Heads Up

There’s more to fear about the viaduct than earthquakes and electoral upheavals

By Eric Scigliano September 17, 2009 Published in the October 2009 issue of Seattle Met

Raising the bar One of many mystery objects to rain down from the viaduct.

IT CAME FROM WAY UP THERE: a foot–long, inch–thick black bar with granitelike speckles falling from the Alaskan Way Viaduct onto the Seneca Street crosswalk. It landed with a loud crack a few feet from a family of Asian tourists. They looked up, shrugged, and walked on.

We all thought we’d moved on from the torturous issue of how to replace the shaky viaduct after the state agreed to pay for a deep–bore tunnel. But then upstart mayoral candidate and tunnel hater Mike McGinn toppled incumbent mayor and tunnel lover Greg Nickels in the primary. Now the issue looms large in the November 3 showdown between McGinn and Joe Mallahan. It may go into extra innings if McGinn wins and tries to get the state to accept a surface alternative before the viaduct collapses in a big quake. Meanwhile, no one talks about a lesser but more immediate danger: stuff falling off it.

When he saw the bar (which proved to be made of a very hard resin), a waiter at Ivar’s Acres of Clams had his own tale: “A few days ago my girlfriend was walking under the viaduct when she nearly got hit by a rock this big.” He cupped a circle the size of a grapefruit. A colleague recalled parking there and finding her rear window smashed by concrete. The state Department of Transportation periodically reimburses motorists who find their windshields chipped or shattered by fallen viaduct chunks. Fortunately, says DOT assistant superintendent Rick Rodda, “we haven’t had any reports of injuries.”

Blind luck. Last October, a hit–and–run driver clipped the concrete guardrail on the Seneca Street off–ramp, sending a 30–foot section crashing down beside office workers on a smoke break. (“I really should quit,” muttered one.) “The railing is not at all up to current standards,” says Ron Paananen, DOT’s viaduct replacement director. “It doesn’t take much impact to dislodge a chunk.” Twice yearly, DOT crews pore over the crumbling concrete and chip away loose pieces. They regularly comb the roadway for debris that hasn’t dropped to the street below. And they take no chances at their own signal shop, beside the Spokane Street Viaduct; there, plastic netting catches all the hub caps, tire shreds, and other dropsam.

Occasionally a treasure tumbles down amid the trash. Several years ago a gas–powered “pogo stick” earth compactor landed just south of the Battery Street Tunnel. Its owner never returned to find out if it hit anyone. The clean–up crew “just plugged in a loose hose,” says Ed Mortensen, DOT bridge operation and maintenance manager. “It ran fine. So we used it.”

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