There are several reasons it is different. First, we just don’t get that much snow here, at all. Maintaining large fleets of snowploughs that only get used about once every three years just doesn’t make sense for most city and county governments. We have plows, but most are the kind that can be attached to generic utility trucks. So they aren’t quick to deploy, and the drivers don’t get much practice most years.
A related issue is that usually we just don’t get that cold. The ground (and especially the asphalt on roads) stays much warmer throughout the winter than at other places. That means that if we get more than a dusting, the first bunch of snowfall immediately melts when it hits the roadway, but then as more snow falls, the asphalt gets cold enough that that melted snow turns into a sheet of ice. Which more snow is falling onto. Anyone who has lived in places that get lots of snow and has driven on it should know that there is a big difference between driving on snow and driving on ice hiding under snow.
Then there is geography. It’s very hilly here. Really hilly. And again because we don’t get freezing weather and snow often, people build houses on hills that in other parts of the country no sane person would. Several of the small towns I lived in back in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Nebraska had one or two stretches of road on steep hills. Those roads never had houses or businesses along them, and every winter the city would put up big roadblocks to completely block that section of road until spring. It was a convenient short route during the summer, but the rest of the time it was closed because it is too steep to drive on safely with snow. About 80% of the roads in Seattle are as steep as the hills that used to get blocked off every winter in those small towns.
All of those hills and the many bodies of water mean that we have microclimates. My favorite example was back when I lived near the ship canal. One day I needed to walk up to a friend’s house that was a mere six blocks from my place. Six blocks up a steep hill. It was very cold and raining hard at my place, down at the bottom of the hill, and it looked like a fog bank was engulfing the hill. I started walking. About half way up, I hit the “fog bank” which was actually snow. There was almost an inch of snow at my friend’s place, and it had been snowing for a couple of hours (so she was surprised I had shown up). I picked up the stuff I was supposed to collect and walked back down the hill. It was still raining hard with no sign of snow there, just six blocks away. So you may leave your house one morning thinking you only have rain to deal with on a short drive, and suddenly find yourself slipping and sliding on ice and slush. Probably sliding backward, because you were going uphill…
Because of the microclimates and how easy a very slight shift in the upper atmosphere can flip us between snow, rain, sleet, or freezing rain, we occasionally get situations where the ground and sidewalks are covered in deep mixtures of snow, ice and slush. That is extremely hard to walk on, and your clothes get soaked with barely-not-freezing water. So even if you try to avoid driving, it can be an ordeal just to walk to a nearby store or to get to the nearest bus stop or light rail station.
The sidewalks are particularly bad because while it is the responsibility of property owners to shovel the walks, most people don’t own snow shovels (cf. above mention that we only get significant snow about once every three years)—one of the local news blogs shared a video earlier this week someone posted online of a neighbor shoveling snow using a Swiffer (indoor mopping gadget). When you combine that with how many stretches of sidewalk go past large apartment buildings (whose owners are just as unlikely as individual home owners to own a snow shovel) and how many stretches of road go past green strips and other public property which doesn’t get shoveled (or in my end of the region, how many neighborhoods don’t have sidewalks at all), well, it’s just a mess.
This year’s event has been a combination of several of our worst problems. The first big snowfall a bit over a week ago turned into sheets of ice with snow on top. Arterials were plowed and de-iced, but more snow kept coming, and sides streets all over the region remained icy slip-and-slides of doom. And more snow keeps coming. We get a break and people go out and try to shovel their drives and sidewalks…. and then it snows again. Then we got the rain/snow mix that put heavy ice on power lines and tree branches resulting in 90,000 households (including us) being without most of the night.
For some perspective: in the last 10 days we’ve had 8 times more snow than Boston has all winter. We are already the snowiest February recorded in the area in 35 years. Seatac Airport has broken a record for most snow in a single day set in 1949.
And we don’t know if it is over. Things are melting a bit today. It’s supposed to be much warmer tomorrow, which will cause more melting (at which point more trees will fall as the ground on all those hills I mentioned above turns to mud) and we may get a bit of flooding some places. Then another cold air mass looks to be moving in late Wednesday night, meaning all those wet street will turn to ice again just in time for the Thursday commute… and another wet air mass is coming toward us from the south hitting either late Thursday or early Friday. That might mean more snow. It might mean rain. It might mean freezing rain. It is likely going to mean all three just depending on where you are.
…and here we are, seven years later, and three weeks ago said highway was finally closed. This week, the tunnel finally opened for traffic. Coincidentally on the first day of real winter weather we got this year. And then the process of taking down the unsafe structure—packing most of the rubble into a much older tunnel that, it turns out, is just as rickety as the old elevated highway and needs to just be filled and sealed—has finally begun.
I have found myself not just biting my tongue a lot reading commentary by some acquaintances about why, oh why, the ugly structure that hasn’t adequately served the region’s transportation needs for the last, oh, 50 years of its existence isn’t being replaced by something even bigger and uglier.
Fortunately, a friend has posted a much more reasoned and comprehensive explanation (and linked to an impressive number of pictures she took at the day this weekend the public was allowed to walk on the old elevated structure and through the new tunnel). So go read Dara’s take on this, including a really nice explanation of the why the highway became obsolete only a few years after being built: So long to the viaduct!
One of the local stations had a more pessimistic term: Viadoom! They used it in stories leading up to the closure, and during the first two or three business days after the closure the stories were headlined with “Day 1 of Viadoom” and “On Day 2 of Viadoom…”
We are now in week two of the Squeeze and so far, traffic has not been apocalyptically bad. No one wants to be the first reporter or blogger to say those fears were overblown, because the situation could get worse. The current conventional wisdom is the the first week went okay because some people are still on holiday break, many commuters are working from home, others who normally drive have switched to transit and/or biking. But many are convinced that most of those people are either going to get “fed up” with transit or will decide that because traffic has only been a little heavier than normal that there is no problem and they’ll all hop back into their cars.
Maybe they will. But I think the fears were always overwrought. For one, traffic analysis and computer simulations had shown—back when a replacement for the elevated part of the highway was being debated more than ten years ago—that all the traffic could be diverted to surface streets without causing gridlock. The horrible paralyzing gridlock that happens from time to time when there is a serious accident on that highway is because people are caught by surprise and are already on routes feeding to the unexpectedly blocked road when things go bad.
Those simulations also assumed that the number of cars being driven each day would be decreasing (because things were already trending that way). Lots of people were skeptical of that. Some thought the downward trend was temporary or something. Guess what? Single car ridership has declined faster than those simulations assumed. Many more people are already taking transit, carpooling, telecommuting, and so forth than before.
Other folks are focusing on the fact that the replacement tunnel has less capacity that the old viaduct, and that it’s going to be at least a couple more years before we have finished removing the old structure and making street improvements along its old route. There is also a big worry that, because the tunnel will be tolled, too many people will avoid it to avoid the tolls.
Yeah, while construction is disrupting other streets, things will happen. But anyone who has lived or worked in Seattle for any length of time already knows that there are only two seasons here: Rainy Season and Construction Season. We manage to keep getting around during Construction Season.
It’s never pleasant to be stuck in traffic. When traffic becomes persistently bad, people change their behavior. We try to find ways to work around it. We adapt. Well, most of us do. There are those whackos who decide, instead, to file initiatives to try to repeal or financially cripple big transit projects because they are so convinced they have a god-given right to drive an enormous gas-guzzling behemoth all by themselves and dang it, the state should just make the roads wider so they can do things the way they always have. I hate those guys.
I’ve been riding the bus to work for over 30 years. Yes, I have amusing stories to tell of some misadventures and unpleasant people I have encountered on the bus. But those rare times that I have driven instead of taking the bus have also led to stories about misadventures and reckless drivers. Because if you’re in your car, you’re surrounded by people just as much as you would be on the bus—it’s just that each of them is armed with a ton of glass, steel, and composites. And maybe you feel like you’re in control in your car in a way that you aren’t on the bus or train. But if there’s an accident up ahead, and you’re stuck in the middle lane of a long bridge, you don’t have any more control than the passengers in a bus.
Anyway, I think it is mildly funny that, so far, Viadoom hasn’t materialized. The station that was using the term has stopped posting daily stories detailing how the commute went, because each day there has been nothing to report. And really, how many times can you say with a straight face, “None of the bad things we predicted have happened yet, but just you wait!”
So, I’ll keep riding my bus and keeping my fingers crossed.
This one happened Thursday night, but I didn’t see the story until midday Friday, after I’d posted yesterday’s Friday Links, which is why I didn’t include it: Woman seriously injured in Renton theater shooting.
So, a bunch of people were sitting in the theatre, about 20 minutes into Michael Bay’s latest atrocity, that Benghazi movie, when a drunk guy is seen fumbling with a pistol and it goes off, striking a woman in another row, putting her in critical condition. Then the drunk guy flees the theatre, throwing the ammo clip in a trash can on his way out. Ninety minutes later, a man called the police to report that his 29-year-old son was “distraught” because he dropped his gun in a theatre and thinks he might have hurt someone. Police come and arrest the 29-year-old, who they decline to identify, but note that he has a concealed weapon permit. The victim, meanwhile, has been hospitalized and her condition has been upgraded to “satisfactory.”
This particular multiplex is one that I’ve actually been to, as it’s local to me (the third time we saw the Star Trek reboot was in this theatre, for instance), so there were a number of stories on local blogs and outlets. One that I read yesterday, but haven’t been able to find again, quoted a witness inside the theatre who saw a guy several rows ahead of him pull the gun out, which prompted the witness to slip his phone out of his pocket and quietly turn it on, fearing the worst. This witness insists that the guy never dropped the gun, but appeared to be playing with it, and definitely didn’t have to stoop down to pick anything up off the ground after the gun went off as he fled.
In a follow-up report, police say that the suspect claims he got his gun out because he was afraid there might be a mass shooting, and he wanted to be ready: Police: Suspected theater shooter brought gun to movie fearing mass shooting.
Well, good on him! The usual definition of a mass shooting is a single shooting event in which four or more people (not counting the shooter) are shot or killed. By shooting only one person, this guy successfully made sure that it wasn’t a mass shooting, I guess.
There’s a whole lot I could say about this, but they all go down the rabbit hole of the topic no one can be rational about. So, let’s limit it to a couple of questions:
- First, why are they protecting this idiot’s identity? Seriously, no one is a stronger believer in the Presumption of Innocence in our justice system than I am, but why do they keep withholding his name? He has been booked into jail. That’s a matter of public record. I could understand if we were talking about an underage suspect, because we treat juvenile defendants differently under the legal principle of Diminished Responsibility. This shouldn’t apply here, right? He’s 29 years old. The victim’s name and face have been plastered all over the place, including naming the hospital where she’s being treated. Why is the shooter’s identity being withheld? Maybe he hasn’t been formally arraigned, yet? I don’t know, but it seems weird.
- Why did throw away the ammo clip? I get that he apparently was intoxicated. Maybe you can attribute all of his stupidity to the alcohol impairment, though I have more than a few quibbles with that. But even in the intoxicated mind, what is the point of throwing away the ammo clip? It’s he gun barrel that is likely to be used as evidence against him, right? We all understand how they match bullets to guns: it isn’t by the clip, it’s the barrel that the bullet was fired through. I’m genuinely curious.
The only silver lining I see to all this is, if he’s found guilty of felony assault, this idiot won’t be allowed to legally own guns any more.
While we’re on the topic of local idiots: Judge Rules Eyman Measure Unconstitutional. Tim Eyman is a local con artist and professional Initiative Sponsor (literally, that is the only way he’s made any income for many, many years), whose main target is taxes. Though ten years ago he took a detour into anti-gay territory and filed a referendum intended to repeal the state’s laws protecting discrimination based on sexual orientation. He literally showed up at press conference announcing the anti-gay referendum dressed in a pink tutu and thought that was a clever stunt. He switched to a Darth Vader costume for his actual filing of the initiative after the tutu evoked much criticism. That particular initiative failed to get enough signatures to even qualify for the ballot.His schtick of getting voters to pass limitations on taxes and the ability of the legislature to raise them have usually succeeded at least temporarily, though they are often thrown out as unconstitutional. This one is a great example. Washington’s constitution sets up relatively easy initiative and referendum processes (the signature threshold to get them on the ballot is very low, there is only one specific court that is allowed to rule on whether an initiative meets the definitions to go on the ballot before hand, so they can’t be tangled up in a long appeals process before the people get to see them), but there are some limitations. Initiatives must adhere to only one topic, for instance. And referendums to repeal a law have to turn in their signatures within a certain number of days after said law is signed by the governor.
The constitution is also very clear on the process of amending the constitution: all amendments must originate in the legislature and be passed by a two-thirds majority of both houses before being submitted to the public for a simple majority vote. The constitution explicitly forbids constitutional amendments to be made through the initiative process.
This particular measure was essentially an act of extortion: if the legislature does not place a constitutional amendment requiring any future increase in taxes to pass with a two-thirds supermajority, then the current sales tax would be lowered, resulting in a loss of about $8 billion dollars in the next fiscal year. Voters, some of whom are eternally eager to believe that they can get all the state services they require without any taxes to actually pay for them, passed it, of course. But the judge ruled that the initiative is unconstitutional in two distinct ways: 1) it doesn’t adhere to one subject, being about both an amendment to the constitution and the current level of sales tax, and 2) it attempts to start a constitutional amendment through the initiative process, which the constitution clearly forbids.
One of the things that really annoys me about Eyman and his eternal initiatives (he’s already raises $1.2 million to put more on the ballot this year), is that he doesn’t even have to appeal this ruling. The state attorney general is obligated to appeal the ruling, and to defend the initiative (which every legal expert agreed was unconstitutional for the reasons the judge cited) all on the taxpayer’s dime. Meanwhile Eyman keeps rolling in the dough running more of these things up the flagpole.