I think there’s a killer argument here that’s hard to refute, and hasn’t come up yet, and in the interest of continuing this conversation, I’ll just post it!

Our viaduct options are basically a) build something else, and b) tear down the failing structure and leave it torn down. I don’t really consider the retrofit an option – WSDOT will probably shoot it down as unfeasible and unsafe.

So here’s the 2000 pound elephant in the room. For the first several years of implementation, both of these options look exactly the same. The old structure has to be torn down, and even in the best case rebuild scenario, you still have complete closure for years.

Immediately, every viaduct user finds a solution to their commute problem. They get on I-5, or they take a bus, or they plan ahead and change jobs or move before the mess starts – they’ll have plenty of lead time.

Two years later? They’re still doing it. I-5 can only carry so much traffic – it’ll worsen the most at first, but traffic will taper off after this time. Most people will have solved their problems, many more will be interested in transit and trying out the bus service we already have (and maybe ‘Rapid Ride’). I don’t know when this would be – maybe 2012, maybe 2014. Link Light Rail will be rocking our socks off. University Link will be mostly complete – everyone will be holding their breaths for subway stations. Maybe we’ll even have passed Sound Transit 2 by then, and Northgate and Bellevue will be groundbreaking soon.

Another year. Gas will be $8/gallon, or $10/gallon. Maybe speculative bidding on oil futures will have dropped off, and it’ll only be $6/gallon – this scenario doesn’t require $10 gas. A lot more of the urban condo projects will be done. Developers will be continuing to build in the core, and the renewed demand from people previously commuting across downtown Seattle will help bolster that. Again, all this is regardless of what we choose. Few commuters will just grin and bear it.

One more – say 2016. Four years of closure – the minimum on any of the WSDOT construction alternatives I’ve seen. This is where our choice matters. In scenario a), we have a new freeway. U Link opens. Some people return to their cars. The waterfront is dead – construction kills some of the businesses, and with the viaduct another 20 feet closer, it’s no longer pleasant. By this time, fewer are driving, and it looks like 5 won’t be as congested because so many people can’t afford to anymore. But we have a new freeway that we’ve already gotten used to not using.

In scenario b), the waterfront is still dead from construction, but now it has the chance to come back. Seattle has rebuilt the waterfront streetcar line, and four new mixed use buildings are on the way in the old shadow. The same pressures exist to build high capacity transit – the city is ripe for a new western corridor ballot measure. U Link opens, Bellevue is 50% complete, and Northgate is 70% complete. Sound Transit is ready to go to ballot with ST3, where North King money won’t quite cover Ballard-West Seattle, but will cover Ballard-Downtown, including a tunnel under 2nd Avenue. The city puts another measure on the ballot to build the other half. With new city residents clamoring for transit, Sounder ridership at 20,000 a day and climbing, and ST3 Link expansion promising Tacoma, Redmond, and most of the way to Everett, both pass.

22 Replies to “What If We Did Just Tear It Down?”

  1. That’s a damn fine crystal ball you have. Well written, short, and very realistic scenarios.

    I’d go further with gas prices, as I think we’ve hit peak oil, but you’re right – this makes sense at any gas price.

  2. I’m with Matt, we’ve definitely hit peak oil and prices are just going up from here.

    I think it’s a great plan, no sense going forward without knowing we need to.

  3. Thanks, Justin and Matt.

    I agree on peak oil – I think we’ve plateaued – but I don’t think that’s accounting for the majority of the pressure on oil prices right now. I think it’s mostly speculators pulling out of the housing market.

    I like my crystal ball. I still want to write about old buildings, but after that I think we could use a couple of book reviews.

  4. One of the problems with the “tear it down” scenario is this: If traffic gets worse after it’s torn down, and it will stay torn down indefinitely, then some people may choose as their solution to move. They may move to downtown. Or they may just move out of the area. Or even worse, businesses may move further out (sprawl) so that folks don’t have to commute through downtown. If the time horizon for a new viaduct/tunnel/whatever is short (3 or 4 years) people may be willing to put up with temporarily worse traffic.

    Thing is, I don’t know what will happen. I am neither a traffic engineer nor an economist, both of which are disciplines which would have some reasonable basis for a good prediction. Which is why I find all the prognostication on eliminating the route by opinionated sloggers and bloggers to be quite humorous. It’s no better than Eyman predicting that opening up HOV lanes will fix our traffic or Rossi pushing traffic light synchronization.

    I’m generally in favor of removing the viaduct and replacing it with nothing. But I’m pretty uncertain that it will work. I don’t have the expertise to be so certain. (I also kinda hope that lots of people do get the hell out of my city.)

  5. reading, I actually do study urban planning, and daimajin has a degree in economics. Very little of this is opinion – most of it is just my regurgitation of principles I’ve seen practiced all over the world.

    Businesses will absolutely move closer, not farther, in the absence of highways. Very few will move away, and that number will be more than made up for by all the new businesses that start as our downtown revitalizes. You don’t move away from your existing business partners.

  6. And reading – any business that’s going to be materially affected enough to move would do so in four years of closure anyway. That’s the point I’m starting with.

  7. I think the biggest lost would be the port, since that stuff mostly get’s moved on trucks and a fair portion of that moves on 99. As ben said, all of these effects would be felt within the four years of construction anyway.

    As for downtown offices, a little less than half who work there drive now. A lot of these people drive I-90, more drive I-50, a fair amount drive local streets and some even take the West Seattle bridge. SR-99 is just a piece of the puzzle, and you’d lose no more than half that traffic anyway.

    It’s not nearly as scary as it sounds.

  8. Ben, last spring your Seattle Times article indicate you studied engineering at UW, not Urban Planning. Could you clarify?

    Concerning the viaduct, if oil is $10 a gallon do you think the buses will still be stuck in traffic? If not, doesn’t that throw out one of the central tenants of this blog?

    I think the Central Waterfront alternatives that don’t include a new freeway have merits and should be pursued if a viable plan can be promoted, one which shows how it works for people and goods (who cares about the cars). Making buses work (even with $10/gallon gas) and local and regional mobility through downtown Seattle will take more than doing nothing.

  9. Multimodalman, my column at the Times reflected my concentration at community college. :) Regardless, I intend to double major.

    If we have $10 a gallon gas in 2016, we won’t need the AWV at all, but we will need more downtown walking space. If we have $6 a gallon gas, we really do need to limit highway use to have a chance of surviving the next century.

    Moving people and goods is great, but we also now have to meet state environmental law – which says we need to be at less than half today’s emissions levels by 2050.

    We’re also already doing other work to move people and goods:


    In the long term, the best thing to do to move more people and goods is to centralize their destinations better. If we disincentivize cross traffic by removing the mistake we made, we’ll create a more transit-friendly atmosphere, and with transit, we can move a lot more people than that highway ever could.

  10. You put it nicely (I’m not being facetious, I really do agree with you). I’m interested to see how this viaduct process works itself out. I imagine that to many it will be abundantly clear that we don’t need a freeway along the waterfront in our future. But to others (such as Mr. Rossi) building a freeway is just what we will need to stimulate the economy and ensure a prosperous future. I think it will ultimately hinge on whether Seattleites are willing to commit to more transit through a citywide transit tax like the monorail but goes towards Metro and ST projects and services and towards making our neighborhoods walkable (for the ones that don’t yet meet that definition). Seattle needs more transit sooner than either agency is able to deliver without more $$.

    BTW, the link to the AWV page got cut off- http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Projects/Viaduct/transitenhancements.htm


  11. It’s a pleasure to talk to you about it, mmm!

    I am not worried about the transit part. If we do block construction of a new elevated structure, that will happen on its own, through the demand that pretty clearly already exists in Seattle. It’s just a matter of who will ask for the money over what area, and what we will build.

  12. By the way, if it wasn’t clear, that wasn’t “mmm, hungry”, it was “mmm, multimodal man”. On second look, it looks pretty weird.

  13. Regurgitating principles is very different from conducting a study. And conducting a study is very different from what will actually happen. Economics isn’t simple.

    Also, you are confusing the 4 year issue. If people expect the change to be done in 4 years, they are more likely to stick through it. If it’s indefinitely longer, they will not. Some businesses obviously won’t stand for a temporary 4 year reduction in modes of transportation, but quite a few will. Bigger businesses are what I’m thinking about. Amazon, Starbucks, etc. If the viaduct is torn down but transit doesn’t replace it, these businesses will have issues. They could handle it for 4 years. But not indefinitely.

    Which brings me to my big worry about removing it. Transit *has* to replace the viaduct to make it work. But we have such a NIMBY city that I worry that anyone will ever accept light rail or other transit in their neighborhoods. Oh no! I’ll hear a slight rumble every 20 minutes. Oh no! My three year old might learn to climb 45 feet up a pylon and get run over. Oh no! Light rail would mean that someone would build condos in my neighborhood of single-family housing! And then we tear down the viaduct, replace it with nothing, and are stuck with only I-5 and sitting next to vagrants on the bus.

    I would love to see it get replaced with nothing, but it has a hundred ways it can go wrong.

    King Rat

  14. reading:

    The point is, if they *can* handle it for four years, they can handle it indefinitely.

  15. You guys are way too optimistic about the impact of gas prices on the choice whether to drive or take low-quality transit, like city buses.

    The variable cost of driving most people use incorrectly assigns depreciation as a variable (per-mile) cost, which greatly inflates the figure. Depreciation is really something like 90% due to age and only 10% for miles, meaning that even at $6/gallon, the savings from taking the bus are still quite low compared to the extra time it takes for a typical suburbanite to ride the bus. And those savings are even smaller if you assume those suburbanites have some room to trade up to higher-efficiency cars, as most do.

  16. I don’t know if you remember, but these neighborhoods already fought for transit, they just lost it due to an incompetent agency. They’ll be happy to vote for it again, especially from an agency that delivers.

  17. I also posted a comment which got lost yesterday — y’all are assuming that more people will ride the bus when the bus is stuck in the same traffic their car would be, except the bus suffers even more from said congestion. Seems very unlikely (the few cases which have actually been studied, like London, have shown that when congestion increases, fewer people ride the bus, not more).

  18. Perhaps this calls for some discussion of past freeway removal projects. I have personal experience in San Francisco with the removal of the Central Freeway and the resulting Octavia Boulevard. I lived in the city through the project, actually living on Octavia Street while the boulevard was under construction.

    When it was an elevated freeway, it carried 95,000 cars per day just before its closure. Click here for some interesting history and figures.

    After closure and during construction of the boulevard, it was just Octavia Street, a small 2-lane street. The traffic went elsewhere, it didn’t just go away…for good. Unfortunately, a survey of people that had used the elevated freeway conducted after its closure revealed that most people merely used another route. Only a small percentage actually switched to transit or some other method. I think it was just a survey of people’s short-term response to the freeway closure. But this does show that people don’t just stop making the trip, besides those that said they reduced making unnecessary trips such as for recreational purposes. And the future of this project was up in the air for a long time, ending with the freeway being closed for 10-years. There was also some speculation that there would be backups on I-80 (equivalent of our I-90) for 50 miles after the freeway closed. Come closure, such speculation never came to fruition (sound familiar? What happened to all that traffic we were suppose to have during I-5’s lane closures?). Click here for a study by Robert Cervero on freeway removal in San Francisco. Skip to page 26 for impacts on traffic.

    After the opening of Octavia Boulevard, 45,000 of that original traffic moved back and filled capacity on its opening day. So, after 10 years of doing something else, whatever it may be, they were right back to their same old habits of the 90s.

    I am not a traffic engineer and do not retain 100% of my economics training, but I think there is enough evidence that at least partially confirms induced demand for driving as one of many interrelated factors of the complex urban fabric. People that run around screaming that reduction of the freeway’s capacity will leave Seattle empty as everyone chases jobs out of the city don’t seem to be able to get past their own narrow point of view. Similar to those business owners that always complain that removal of parking spaces is going to kill their business, such people have little understanding of the complexity of the urban fabric and have no interest in such because it would require looking past their own selfish desires, whatever they may be (retaining a nice view of the Sound on their drive in from W. Seattle?).

    Sorry for the essay.

  19. Since we aren’t talking about tearing down or closing down the north and south parts of Hwy 99 – you’ll just end up with drivers taking a detour to get from one to the other. Which will add to downtown or waterfront traffic. I know I would. I grew up driving around Chicago – cutting thru downtown Seattle is a breeze in comparison.

    Price of gas is much higher in the UK because of taxes, but they still have traffic jams.

  20. What is the benefit of disinsentivising driving via making traffic worse? I think there is a huge one. Driving is popular because it has a perception of being ideal, make it less ideal and people will look for other options. (Transit, living closer to work, changing jobs, telecommuting, etc.)

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