live without the viaduct. We don't have the luxury of arguing about this for another 20 years without doing anything; that's got to be clear to politicians by now.

Posted by: cary | Sep 14, 2005 2:15:05 PM

Mars -

Nice thoughts.

My take on the gas tax: since the Washington constitution actually *requires* all gas tax money to be used for highways, the gas tax is, in effect, a subsidy for highway construction.

In other words - rather than internalizing the cost of driving, the gas tax may be simply creating more externalities -- more miles driven, more ghgs, more noise, more collisions, etc.

Plus, there's no guarantee that the state won't continue to contribute general revenue funds to road construction, maintenance and operations.

So even though the state raised the gas tax, that doesn't necessarily mean that we've internalizing the costs of driving.

Of course, that isn't prima facie evidence that the gas tax hike was bad public policy. Personally, I haven't made up my mind yet; there were some good things in the transportation package too.

Lastly -- the gas tax contributes $2 billion to the Viaduct; a regional transportation package, slated for next fall, might add some more; the city's committed some money, the Port could kick in some, and so could the Corps of Engineers. So with the gas tax plus expected add-ons, there may still not be enough to build a tunnel. But there might be enough to rebuild an aerial highway -- an option that seems to be out of favor with the mayor right now, but might not always be.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Sep 14, 2005 3:15:48 PM

I second the motion on Mars' nice post. Well said.

I'll shut up about this after this post, but:

It is important to realize I-912 is an anti-tax inititative, period.

I-912 wasn't created because folk were mad at the cash grab for the AWV, I-912 wasn't created because autocentric infrastructure creates externalities and social injustice, I-912 wasn't created by someone in Spokane who is mad Seattle gits all th' funds, I-912 was created because a segment of our society thinks gummint = bad and they aren't paying tax into welfare and programs that don't appeal to their ideology. Sorry to be so blunt on this gentle web site.

We have roads to pave out here - we're behind because we have less and less money to work with every year. Yes, I'm looking for multimodal funds, yes car = bad, but my chasing after grants to place ped infrastructure next year and reducing TPD by x% in y time isn't going to get my asphalt repaved any sooner. And I assure you every town in this state with a human population under 25K is saying the same thing. I won't catch up on my backlog with these funds, either.

I can't even imagine what the folks in Oregon are thinking - roll up the sidewalks and let the property rights folks figger out how to deliver services? Can't wait to see that.

And any tax = bad lurkers out there who think I need to work smarter with what I have can come down here any time and spend a day helping me gain efficiencies or just filling out some grant paperwork.

Um...ahem. Lots of pressure this time of year.


But the AWV is hideous and should come down. Or maybe keep it up and have an elevated park.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Sep 14, 2005 4:50:43 PM

Yeah! And make that an elevated park with bicycle lanes to avoid all the traffic below!

Posted by: Michelle Parker | Sep 14, 2005 5:27:20 PM

You make the point that even if we get rid of the gas tax, the state can still contribute from the general fund, so lowering the gas tax doesn't necessarily lead to less highways. Also, local and regional governments may step in, but they can't enact a gas tax. So in a way one could argue that it's better to use the gas tax to cover our highway system rather than have other taxes pay for it.

More to the point, what would you have done about the 520 bridge? Also, I'm a bit uneasy about the PWC plan. For starters, you should read WSDOT's study of the Embarcadero freeway, available in their library (I've linked to it.) The Embarcadero freeway traffic did not disappear and is now using the downtown street grid. That's fine, but Seattle is much narrower and has much less excess capacity on its streets compared to San Francisco. The PWC's own numbers show that all of our north/south street capacity will be needed and then on top of that some traffic will have to disappear. (Note that there is no reason for traffic to disappear unless there is congestion on the streets the traffic would otherwise be using. Also, there is plenty of capacity on Aurora, Elliot, the West Seattle Bridge, etc, that will just disappear when getting to downtown, so these roads will certainly be able to fill our downtown grid to capacity.) My point is that this plan makes the downtown grid the bottleneck in North/South transportation through Seattle. The traffic on our surface streets will make Seattle a much less nice place to live, and it will slow down buses considerably making them a less attractive transportation option. I'm fine with planning to reduce traffic somewhat, but I'm not fine with a plan to completely fill the capacity of the north/south streets through the city.

Posted by: Eric L | Sep 14, 2005 7:11:24 PM