Posts Tagged ‘Highway 99’

Surface option? Still not buying it

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Don't let these cars end up on downtown surface streets.
I’m very pleased to see that my post about the future of Highway 99 through downtown Seattle (tunnel vs. surface streets) has engendered so much interesting debate and commentary.

While recent events have toned down the civic debate about the tunnel – mayoral candidate Mike McGinn conceded he won’t try to block it if elected, while his opponent, Joe Mallahan, has supported the tunnel all along — it’s still not yet a resolved issue.  And I have become ever more convinced that if no tunnel were dug that the virtual elimination of this important highway corridor through our city would be disastrous.

My two main areas of greatest concern relate to economic vitality and the street-level environment.

Historically and globally speaking, all major economic powerhouses are located at key crossroads or transportation convergence points, be they waterways, railroads, highways or a combination.  Seattle is a textbook example of this phenomenon.  No one can deny that the roots of Seattle’s historic economic success story lie in its pivotal location.  Whether going back to 1851 when the founders realized that Elliott Bay was a potentially new “New York Harbor” for the West Coast, or returning to 2009 with Seattle as the midpoint of a north-south, over 100-mile-long metropolitan area, our city’s location has been a preeminent determinant in making it the center of one of the most prosperous and economically viable metropolitan areas in the country.

In short, transportation is a key attribute to any economically viable region, yet our region’s traffic congestion has begun to hinder our economic viability.  Seattle-area traffic congestion ranked ninth worst in the nation last year, while we ranked only 15th in population.  Freight mobility has become a key issue for the region’s industrial sector..

Let’s face it.  No one has a crystal ball here – neither the dyed-in-the-wool surface-streets supporters, nor the diehard tunnel supporters.  Those in favor a streets-only solution believe that the consequent reduced capacity and increased congestion will somehow naturally regulate the traffic flow, weeding out that percentage of current motorists who could switch to transit and/or choose alternative routes or times.  Those of us in favor of the tunnel worry that the resulting traffic congestion and increased travel times may severely hamper our economic vitality.  The questions that occur to me as I contemplate the notion of severing one of our region’s transportation lifelines at the downtown Seattle choke point are the following:

·  If surface-street traffic congestion were to reach day-long gridlock conditions, as I fear, what ultimate effect would that have on freight mobility and the general movement of goods and services that serve our economic vitality?

·  In the face of a future of endless gridlock along the erstwhile Highway 99 corridor, would businesses related to the Port of Seattle and downtown Seattle locations, especially, seek other locations to base and/or conduct their business?  Would they accelerate the tide of industrial business loss from Seattle to the suburbs?

·  Would we gain the dubious distinction of becoming one the top-five worst metros for regional traffic congestion?

As an economic development professional, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fielded inquiries from folks about the region’s infamous traffic congestion, so I can’t even imagine the perception we’d receive with even worse traffic.

And lastly, even if the city’s or region’s economic vitality would not be at any peril, the urban designer in me shivers at the potential future of downtown’s pedestrian environment with the majority of Highway 99’s vehicle traffic dumped onto our surface streets.  Today, especially in the p.m. peak hour(s), First, Fourth and Fifth avenues are at virtual gridlock.  And some of the steep side streets (especially where the larger office buildings are located) are even worse. It’s not uncommon to see vehicles wait through several full traffic-light cycles before advancing through a single intersection. Does anyone really think these streets can handle the majority of the existing Highway 99 traffic volumes?

I do not profess to know of all of the potential “enhancements” contemplated to accommodate this additional vehicle traffic, but the list may include the following: elimination of parking lanes, greater use of left (and even right) turn prohibitions, reduction in general-purpose lanes, and even, as Mayor Giuliani did in New York, prohibition of pedestrian crossings at key right-turn locations for vehicle traffic.

Even if these “enhancements” could somehow accommodate Highway 99’s traffic, my greatest fear would be the impact to pedestrians, including valuable shoppers, visitors and tourists!

Without curbside parking, pedestrians would no longer be “sheltered” from the impacts of passing vehicles (fumes, noise, splashing, even wind and vibration from larger trucks and buses). With multihour-long gridlock conditions, the cacophony of horns, screeching brakes, together with the fumes and odors of idling vehicles (especially diesel vehicles), would sharply sour the pedestrian’s street-side experience.  Pedestrian street crossing could be hampered.  Increased pedestrian-vehicle and pedestrian-bicycle collisions could ensue.  In summary, I’m quite worried that downtown Seattle would increasingly be shunned by any discretionary visitors (shoppers, tourists, day trippers), losing both its charm, character and economic vitality.

The tunnel opponents don’t want increased traffic on our streets either. But they are willing to risk the potential traffic and pedestrian impacts that I and others fear as a hedge against their greater fear of the tunnel’s cost and potential cost overruns.

We tunnel supporters, fully recognizing that the current proposal is not perfect, fear the impacts to our environment and our economy more than we fear the cost and potential cost overruns.  In fact, I would posit that the potential, permanent adverse economic impacts related to lost business if we do not build a tunnel would more than outstrip the one-time costs of the tunnel.

Out with the viaduct … in with I-605?

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

Replacing the viaduct with a surface streets could stall traffic downtown.
Replacing the viaduct with the surface-and-transit option could stall traffic downtown and encourage highway construction elsewhere.

The current mayoral race has placed the viaduct-replacement issue squarely back into the public limelight after most of us thought the issue had been put to bed, what with the governor’s and Legislature’s approval of the deep-bore tunnel option, as well as the accompanying funding commitments.

Both mayoral candidates have raised the issue of the viaduct replacement, with one issuing renewed and strident calls to reconsider the surface-and-transit option.

While the surface-and-transit option seems to be readily embraced by the nominally environmentally conscious activists, I’ve been wondering recently if their concerns may not be both overly simplistic and somewhat shortsighted, as well as possibly self-defeating.

We have heard and read much discussion in the media about the relative validity of arguments on both sides of the issue of whether the throughput of the existing Alaskan Way Viaduct can reasonably be reduced and/or otherwise accommodated by surface streets.  Activists promote the notion that greater and more attractive transit options will remove a certain amount of the vehicle traffic, leaving the remainder to be accommodated by an enhanced network of the existing surface streets.  Detractors protest that most of the throughput traffic is not transit-compatible and that diverting a huge volume of additional traffic onto the surface streets will create gridlock all day long on virtually all downtown Seattle streets.  These issues have been volleyed back and forth in the public debate ad nauseam, but there’s one additional concern that I have been discussing lately that I have not yet seen much coverage on.

Sharing the concern that simply cutting off one of our region’s major north-south highways will reduce downtown Seattle’s streets to a virtual standstill during most daylight hours, I wonder what impact the sharply exacerbated choke point of downtown Seattle within the Puget Sound area’s north-south regional transportation corridor would have on the pressure to consider future road-building in suburbia and exurbia?

You may remember that every few years pro-development forces on the Eastside raise the issue of the “Foothills Freeway,” or I-605, that would consist of a more distant loop around the easternmost edge of our metropolitan area.  If north-south circulation through the metro area is even further complicated by the removal of one of the region’s vital north-south highways, the I-605 promoters would essentially be offered more fuel for their fire.  Constant gridlock on I-5 and the downtown Seattle streets, coupled with the congestion already on I-405, could lead to a ready-made argument in favor of efforts to pursue an I-605.

And we need to ask: Even if some magical combination of street improvements and synchronized traffic signals could accommodate the existing Highway 99 flow through downtown (which I do not believe is possible), what about future growth?  Do the streets-and-transit promoters think the region will stop growing?

Now, in addition to the already oft-mentioned litany of environmental impacts from potentially gridlocked downtown Seattle streets (i.e., substantially increased vehicle idling and resulting air pollution, increased noise, and a markedly diminished pedestrian environment), we could add the potential consequence that the loss of the Highway 99 corridor through downtown Seattle could lead to the development of I-605.  Any environmentally conscious individual knows that the construction of a major new freeway in any metropolitan area literally paves the way to urbanization in its path.  Is that what we want virtually on the slopes of the Cascades?

Mayor Nickels, Gov. Gregoire and the state Legislature all recognized, and thankfully so, that the viaduct should not be replaced with a new modern-age monstrosity along our waterfront.  They also recognized that the vital transportation corridor that Highway 99 plays not only in Seattle, but in our entire region,  must be preserved.  The tunnel was and is the only option that accomplishes both noble objectives.  Environmental activists need to look beyond their Seattle-centric view of the world and see that Highway 99 is not just a Seattle problem, but a regionwide problem.  And the potential, long-term environmental impacts of the streets-and-transit option are far greater than the theoretical, short-term reduction of vehicle trips that that option is purported to create.

The case for the deep bore tunnel

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

Right now, a drill rig is outside on First Avenue, testing soil conditions for the deep bore tunnel.  The plan is far from certain obviously, but progress of any kind is exciting! Meanwhile it’s working its way through the legislature. This is a good time to hit some key points and dispel some misconceptions.

The tunnel would have more capacity than the current tunnel, not less. The same two lanes each way, plus breakdown lanes that avoid backups. The missing third lane is replaced by people exiting before Downtown rather than in Downtown.

It might save money vs. the alternatives despite costing more. What’s the price of several years of massive disruption with the aerial or shallow-cut alternatives? How many stores would fail, offices would move away, residents wouldn’t move in, and tourists wouldn’t come? (not to mention the effect of being next to another eyesore for another lifetime)

It’s realistic about traffic. The surface-option supporters have great motives. But they’re mistaken. Better transit would reduce trips somewhat, and many drivers might simply move. But tens of thousands of cars per day would be added to surface streets. Political concessions to the driving public would turn Downtown streets into highways focused on throughput rather than those who work, live, or shop here. For example, the PI instantly suggested fewer pedestrian crossings when the original surface option was shortlisted.

A tunnel helps Downtown function. Downtown Seattle is the dominant economic engine of our region, and plays an important role for most locals, whether working here, attending events, or just getting through. It’s tough to concentrate so much activity in a narrow area, but we do pretty well because of tunnels, including the BN tunnel, the transit tunnel, the existing 99 tunnel, and even the covered part of I-5. Downtown is growing. Putting 99 underground gets the through traffic through (without encouraging more driving) while allowing Downtown to be what it can be.

It avoids another 50-year mistake. Cities that succeed in the coming decades will have quality of life (as well as functionality; see above). The central waterfront and our surface streets are essential parts of that.

I think it’ll pass. The plan mixes best-case attributes and lacks strong anti constituencies. The “view while driving” crowd seems numerous but they ought to watch the road and will look foolish if the initiative goes anywhere. Through-drivers get their freeway (without more lanes to encourage more driving), Interbay gets a wider Alaskan Way and non-jammed streets, transit users end up with more transit (even if indirectly), Downtown people get our great waterfront and hold on to our walkability, and locals shoulder the difference in cost, which is a manageable figure.

PS, did everyone notice that Sound Transit just bid two two tunnel sections for massively less than projected?  They came in 23 percent and 34 percent under Sound Transit’s estimates, at a combined $329 million rather than $425 million. This is encouraging for the deep bore 99!

Conflicted over viaduct options

Saturday, December 13th, 2008

The State narrowed the SR99 options down to two last week. Maybe that’s not the final word, but let’s assume it is for a moment.

I don’t like either of them. Both options have big problems. (On the other hand, wouldn’t a decision, good or bad, be a relief on some level?)

In some moods, the new-viaduct option even seems like the better of the two. Kinda leaning that way right now.

That’s not easy to admit. I was on the viaduct-over-my-dead-body bandwagon not long ago. Why build another view-blocking encouragement to driving too much? Why choose to make the same horrible decision that so many of us have regretted for decades?

A tunnel is clearly the best option. It handles most of the traffic, and it does it out of sight. But remember our assumption.

The one-way surface couplet is scary, though it has its benefits. For a few reasons.

For all the horrors of the current viaduct, it gets traffic off the streets, and makes Western and Alaskan pedestrian-friendly. We’re talking about turning both into high-volume throughways. Sort of like Western already is in Belltown, but worse.

The surface option assumes some traffic would go away as transit use grows, and as people make new decisions about where to live and work, telecommuting, etc. But it also assumes more traffic flows to I-5 and other surface streets. We also plan to accommodate more cars on our streets.

I don’t want Downtown Seattle to be a throughways! Let the through traffic stay on the two freeways, and let our surface streets focus on people and their own neighborhoods.

The emphasis on transit is fantastic. We should do that regardless. Taking it a step further, Seattle needs its own version of the Metro and Sound Transit bus improvements that are mostly suburban. A levy in the tens of millions per year would revolutionize inner-city transit.

If you’re concerned about the aerial option encouraging driving, rest assured that it won’t add capacity, and has fewer lanes than the current version, with the plan that Downtown commuters will exit sooner. Actually Downtown streets stand to suffer even in this scenario. It’s a decent balance.

Sometimes pragmatism and compromise gives you a better result than idealism.

P.S. North of Denny, it’s all positive. Anything is better than the mishmash of pedestrian barriers we have now, crossing Aurora, going north-south west of Aurora, etc.