Seattle Squeeze

Did the State Get It Wrong on the Viaduct?

Carmageddon didn't happen. Why?

By Hayat Norimine February 2, 2019

The northbound (lower) deck of the SR 99 tunnel in October 2018.

The Seattle Squeeze is over, and it wasn't so much a squeeze as it was a limp handshake. 

Three weeks without the Alaskan Way Viaduct turned out to be the push Seattle drivers needed to discover public transit. Delays happened, sure, but the Carmageddon officials warned us about didn't really materialize.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is still collecting data on how the viaduct closure impacted cars on the road exactly. But in the first week of the Squeeze, traffic went down, said WSDOT spokesperson Laura Newborn.

Of course, the warnings played a role; for weeks city, county, and state agencies strongly advised commuters to take public transit and avoid driving through downtown Seattle. And it worked. People who had other options changed their behaviors—they found other ways to get around, worked from home more often, or traveled outside of peak times. 

But if outreach is all it took, it begs the question of whether we really needed the Alaskan Way Viaduct to begin with. The two-mile, SR 99 replacement tunnel is scheduled to open on Monday, after events planned throughout the weekend to celebrate the highway that had to go.

The viaduct was in danger of collapse after a 2001 earthquake, and in 2012 governor Christine Gregoire moved on a proposal to demolish it and replace it with the SR 99 Tunnel. That was after Seattle voters finally supported the tunnel from a ballot measure, while some city officials like mayor Mike McGinn fought hard against the move. (In an earlier ballot measure in 2007, voters initially rejected a tunnel.)

Urbanists like Cary Moon, who led the People's Waterfront Coalition (and ran for mayor in 2017), years earlier pushed for an alternative plan—replace the viaduct with nothing. 

Crowded cities have done this before. San Francisco demolished its "blight by the bay," a freeway along a waterfront, decades ago (similarly, after earthquake damage); Seoul tore down a congested freeway in 2011; and Portland removed the Harbor Drive Expressway in 2014, making way for a park. These demolitions prompted infrastructure friendlier to green spaces and urban centers. 

It's unclear which commuters have been impacted the most with the viaduct. Those who've been priced out of Seattle, for example, commute from farther away—and could be most disadvantaged without a freeway, since they won't have fast alternative mass transit options. 

Transit agencies—King County Metro and the Seattle Department of Transportation—also have significantly improved transportation options since the idea was first proposed. But Moon said she still feels strongly that it would've been the right move. 

"At the time, there was this argument that trips are sacrosanct... We poked at that," Moon told PubliCola. "I think all the data showed that it would've worked. With our commitment to reducing emissions, which primarily come from transportation in our state, we need to be making the shift—making it possible for people to get around without driving."

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