April 19, 2006

Rush Hour, By the Numbers

Sorry to be so Seattle-centric...but this post about Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct got me thinking. If the Viaduct is closed--whether for construction of a tunnel or a new aerial highway, or to make way for green space and a surface street--what happens to rush hour?  Does traffic in downtown Seattle get hopelessly snarled, and stay that way for at least 3 years?  Or do city transportation have some reasonable options for keeping people moving through the downtown core, even without a Viaduct?

Traffic studies show that the Viaduct carries about 105,000 daily trips. But most of those trips are at off-peak times when the surface streets have plenty of extra capacity. Sure, a trip along the Viaduct-less corridor would take a little longer than it does now; but the steet grid could easily handle the load.

But at rush hour -- particularly the afternoon -- there's precious little extra capacity on the city streets. So the thorniest problem that traffic planners will have to face will be accomodating rush hour trips on the street grid and I-5, during the busiest part of the day.

So, how many trips is that, exactly? And what are the options for dealing with the added load?

Earlier this week, the helpful and responsive folks at the Seattle Department of Transportation sent me some data that may help shed some light. As far as I can tell, it boils down to this: without the Viaduct, transportation planners will have to figure out how to accomodate the equivalent of 11,000 rush-hour car trips through the busiest part of downtown. Can they do it?

First, the data. (Feel free to skip the next few paragraphs if you're not a traffic geek.) Each year, the city collects data on traffic flows on the major arterials around Seattle, including the Viaduct and its on- and off-ramps. The data include figures for average weekday traffic, plus the traffic volume during the one-hour morning and afternoon peaks. Based on those figures, it seems like there are about 12,000 total vehicle trips on the Viaduct during busiest one-hour afternoon rush hour peak.

Now, without a Viaduct, some of those peak-hour trips will take quite a bit longer -- so people will shift their trips to other times of day, other modes, or forego them altogether. Based on published estimates of how much an increase in travel time decreases travel demand, it looks like demand for car trips may drop from 12,000 trips to 10,000 during the afternoon peak hour.

But some of those trips already begin or end in the Pioneer Square-to-Belltown corridor. A car that currently gets on at the Belltown northbound exit may have travelled through Belltown or downtown. So the peak number of cars added to surface streets after the Viaduct is closed will be somewhat less than 10,000.

To get a finer-grained look at where the traffic problems might be most severe, you can break down the trips on the former viaduct corridor into zones--Belltown, Downtown Core, Pioneer Square/Stadium, etc.--and look at the actual increase in travel demand in each zone. To me, it seems that the real pinch occurs in the Downtown Core--roughly, from Yesler in the south through Stewart in the north, and Alaskan Way on the west through Boren on the east. That area is already pretty packed during rush hour. With no Viaduct, peak-hour travel demand will increase by somewhere between 6,100 and 7,200 trips. (Note, this is a somewhat conservative estimate -- I'm assuming that some former Viaduct trips will "disappear"--i.e., move to other times or destinations--because they'll take too long; but I'm not assuming the same for trips already on the surface streets.)

So that's the one-hour peak. Over the course of a rush hour that lasts at least an hour and a half, that means that transportation officials will have to worry about accomodating the demand for some 11,000 addtional trips in the busiest part of downtown, during the busiest part of the day.

So, 11,000 extra trips: is that a lot or a little? It's a lot less than 105,000. But in my mind, it's still a lot of trips. The existing street grid may be able to hold a few more cars than it currently does. Some tweaks to traffic enforcement ("don't block the box"), elimination of some street parking during rush hour, and so forth may increase throughput a bit more. Still, even with those improvements, the demand for 11,000 extra trips could really jam up the afternoon rush hour. Even if people eventually adjust to the congestion -- by changing schedules or jobs, or switching to transit -- the early months could be brutal.

But if you add in transit improvements, accomodating 11,000 downtown trips seems much more achievable. The bus system already carries 31,000 people out of downtown during the afternoon peak. So getting 11,000 people to shift from driving alone to the bus would boost rush-hour transit ridership by a little more than a third -- tough, maybe, but not inconceivable.

And in theory, at least, there's ample capacity to handle that many trips in the bus tunnel, which is now closed for service. Once the tunnel reopens, it will be able to handle about 9,000 rush hour trips that right now are travelling on Third Ave. And when light rail starts running through the tunnel, its capacity could grow by a third or more. (To my surprise, it seems that the tunnel may have been underutilized; one estimate, a few years old now, is that the tunnel could carry 18,000 trips per hour (scroll down a bit to find the claim), with everyone seated, in buses alone. If that's really possible, then the tunnel alone would be meet the post-Viaduct demand.)

And then there's Third Ave., which is currently closed to cars during rush hour. If Third reverts to being predominantly a car corridor, it'll handle at most 2,000 vehicle trips during rush hour. But if it's kept closed to cars, and is used to handle an extended bus schedule, it can handle at least three times as many passengers.

So, there are three options -- (1) surface street and traffic enforcement tweaks, (2) adding light rail to the bus tunnel, and (3) keeping Third Ave. as a bus-only street even after the bus tunnel opens -- that could accomodate most, if not all, of the added demand for rush hour trips. If those options are phased in, as the Viaduct is phased out of service, it could be that many folks wouldn't notice much of a change to their afternoon commutes.

Yes, it would be tough to get people out of their cars onto transit. But if city officials have their way -- and the Viaduct is closed for reconstruction -- they won't have much choice but to try. There really aren't many other options.

And, as I've said before -- if a combination of transit and street improvements can keep downtown traffic moving, or at least bearable, for a mimimum of three years, why not see if they'll work as a permanent solution? Why spend billions of dollars to fix a problem that the city's already solved?

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

March 28, 2006

Alan (Heart) This Report

A year ago, Seattle Mayor Gregg Nickels assembled a “Green Ribbon Commission” to advise him on how to keep his trend-setting Kyoto pledge.

Last week, the commission released its report.

The global significance and political symbolism of the event have drawn much well-earned comment. The report itself has not.

How is it? Superb. I’m in love.

It’s well researched, innovative, and (mostly) courageous.

(Full disclosure: the commission is also full of friends and even funders of Northwest Environment Watch. Click through the break, and you'll see I’m not just sucking up.)

It recommends many of the policy solutions that we've become convinced are smart and systemic. A sampling of the 18 highly praiseworthy recommendations:

Lead a regional partnership to develop and implement a road pricing system (about which we’ve written much). Road pricing is the only way to solve congestion, and it’s a potent stimulant for alternatives to driving.

Implement a commercial parking tax (ditto). Taxing parking is a great way to pay for alternatives.

Expand efforts to create compact, green, urban neighborhoods (double ditto). Ultimately, compact neighborhoods are the real alternative to driving.

What’s left to say? I’ll stifle a long list of wonkish addenda that I scribbled in the margins (ideas for refrigerator bounties and lightbulb brigades), and limit myself to three things: a curiosity, an observation, and a regret.

My curiosity: The report mentions that 25 percent of Portland’s arterial streets have striped bike lanes, while only 1.5 percent of Seattle’s do. Could those numbers be right?! Wow.

My observation: The report calls for a regional road pricing system – right on! When reading Clark’s post about Stockholm, it occurred to me that the ideal opportunity for a downtown (London-style) tolling anywhere in Cascadia would be when the Alaskan Way Viaduct is torn down. Whatever it’s ultimately replaced with, construction will take years. And during that period, local leaders will have an unusual degree of political cover to implement ambitious steps such as congestion pricing.

My regret: In a report that’s courageous enough to suggest parking taxes and regionwide tolls, it’s disappointing to see the veil of politeness descend in one case that’s critically important—the case of highways reconstruction.

Early in the report, the commissioners plead for a measly $57-73 million a year extra to fund transit improvements that they call “the keystone for other actions.” Then, on page 21, buried in a discussion of “leveraging state and regional action” the Green Ribboners finally refer to the elephants in the living room—the huge highway rebuilding projects planned for the city:

"For example, decisions on major transportation infrastructure improvements, such as the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the two Lake Washington bridges, must closely consider the climate impacts of investment alternatives."

That statement is true, of course, but it’s awfully mild. It’s a bit like a report on global disarmament only mentioning thermonuclear weapons in a footnote. Here’s what I (the impolitic dreamer) wish the commissioners had said,

"The mere fact that city leaders are seriously considering rebuilding multibillion dollar freeways through our city—while the ice sheets are melting, our snowpack is dwindling, our transit system is starved, our bike lanes are few and glass-strewn, and a quarter of our streets lack even sidewalks—is proof that we still have terribly far to go. Freeways are giant emissions generators. They’re the antithesis of climate leadership. We should never build another one in this or any other city. We should begin to tear them down."


Well, anyway, I’m still in love with this report.

Posted by Alan Durning | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

November 17, 2005

Streetcars Are History

Trolley_1 An interesting bit of local history in the Seattle P-I.

By 1892 Seattle was crisscrossed with 48 miles of electric railway and 22 miles of cable railway, stretching from Georgetown to Ballard. According to state historian Walter Crowley, the construction of the streetcar routes segued into smart new development:

...developers platted new neighborhoods clustered around compact business districts at street railway intersections, built broad avenues such as Westlake, Madison and 15th Northwest, and opened attractive parks at Golden Gardens, Alki Beach and Guy Phinney's former Woodland Estate to lure residents and riders.

Unfortunately, the streetcar city was not long for this world. After losing money for years the city bought the lines--under circumstances so suspicious that a grand jury authorized an investigation. The city eventually ceded authority to the state and by 1941 Seattle was without streetcars, ushering in an era of auto-dominated transportation, with a small emphasis on buses.

And in that short history are a number of explanations for our current transportation problems.

It's probably no coincidence that in the post-WWII era Seattle's neighborhoods spread far and wide. And with ever less emphasis on density and integrating commercial centers into residential settings.

But the most interesting feature of streetcar history may be the reminder of how mutable our transportation infrastructure is. The car is by far the dominant mode nowadays, but it wasn't always and it may not always be so. New plans for streetcars, light rail, bus rapid transit, pedestrian-oriented streets, and even the now-dead monorail may signal a coming seismic shift in transportation planning. And while people may complain about a profusion of transit agencies today, we should remember that Seattle once had no fewer than 22 competing streetcar lines.

The other interesting facet of streetcar history is how quickly they were surplused for not making a profit. That is, the trolley lines suffered the same fate of our lately departed monorail. What an odd double-standard that is: transit must pay its way, but the car should be feted with tax dollars.

When was the last time that I-405 or the Alaska Way Viaduct made a profit?

Oh that's right. Never.

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September 19, 2005

Dead End For Viaduct?

Headline from the Seattle TimesRemove the viaduct even if state can't rebuild it?

Apparently, Seattle city officials are increasingly willing to say that, if the state's gas tax hike is repealed this November (as looks increasingly likely), the Alaskan Way Viaduct along Seattle's downtown waterfront should simply be torn down.  The existing structure poses a safety hazard, and without the $2 billion provided by the state gas tax, there's simply no money to replace the Viaduct with a tunnel, which is the city's preference.  (Of course, even with the gas tax there may be no money for the tunnel; but that's an issue for another day.)

Of course, the word from the mayor's office probably isn't final; proponents of the Viaduct will no doubt try to resurrect the rebuilding project even if the state's funding dries up.  But if this this certainly raises the stakes for November's statewide vote on the gas tax -- more and more, it looks like the gas tax vote will wind up being, in effect, an up-or-down referendum on rebuilding the viaduct.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

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. 

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

May 16, 2005

Highway Robbery?

I haven't had much new to say about Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct saga, despite the fact that there have been a bunch of significant developments of late:

  • Late last month, Governor Gregoire signed off on a 9.5 cents per gallon gas tax increase, which would provide (among other things) $2 billion to replace the Viaduct.  But the Viaduct only gets that money if Puget Sound can come up with enough cash to finish the project -- for the tunnel option, that means raising an additional $2 billion or thereabouts, the equivalent of about $3,500 in taxes per Seattle resident. Some observers are already predicting statewide political backlash from the gas tax in the 2006 elections.
  • Last week, the city touted a new study that found that the benefits of rebuilding the Viaduct outweigh the costs, and that paying extra to put the tunnel underground just sweetens the pot.  The city is clearly laying the groundwork to impose a levy on downtown properties that would gain value if the Viaduct were relocated underground.  But as David Sucher's City Comforts blog points out, most of the benefit to downtown property owners comes from getting rid of the Viaduct, not from building a tunnel in its place.
  • The Seattle Times editorialized yesterday in opposition to the "no-build" alternative.  Clearly, they're concerned that some of the powers-that-be have hardened into a "tunnel or nothing" position -- and that if the region can't figure out a way to raise $2 billion, that nothing would be built.  For some reason, this seems like a doomsday scenario to the Seattle Times -- though from what I can tell, the medium-term result of replacing the Viaduct and removing it are the same:  drivers are going to have to figure out how to get by without the Viaduct's capacity.

My only thing to add to all this is an addendum to City Comforts' point.  It seems to me that downtown property owners could well be substantially better off if the Viaduct were simply removed, rather than replaced with a tunnel.  Over the medium term, downtown businesses wouldn't have to deal with the noise and mess of construction.  Over the long term, downtowns are often better places to live without highways sucking the life and vitality from them. (Think New York City, San Francisco, Washington DC, and Vancouver BC.)

So it's certainly odd that the city is building a case to tax downtown property owners to pay for something that's actually against their own financial interests.  If anybody's property values will benefit from replacing the Viaduct, it's the folks who live in the neighborhoods to the north and south of downtown -- so why is the city targeting downtown property owners to foot the tunnel bill?

Update: Fixed some typos and inconsistencies.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

February 09, 2005

Tunnel Vision?

A while back, the Seattle city government decided that it wanted to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct--the seismically vulnerable aerial highway that cuts off the city's downtown from its waterfront--with a tunnel. But what neither the city, nor anyone else, has decided is how to pay for the tunnel, which the state estimates could cost more than $4 billion.

So far, the city government's strategy seems to be something like this: the city will cobble together a billion dollars--from city tax coffers, from the Port of Seattle, from potential tolls on the new tunnel, from a real-estate improvement tax, and from wherever else it can scrape together some cash. And then the city will convince someone else--the federal government, the state, King County, and/or neighboring counties--to pick up the tab for the remaining $3+ billion.

My question:  does anyone else think this is just wildly, wildly implausible?   I'd love some responses from someone, to help correct my thinking if I'm wrong.

First, some numbers. If Seattle residents had to fund the 2.1 mile Viaduct project by themselves, the per-person costs would be prohibitive: $4.1 billion amounts to about $7,000 for every man, woman, and child in the city, or $28,000 for a family of four. Seattle city residents are already ponying up quite a bit to pay for transportation projects -- through gas taxes and the monorail levy, among other sources.  Adding such a big tax hit to city residents would probably be enough to whip even mild-mannered Seattleites into an anti-tax furor.

So the city must be hoping to convince Seattleites that someone else will pick up most of the tab. If you can get a little money from enough other people, even a $4 billion project could become reasonably affordable.

That's the theory, I guess. But that's just not how I think things will play out in the real world:  it seems to me that it's very, very tough to extract lots of tax money from one place to give it to another place.

Obviously, it can be done: this excellent report by the Tax Foundation showed that some U.S. states consistently subsidize other ones. New Jersey, for example, only got 62 cents in federal spending in 2003 for every dollar in federal taxes its residents paid out.  In general, the northeast, upper midwest, and west coast states subsidize the generally poorer and more rural states of the south and intermountain west. (Washington, by the way, gets only about 90 cents in spending for every dollar in US taxes it pays.) If Alaska and North Dakota can get on the federal gravy train, why not Seattle?

But it's pointless to argue about whether Seattle can somehow finagle its way onto the receiving end of federal largesse. Washington's senior senator, Patty Murray, went so far as to declare Seattle's hope of securing $1 billion in federal transportation funds for the Viaduct "very, very impossible."  In today's budget and political climate, don't think for a moment that the feds are going to kick in more than a fraction of the project's cost.

The situation is much the same in state politics: it's hard to see how Seattle is going to convince the rest of the state to give it a $3 billion handout. City officials can talk all they want about how the Viaduct is a state priority. But for people (& politicians) who rarely drive on the Viaduct, that kind of talk tends to fall on deaf ears. People are reluctant to subsidize projects they never see, and politicians never want to raise taxes if their constituents won't get a share of the action.

The result is that, even though transportation taxes are cycled through Olympia, for the most part they return to the regions that paid them. Like salmon, transportation taxes tend to return where they were spawned.

Take a look, for example, at this table of county-level payouts from the "nickel fund"--the transportation fund created in 2003 through a 5-cent hike in the state gas tax--compared with population:

County Share of
Share of
"Nickel Fund" outlays
King 29% 33%
Pierce 12% 16%
Snohomish 10% 18%
Spokane 7% 6%
Clark 6% 6%
Kitsap 4% 1%
Yakima 4% 2%
Thurston 4% 3%
Whatcom 3% 4%
Benton 3% 2%
Skagit 2% 4%
Cowlitz 2% 1%

The payouts for a given county's transportation projects are pretty proportional to the actual population of that county.  King County, for example, accounts for 29 percent of the population of the state, and 33 percent of the outlays from the nickel fund.  Overall, Puget Sound seems to get a little more from the nickel fund than it pays in -- but not enough for a similar statewide financing scheme to net Seattle more than a few hundred million dollars towards the Viaduct.

So if the city is searching for someone else to bail them out, they should probably forget about convincing some other part of the state to fund most of the cost.  Maybe they can squeeze out a little bit.  But nowhere near $3 billion.

That still leaves a few possibilities for the city to turn to: the Puget Sound Regional Transportation Improvement District and King County (Seattle's county) come to mind.  And the Seattle metro area is big enough to take some of the sting out of the cost of the Viaduct: spread out among all King County residents, for example, the Viaduct goes from $7,000 per capita to only $2,400.

But the same issues that bedevil funding at the state level come into play here too.  There are lots of other transportation priorities in Puget Sound.  Politicians on the eastside of Lake Washington want to add more lanes to I-405; that's slated to cost over $10 billion.  The 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington is, like the Viaduct, near the end of its life; replacing it would cost $2 to 3 billion. The concrete of I-5 is crumbling, and the state says it's going to need major repairs soon -- add another $2 billion or so.  The list of costly-but-high-priority transportation projects in greater Seattle goes on, and on, and on, (scroll down the link to see projects listed by county) running into the tens of billions of dollars. (And recall, the expenses I tallied are on top of the $3 billion or so that the region's residents are paying for the monorail and light rail.)

No doubt, there are many people in greater Puget Sound who would be willing to pay more taxes for new roads. And there are many who could be convinced that the Viaduct is one of the highest transportation priorities for the region. (I'm not one of them--I think that the city would probably be better off without the Viaduct--but that's another story).

Nevertheless, there probably aren't that many people on the eastside of Lake Washington, or Tacoma, or Everett, who'd be willing to pay a significant chunk of change for a road they never drive on, when they believe they have more urgent priorities closer to home.

That means that the only way to pay to replace the Viaduct would be in a package that would raise the taxes of everyone in the region enough to give them the feeling that they're paying for their own local project. So a regional funding package to pay for the Viaduct is likely to include, in addition, projects for the folks east of Lake Washington, for the folks North and South of Seattle, and for the I-5 commuters. The money would be spread around the region--and certainly not all be funneled into a single megaproject in downtown Seattle.

But now, we're back to where we started:  essentially, a regional transportation package would still mean that Seattle residents are picking up most of the tab for the Viaduct, since taxes from people in other parts of the region would mostly pay for projects near them.

So to me, the question of who else is going to pick up the tab for the Viaduct is pretty clear:  Nobody.   Nobody's going to ride to the city's rescue.  If the city of Seattle wants to rebuild the Viaduct, Seattle residents are going to have to pay for the bulk of it.

And that means that city's desire to find "someone else" to pay for the Viaduct really just boils down to this: they want "someone else"--a combination of the state, the county, and regional transportation district--to raise Seattle residents' taxes by about $3 billion, more or less.  That way, city officials can claim credit for implementing their Tunnel vision, but pass off the blame for the cost.

So, please -- am I missing something here?  Is there some magic pot of money that I'm overlooking? Like Seattle, I guess I need a little help figuring all this out.  Comments welcome.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (9)

January 20, 2005

Money for Nothing

Two headlines today, on replacing the crumbling Alaskan Way Viaduct, the aerial highway through downtown Seattle that cuts off the city from its waterfront:

Seattle P-I: Viaduct Funding 'Impossible':  Sen. Murray says U.S. won't put up $1 billion
Seattle Times: Murray Says Viaduct Request is DOA

Now, I'm not one to say "I told you so."  No, wait.  Actually, I am.

But, more seriously, this is going to put a crimp in the city's plans for replacing the viaduct with a tunnel.  Which means that the city will have that much more time to consider whether -- with all the other transportation projects planned or underway in the region -- the $4.1 billion tunnel project is really worth the cost.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (2)

August 19, 2004

My Way, Or the Highway

Last night, I spoke briefly at a lively public debate about the future of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the elevated highway hugging the Seattle waterfront through downtown. Constructed in the early 1950s, the Viaduct is aging and considered seismically unsound, and is slated for replacement. The Washington Department of Transportation is looking at several alternatives for replacing the facility, including a tunnel, a surface highway, and a rebuilt aerial highway similar to what's there now.

One problem with the Viaduct--and with the idea of reconstructing it as a surface highway or as another aerial--is that it cuts off the the waterfront from the rest of downtown. The Viaduct is noisy and ugly, occupies some of the city's best real estate, and depresses property values throughout the waterfront corridor. And that represents a huge loss to downtown Seattle, denying the city center an amenity that could become an increasingly important economic engine over the coming decades. When San Francisco opted to tear down its waterfront-hugging Embarcadero Freeway, instead of replacing it after it was damaged in a 1989 earthquake, the waterfront blossomed, real estate skyrocketed, new development, housing, and jobs moved to the area--and the threat of gridlock never materialized.

Replacing the aerial viaduct with a tunnel--as Boston's vastly overbudget Big Dig is doing through its downtown--is one option that could help reconnect the city with its waterfront (at least, once the decade of construction is over). Of course, the tunnel options do expand road capacity, and that carries with it environmental problems: promoting car dependence, which increases downtown air pollution; facilitating sprawl north and south of the city, rather than dense downtown development; and a decade of noise and pollution downtown.

But the real problem is that the tunnel options are just plain expensive, and it's hard to see where the money's going to come from. There are at least 5 other Seattle-area megaprojects that are already underway, or are arguably just as important as the Viaduct:

  1. The monorail ($1.6 billion from city taxpayers);
  2. light rail ($2.1 billion from taxpayers from North and South King County, plus $500 million in federal money);
  3. rebuilding the crumbling sections of I-5 (at least $2 billion)
  4. rebuilding SR-520, across Lake Washington ($1.7-2.9 billion for the whole project); and
  5. rebuilding the waterfront seawall in downtown ($800 million).

Given all of those priorities, who's going to pay for a $3 billion waterfront tunnel? The federal government won't; state taxpayers sent the R-51 transportation package down in flames, and it only gave $100 million to the viaduct; the city and county can't afford it either.

Perhaps the fairest thing would be to ask drivers to pay for a Viaduct replacement. After all, they're the ones that most directly benefit from construction. But even that won't fly--the tolls would have to be way too steep.

Let's say you wanted to pay to rebuild the viaduct by selling round-trip passes. Assuming that you could somehow convince enough people to buy passes to fill the viaduct to capacity, an annual pass that would let a driver take one round trip a day would have to cost between $1,500 and $2,500, depending on the option chosen. That's right, $2,000 might buy you the right to use the Viaduct twice a day, for a year--and, again, that assumes that the Viaduct would be used to full capacity. Undoubtedly, there would be a few drivers who'd be willing to pay that much for the privilege and convenience of going downtown. But not many. You might be able to raise more revenue if you tolled the entire road system, rather than just the Viaduct--but then, the money would probably be used for other purposes (repairing I-5, rebuilding 520, etc.).

So no matter what you think about the economic tradeoffs--and I'm sure that there are some very good arguments to be made that replacing the Viaduct's road capacity will do good things for West Seattle and Ballard property values, and for the manufacturing districts north and south of downtown--it's hard to see where the money's going to come from.

That suggests to me that we need to take a really hard look at the option of tearing down the Viaduct, and replacing it with nothing at all. The People's Waterfront Coalition, a group led by architect Cary Moon, is developing the inklings of a plan for doing just that. The plans are based on a city-developed strategy for providing access to downtown in case the Viaduct fails in an earthquake. I think that it's an option that's definitely worth considering--and ultimately, given funding constraints it may be the only option that's realistically available for the next few decades.

My real worry about planning to retire the Viaduct, without looking at alternatives that don't involve new capacity, is that we'll plan for a tunnel and wait decades to cobble together the financing. Then, one of two things could happen. Either we get sick of waiting for the money for the gold-plated tunnel, and rebuild a cheaper structure that leaves the waterfront a corpse. Or, we wake up one morning and find that nature has retired the Viaduct for us--long before we're ready to deal with the consequences.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (2)

April 28, 2004

Go Tell Anti-Roadie

It appears that a growing number of Seattle residents are questioning whether the Alaskan Way Viaduct--the elevated highway that hugs the Seattle waterfront through downtown--ought to be torn down and replaced with...well...nothing at all. There has been a lot written about this in the past few years -- especially recently.

This is not nearly as radical an idea as it might seem. Portland removed a waterfront freeway in the 1970s. San Francisco tore down its Embarcadero Freeway after it was damaged by the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, and city residents liked the results so much that they just tore down another stretch of elevated highway through downtown. Vancouver, BC, never built an urban freeway; after a vigorous citizens movement that grew alarmed by what I-5 did to Seattle neighborhoods, the city killed an extensive freeway plan in the 1960s. That leaves Seattle as the only major city north of Los Angeles that still reveres the urban highway.

Of course, every city is different, and has unique transportation needs. Although much of the traffic once carried by the Embarcadero simply vanished once it was torn down, that highway didn't serve the same function in its city's transportation scheme as does the Viaduct.

But at a very minimum, transportation planners should be looking very closely at replacing the viaduct with an at-grade boulevard. This could very well be the least-cost solution to replacing the Viaduct. Replacing the Viaduct with a tunnel -- the alternative preferred by most city officials -- would cost at least $4.5 billion. With an average of 55,000 round trips on the Viaduct per day, that's about $80,000 of tunnel for each vehicle: a huge amount, even if the city could count on a full-throttle economy and a free-spending electorate (which it can't).

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Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink | Comments (0)