In the wake of the Tohoku Earthquake in Japan, Seattle’s mayor and the Seattle Times’ Danny Westneat suggested closing the earthquake-damaged SR 99 Alaskan Way Viaduct sooner rather than later. From Westneat’s column in the Times:
Living without one of our main north-south highways might finally bring the gridlock-apocalypse they’re always predicting. What has hung up the viaduct project for a decade is that nobody knows. Some experts and studies say we can live without a waterfront highway. Others say as assertively that we can’t.
It is a counter-intuitive fact that several cities have removed urban freeways without signficant effects on auto traffic elsewhere, while improving the overall quality of life in the city. I am on record in a previous post with my belief that freeways are detrimental to cities, and not precisely necessary.
However, as we know from weekend closures of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, including the one this weekend, a level of gridlock occurs on surrounding freeways and on surface streets into downtown. If the viaduct clousre were to extend beyond the weekend into weekdays, even worse disruption would occur. A reasonable response for viaduct commuters would be to switch to public transit. For mobility to be maintained, transit must have prioritized, congestion-free routes to and from downtown.
If the Alaskan Way Viaduct were closed, as currently configured, West Seattle buses must access downtown through the lower West Seattle bridge and surface streets. Several West Seattle buses (the 21, 22 and 56) always have, but construction projects related to the (unnecessary) widening of the Spokane Street Viaduct make those routes so slow and inefficient, they barely qualify as transportation. From 1st Ave. these routes turn onto S. Hanford St. across railroad tracks (frequently blocked by trains), and then across the lower West Seattle Bridge (frequently raised to allow ships passage).
It would be irresponsible to semi-permanently close the viaduct until these projects are in place:
- Complete the new 1st Ave. on-ramp to the upper West Seattle bridge (scheduled for Fall 2011)
- Provide a continuous transit lane, with signal priority from the 1st Ave. exit from the West Seattle Bridge to the 3rd Ave. transit spine in downtown Seattle.
If, and only if, these items are in place do I support immediately closing the Alaskan Way Viaduct.