A few years ago Michael and I were driving to NorWesCon. We were running late getting the car packed and I was more than a bit worn out from very long days at work leading up to the mini-vacation. We had skipped the cons for two years, for various reasons. We’re finally on the road, though, and chatting about something when I realize that out of old habit I’m driving down the arterial that will take us through downtown. “Oh, wait,” I said, “I’m heading toward the viaduct.”
To explain why this is an issue, I need to explain that in 2001 we had a strong earthquake in Seattle. It happened in the middle of a workday. A lot of older buildings were damaged badly enough that they were condemned and eventually torn down. But one of the more worrying things was the damage done to the Alaska Way Viaduct, which is a big double-decking elevated highway that cuts through downtown. An elevated highway that is nearly the same design of the one that collapsed during an earthquake in Oakland, California in 1989.
Our viaduct was closed to traffic for inspection. The support pillars were confirmed to all be damaged. Reinforcement were installed and a long drawn out political battle ensued on what to do about it. The viaduct itself is state property, part of a state highway, and besides getting people from from one end of the city to another, serves as a conduit for a huge amount of freight traffic related to two airports and a huge seaport facility. But the highway runs through the city, which has legal authority to issue (or withhold) permits for the construction project within the city. The Port Authority, which is also involved, is government entity answerable to all of the voters of the county.
There were many differences of options. There were voter initiatives and demands for referendums. Eventually, the previous governor signed a state law which represented the compromise that had been reached, and at the ceremony she had promised that no matter what else happened, the Viaduct would be closed and taken down no later than 2012. That date was picked based on the guesses from engineers as to how long the damaged structure (part of which, by the way, is built on a section of town that used to be swamp and has been filled in… and the support pillars at that end of the structure have been slowly but measurably sinking since the quake).
Anyway, at some point during the two years that Michael and I skipped NorWesCon, I had decided to stop driving on the Viaduct at all. So, when I realized I was taking the old route we were nearly there, and getting to the other highway would involve some backtracking. Michael said, “It’s okay, let’s keep going.”
So we went back to chatting about whatever it was. Not long after we got on the Viaduct (and because we were going south, we were on the lower deck — you know, the place where everyone in every car would be crushed to death if there was another earthquake?), Michael suddenly went quiet. I could almost feeling the unhappy vibes coming off of him. I glanced over and he looked very upset. “What’s wrong?”
“Just keep driving,” he answered, in a very clipped voice.
So I did. After we got off the Viaduct he said, “We are never driving on that again!” And proceeded to tell me just how much bigger and more pronounced the cracks in all the support pillars were, which I hadn’t looked at because traffic was very heavy and I was paying attention to the cars around us the whole time.
The Viaduct was supposed to come down no later than six years ago. About eight years ago, the state engineers who inspect the bridge every few months and then brief the various government authorities about it, refused to answer a question from city councilmembers: “What is the criteria for deciding that it isn’t safe?” Which made it clear to a whole bunch of us following that that the engineers didn’t really think it was safe any more, but had been told by their superiors not to say.
So, imagine my reaction when I saw this headline: Highway 99 Tunnel Opening Delayed (Again), This Time Until 2019. Please note the word “again.” I think that they could have used about four agains in the headline. Now, I’ve never been much of a fan of the final tunnel project that was settled upon. Nothing on this scale had ever been attempted with a bored tunnel, so no one with any sense was really surprised at all of the things that went wrong (damaged water pipes and buildings as the earth shifted more than expected at greater distances from the tunnel than anticipated, the damaged machine, the problems when dirt and debris was accidentally dumped into the bay…).
There are also all the traffic studies that show how since the tunnel will be tolled, a lot of traffic that used to go on the Viaduct is going to divert to the surface streets, anyway. Not to mention that as people have been switching from cars to various transit options (including new light rail routes), the amount of traffic on the Viaduct has been steadily decreasing every year. If we’d bitten the bullet when we were supposed to, taken the Viaduct down, traffic would have been painful for a few months. But people figure out better options. There’s been a project on the other freeway that goes through Seattle, Interstate 5, where for a few weeks each summer the last few years many lanes are closed while refurbishing work is done. The first time? Horrible traffic snarls everywhere. All of the subsequent times, not nearly so much. Because people figured out alternate routes and so forth.
Commuters are flexible and will find a way to get where they’re going in the least time. And more people are using the trains and buses than ever before. So maybe spending billions on this tunnel wasn’t the most forward thinking idea. But like Michael and I in that car once we’d gone up that onramp, we’re stuck and have to just keep driving.