The phrase,'Unsound Transit', was coined by the Wall Street Journal to describe Seattle where,"Light Rail Madness eats billions that could otherwise be devoted to truly efficient transportation technologies." The Puget Sound's traffic congestion is a growing cancer on the region's prosperity. This website, captures news and expert opinion about ways to address the crisis. This is not a blog, but a knowledge base, which collects the best articles and presents them in a searchable format. My goal is to arm residents with knowledge so they can champion fact-based, rather than emotional, solutions.


Monday, March 10, 2008

Replace the Viaduct with a Boulevard?

A former Milwaukee mayor makes his pitch and Seattle is listening.
At first, many politicians thought the idea was far-fetched: Tear down the viaduct and not replace it with a highway? Where exactly are 100,000 vehicles a day supposed to go?

But now, Seattle Council members like Richard Conlin and Peter Steinbrueck say they're intrigued--and may be changing their minds. It's enough to make you ask, what's going on? Is this the "Seattle Way" once again--a slow process getting slower?

Well this week, City Hall was packed as former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist made his pitch. Norquist says, he's not dreaming--he still believes the viaduct has to be replaced with a large road. But instead of a tunnel or overhead structure, he envisions a large boulevard at ground level--maybe six lanes across. Think Champs Elysee in Paris. He says cities like Milwaukee, San Francisco and Baltimore have successfully replaced downtown freeways with boulevards, though let's face it--Seattle's viaduct has a particularly high traffic load in a very congested area.

Norquist says building another viaduct would be a crime. A tunnel could be four times the price. He says, a boulevard can move as much as 60-thousand cars a day, but it can be built in such a way that it's friendly to pedestrians, and still opens the waterfront to downtown.

Here's his most interesting argument. He says the problem with the current viaduct, is that if you want to get off at downtown, you only have two options--Senaca Street or Western (going north). That creates backups. Norquist says a boulevard would be connected to the downtown street grid, so you could peel off at any intersection. Now, if you're just trying to whiz through downtown, the traffic lights will slow you down. But he says, many people are headed into downtown, and a boulevard connected to the street grid might even be quicker because you can go directly to your destination. A boulevard, compared to a freeway, distributes traffic evenly through the street grid and doesn't create choke points.

There you go--his argument in a nutshell. What do you think? Is a boulevard workable? Could I-5 and city streets absorb the other 40,000 trips somehow? Should the City spend much time studying this proposal or is it just time to move on with a tunnel or rebuild?

Update: I talked with Seattle City Council President Nick Licata late this week. He doesn't think I-5 and downtown streets could absorb the extra traffic under the boulevard plan. We'd have a "wall of steel" with all the cars along the waterfront, he says. But Licata is leaning toward the idea of saving the viaduct and retrofitting it. The Department of Transportation doesn't think much about this option, though it has agreed to study it again. Thoughts?

Readers Comments

Phil Morris said:

Seattle is not Milwaukee. A six lane road is a pipe dream, or a scam to confuse voters to give in to Greg Nickel's absurd plans to ask for money for specifically what? Like the Monorail Nickel's plan will fail. The Monorail being thee fiasco of all time. I think the SMP was a hoax, as they never planned to build what Nickels called"our very own Monorail". Nickels supported the SMP, then blithly killed it.However, Greg Nickels said on June 2005,"Mayor Greg Nickels issued a statment congratulalating the agency for moving closer to what he called a 21st century transportation system".(Seattle Times 2005)Here is a man who can't make a clear decision. I call him Mr.pancake he flip flops going back and forth between special interest and salting the taxpayers for exactly what? I agree with your GOP guest that Nickels never brings up some critical issues when he's running for his office! I think his tunnel concept, or six lane blvd. is another big dig attempt. We need to retofit the Viaduct like the Mercer Island overpasses.
May 29, 2006 10:27 AM
Larry A said:

Mayor Nickels is a legend in his own mind!! OPEN YOUR EYES public transportation is the only answer, unless you love smog and congestion and more smog....
June 2, 2006 1:14 PM
Carolyn said:

YES, YES, YES!!!! A boulevard, of course!!!! San Francisco did it and it is FINE!!! Not to mention, beautiful. Of course a boulevard is the answer. And Seattle will be a much more beautiful city for it. No more double-decker freeways to collapse in an earthquake (see Oakland), no ditches to drive through - and build, and also pancake in an earthquake! Yeah, the answer, at last!!! I wondered when you were going to see the obvious Seattle!
June 3, 2006 2:03 PM
Alan B said:

A boulevard is the answer. It has my vote.
June 4, 2006 4:57 PM
Robert Foedisch said:

I think a SIX (6) lane thats six (6) not four lane viaduct is absolutely the correct answer. for the following reasons. 1. it is cheaper than a tunnel. 2. it will be able to handle the anticipated load of traffic. 3. It will provide all the neccessary access routes to down town. 4. any traffic lights can be timed to a speed that can be best for the situation.

June 4, 2006 5:00 PM
Carol R said:

I found Doug MacDonald's comment about not wanting to spend more money studying the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement issue very interesting. Because the DOT under his watch didn't study the Graving Yard Site in Port Angeles well enough, the state spent $87 million to leave a big ugly hole on the Port Angeles waterfront. Should the citizens of Washington State really trust Mr. MacDonald's judgement?
June 4, 2006 5:02 PM
Daniel said:

The boulevard idea just sounds more appealing cause there would be $3 billion saved. Mass transit will be a key factor cause the city does not have a major mass transit link. We cannot be dependant on the roads all the time, a mass transit light rail like the SkyTrain in Vancouver, BC would be great to have. I think people just want to be able to cruise at 60 miles per hour in to the city which is why mass transit is shot down. Retrofitting the viaduct is pretty much letting an aging structure stand longer when it needs replacement. The only other idea I saw that was great was a tube 50 feet off shore going along the waterfront, therefore promoting the expansion of the waterfront. Brilliant to me, however where would all the traffic from ships go if you put this barrier in?
June 4, 2006 5:02 PM
Chuck T. said:

I have one question about the street level or tunnel plans that I never seen answered or addressed on the drawings shown to this point. What do you plan to do with the railway? Just for the record I believe the viaduct should be rebuilt as is. Every other plan is just pure folly!
June 4, 2006 5:06 PM
James said:

Typical Seattle Politics. Why not build our Con-vention Center over the I-5 North-South corridor through a large metropolitan city, creating a bottleneck that will plague the region for generations?. Let's use this same short-sighted, budget pinching logic to solve the only other chance to clear Seattle of it's incredible through-traffic flow!

Stop vascillating Seattleites and fellow Washingtonians. Build an over-sized tunnel that not only will serve the need for 2009, but will be forward-thinking enough to unplug Seattle for far into our future. Let's make the waterfront, Seattle's top asset, quiet enough to hold a decent conversation, and not blighted by the smell of exhaust and complicated pedestrian access. Let's fund it with a USER FEE, TOLL.Toll boothes are how nearly every state funds major highway improvements. It's the ONLY solution that actually makes sense!
Let us who use it, PAY FOR IT. It's what we did with the floating bridge and it will work for the tunnel too. Don't let the former Mayor of Milwaukee or our current Governor ruin Western Washington's best assets. We need the tunnel, and it will be best funded by the travellers who utilize it, including me.

~ James Melvin
June 4, 2006 5:07 PM
Chris Nickelsen said:

The woman who spoke advocating a 4 lane street replacing the viaduct said that her image of a "perfect street" is First Ave. downtown. It may be perfect for shops and pedestrians but it is a nightmare for cars, traffic is terrible, often near gridlock. This is her image of a proper solution to the viaduct problem? The point of this discussion is about getting cars to and through downtown, she tries to make the case that if the city makes traffic horrible enough people will stop driving. This "solution" is laughable and no solution. People seem to forget (or never knew) that the viaduct is part of Highway 99, not the Embarcadero Freeway in SF that ENDED near downtown. Highway 99 is a through highway that needs to get a whole lot of traffic THROUGH, not just TO downtown.
June 4, 2006 5:10 PM
Karen said:

Anyone who thinks a boulevard will work obviously does NOT drive that corridor. What a massive joke! I don't think anyone should be able to offer a comment UNLESS they actually live and drive that viaduct daily. I've driver it for 30 years for a variety of purposes. 1. going to college (need to drive through Seattle) 2. Work in the northend (drive through...) 3. work downtown (currently). 2 out of 3 times I needed to get "through" not go to Seattle. So DOT is right. We need a bi-pass.
June 4, 2006 5:11 PM
Julie said:

I am from Washington DC, we have boulevards, traffic circles and public transportation, no highways gouging through neighborhoods, creating smog and noise. It's time for Seattle to become a world class city, become more civilized... the answer? Look at any European city, what do they all have in common? Large boulevards, traffic circles, extensive public transportation, mixed with pedestrian and bicycle only streets and green spaces. It is a simple, time proven model that works, and improves the quality of life for everyone. Stop wasting precious time and money Seattle, we all know you are smarter than you currently appear.
June 4, 2006 5:15 PM
Michel Gibson said:

An Elliot bay bridge? an ugly idea. A boulevard? would yuppify seattle a little too much. A Tunnel could lead to major problems when the big earthquake hits. Repairing the Viaduct would likely be the best choice.Though the idea is not great. If people hadn't burned the monorail plan.The idea to repair the Viaduct would be an easier thing to deal with.
June 4, 2006 5:22 PM
Daniel said:

Mr. Gibson, repairing the viaduct is a repeat of the decision made in Boston. They could have repaired the structure and let it stand around for another 50 years. I see it as obstructing development of the waterfront. We cannot depend on cars to get from one place in the city to the other all the time and jam Interstate 5. I do agree however, that the Elliot Bay Bridge would be a horrifying idea. Creates controversy from residents that have views of Seattle. The bridge would create more controversy and put the project one step back.
June 4, 2006 5:28 PM
Mike K. said:

A boulevard makes a lot of sense to me. The other options are just WAY too expensive for what they provide. If you charges the viaduct/tunnel users a toll sufficient to pay for the project - it would run to $15-$20/trip. There's no way the current commuters value it that highly.

So, let's take the better option, put some traffic on the surface, with 3 lanes in each direction (expand alaskan way across the property to the viaduct - plenty of room for 3 lanes in each direction, plus pedestrian friendly planted median and park). Surface highways only cost $1m/lane mile. We should be able to save some REAL MONEY with the boulevard proposal.
June 4, 2006 8:52 PM
Aaron Johnson said:

i am autistic, here's what i think
the elliot bay bridge is a good idea
it would not create contraversy
it just would be an alternate method for people
while the viaduct was being remade

take for example, the fremont bridge
that bridge has a troll and that doesn't have any contraversy concerning it

my point: you can say to yourselves; fix the viaduct and build a elliot bay bridge

because you don't need to be discriminating the views about a bridge, you just need to liven up and go with the flow
June 4, 2006 8:54 PM
Jesse said:

I like the idea of the tunnel very much. It would solve many of Seattle's problems. Not only would it make it easier for traffic to move through the city more quickly, it would make the waterfront a place people want to visit. Like a Vancouver. We would eliminate an eye sore that plgues the area, make the waterfront more pedestrian friendly, and probably boost tourism to the area as people stroll through a waterfront park and shops. More people will want to live in Seattle as they have increased access and expansion of green zones. This is the answer and its tme we make some investments that actually improve the city. I'm tired of driving ton Vanvouver to visit a real city.
June 4, 2006 9:04 PM
Rob Plumley said:

After 25 years in Washington, I feel like I'm part of this area now. Prior, I worked in California - Southern California. You build a new freeway, you get more cars. Part of the unique problem Seattle has is its location, and that you have an interstate through it. Plus, all the water and man-made fill, certainly makes any engineering project an incredible challenge. The boulevard seems the most appealing, but it does create a huge problem. Where do the cars go? Set a date for closure. Keep it. Like the free enterprise system, let the market take its course. You have car-pools, buses, or using a different route. We know that our lifestyle of using the personal car needs to change. We know that there is a limited amount of oil, and that someday, we will not be able to drive in our personal vehicles without a significant cost. Let's make a committent and tear down the viaduct. Create a pedesterian friendly boulevard, and an environment that brings commerce in - not away from it. Let's bite the bullet and give our children and their children a better Seattle.
June 4, 2006 9:27 PM
melissa dermody said:

I am from st.louis and have been here for 2 years. The two things seattle could learn from st. louis is airport and highway usablity. The st.louis area has the alton suspension bridge along with other bridges as well as a light rail system that keeps growing along side the highway. I vote for the suspension bridge idea or the blvd. Looking at other cities or having outsiders look at us is a good thing. It brings new ideas to the table. The ballot should at least have an "other" choice. The mayor and govenor should say what they like best, they should say what is best for the city. The downtown area is a great place but hard to figure out.
June 4, 2006 11:01 PM
Jim said:

I'm in favor of a 6 or more lane boulevard idea. Look at Chicago's world famous "Lake Shore Drive". 4 lanes each direction, very efficient and looks good.
Photo of Lake Shore Drive:
June 4, 2006 11:05 PM
T Klastorin said:

A tunnel is probably the best option to replace the viaduct....except for the potential cost. The Milwaukee mayor is absolutely correct that a tunnel represents the highest risk transporation project; this one could easily exceed $5-6 billion dollars or more. One answer for those who want the tunnel: agree to put a user tax (i.e., a toll) on the tunnel if the costs exceed a certain amount. In that way, the users of the tunnel will pay for any cost overruns, and there will be lots of folks watching this project to make certain that it is run as efficiently as possible.
June 4, 2006 11:09 PM
melissa said:

Not all major cities fund road projects with toll. Case in point- st. louis. What about making two new items. One that brings traffic around seattle and another that brings people to seattle. The two could connect at some point or they could be totally seperate- a bridge above the bay and a boulavard. I just think it's great to have the people talk about it and discuss the situations the options bring. Instead of just having a boardroom vote on the most popular idea. More public debate and forums is great. Keep the ideas coming. Think outside the box.
June 4, 2006 11:14 PM
Margo Henson said:

The bridge is the best idea. It would be architecturally pleasing and the traffic could be split into those cars going through downtown (onto the bridge) and the cars going into downtown. The waterfront could then be used for tourists, ferry traffic and streets leading into downtown along with 1st through 8th Avenues and Western.

I don't know what the cost would be for a bridge compared to the other alternatives, but I think the bridge alternative gives everyone what they want. A beautified park/waterfront area, a new way to get through downtown, increased property values and new land uses along with the park. It also eliminates the need to dig below our water line and all the possible problems that could bring.

I am an appraiser and the thought of losing one of our main north/south traffic corriders sounds terrible. The bridge, along with increased bus service (which is what I thought should happen insead of the moonrail) would provide different commuter choices depending on where you were headed and what mode of transportation you were using that day.

Also, if they ever resurrect a monorail or light rail through the city, I always wondered why they didn't use the old trolley/railroad lines that go through the middle of the city, along Westlake so the east and west sides could travel towards the midline of the city and get the monorail there instead of shoving it to the west side.

The surface streets would not be able to handle what we have now, much less what is coming the next few decades. If the people who think this is possible dont' believe it, just close the viaduct for one week and see the chaos that results.
June 4, 2006 11:19 PM
Aaron said:

I think people need to be feudalistic now. Voters cannot rush into something without knowing what is going on. Look at the SMP, voters rushed into that w/o having a clue what was planned and we wasted money and time. A boulevard is not something that would work in Seattle. We need something that will let us get by downtown and enter downtown when needed, this means fast traffic to get through and exit lanes. A boulevard means traffic slowing down with jerks cutting across from the outside lane to the exit lane; it means pedestrians being in serious danger. Look at people try and cross 99 north of the battery street tunnel. Crosswalks, come on, be real, what good is a crosswalk going to do cutting into a major road. Cars don't even bother to stop for pedestrians on 2 lane roads. If some nutcase decided to run into traffic and try and create a nasty situation, it would snarl traffic just like now. Cars swerving, people slamming on breaks, people not paying attention, just a disaster waiting to happen. I take the viaduct everyday, either by bus or by car. I go to the UW and it takes me 1 hour each direction if I'm lucky. When there is one tiny accident, or a sports game it takes between 1.5-2 hours. It shouldn't take me 2 hours to go from the UW to West Seattle. A tunnel underground is also not very smart. First off, the waterfront isn't very stable as it is, we hear how they have to support the waterfront every so often, and tearing up earth right next to the waterfront, and build on a seismically active. Can you imagine the soil on the waterfront giving way during a major earthquake, not imagine a tunnel there. Think of the potential dangers. Some of you will think that modern technology would compensate for that, but we have seen "modern" technology fail before, and do we really need to risk that many lives so businesses can get more land and more money. Also, what if a fire were to happen, traffic again gets jammed up, fire burns, smoke in the tunnel equals more accidents. As for retrofitting what we have now, I'm just going to be blunt, don't be stupid. People who see what the viaduct is like now, know what I'm talking about, 1 broken down car = 3-4 lanes of 10mph traffic. The only realistic thing to do is to tear it down, and rebuild a viaduct with the modern touches that we need. I plan on living in Seattle for a long time, and I really don't want to have to put up with a situation like this again.
June 4, 2006 11:19 PM
EvergreenRailfan said:

Anybody know where I can find the info on the tube option that was mentioned in the episode, I am just curiuos?

I am not sure which option is best, I keep seeing new ideas, and more info on the tunnel, rebuild, retrofit, and no-build in the news almost every day.
June 5, 2006 12:50 AM
Donald said:

Of course, the real problem is the volume of traffic and what to do with it. I noted on Sundays's program, that most of the so-called solutions were from grey haired, retired proffessional types, all designing some 'pipe' dream bridge or tube affair. All were rubber on asphalt solutions direct from a 1950's Popular Science book.

We must think of the future, a 21st century solution, in a world of $3 or $4 a gallon gas, sprawled cities and poor public transit.

The answe of course is real Light Rail Transit (not to be confused with the heavy-rail hybrid LRT/metro now being built)built on street, servicing suburbs and destinations.

Modern LRT, operating on reserved rights-of-ways, with signal priority at intersections can obtain commercial speeds as fast as underground transit systems, meaning one gets a whole more bang for your buck.

Costing no more than $15 million/mile to $20 million/mile a workable LRT network could be built offering a viable alternative for the car. By building LRT on one traffic lane has the potential to increase capacity on one traffic lane 12 fold!

$2 billion for viaduct restoration would equal about 100 to 130 miles of route! Building at-grade or on-street works and if transit engineers can't seem to cope with modern LRT, hire transit engineers from Europe, who have a proven ability in building affordable LRT.
June 5, 2006 8:32 AM
Susan Thomas said:

Donald has a very good point. Too bad the "Mayor Nickels ego" would not even consider a workable soultion that would be best not only for Seattle, but for the enviorment also.
June 7, 2006 7:27 AM
evan said:

i think Greg Nickles must tear down the viaduct, build mass transit, and not more roads!
June 14, 2006 5:15 PM

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