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Taking the high road on transportation issues

Policy Perspectives

The current paralysis on state Route 520 creates instant flashbacks for those familiar with history: the collapse of the original Tacoma Narrows bridge, “Galloping Gertie,” in 1940; the West Seattle drawbridge locked in “up” position for almost two years after being hit by a freighter in 1978; the sinkings of the Hood Canal Bridge in 1979 and the I-90 bridge in 1990.
The greatest ongoing risk to 520 is structural collapse of the Evergreen Point floating bridge, the longest structure of its kind in the world. Experts say it can withstand only one more 20-year storm. This equates to a 40 percent chance of the bridge failing within a decade.

The other local link at greatest risk is Alaskan Way viaduct on state Route 99. It is a “seismically challenged” structure of concrete dominos that could collapse as Oakland’s Nimitz Freeway did in a 1989 earthquake.

Last Sunday, the future of the viaduct was the focus of a dialogue among Mayor Paul Schell, Seattle architect Lee Copeland, Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell, and Edward Feiner, the federal government’s chief architect. They spoke in Seattle at the closing session of the American Institute of Architects design conference, billed as “City at the Edge.”

Copeland, the moderator, asked panelists what they thought of the viaduct. Their answers were a surprise. “Don’t get rid of it,” said Boston’s Campbell. “There is a tendency toward all places becoming the same. The viaduct helps make Seattle unique, complex, structural.” Feiner, a native of New York City, said the viaduct “is like Chicago’s elevated railway. It’s part of the grit and richness of the city.”

Mayor Schell observed, “We are often of two minds about the viaduct. We complain that it blocks the view of the water, but we love the view from it.” Interjected Campbell, “Opening up continuous views can be boring.”

Copeland, a prominent local architect who favors removing the viaduct, was candidly bemused by the support it received from the panel. “Perhaps we should declare it a national monument,” he suggested wryly.

Sentiment favoring the viaduct was part of a larger theme: Cities with commerce are more “real” than tourist cities. Campbell noted, “Seattle has a working waterfront, and this is preferable to waterfront as a picture postcard.” Added Feiner, “The relation of water to the city is a constant reminder of Seattle’s origin and setting.”

Schell summed up the consensus: “We should focus on things that work for us and then, if the tourists come, so much the better.” The mayor went on to speak of “the tremendous velocity of change, which creates a greater need than ever before for community and connection.”

Schell concluded, “this can and must occur through interconnected urban centers, some of which are based on yesterday’s suburbs.” This concept came in response to a question from Frank Hotchkiss, former director of strategic planning for the Southern California Association of Governments, who challenged panelists to move beyond static notions of city and suburb to focus on a dynamic metro region.

In endorsing the viaduct, none of the panelists addressed the seismic safety issue. Yet, as with the 520 bridge, doing nothing is not an option. Thus, an intriguing question is how structural strengthening might also serve design solutions related to the viaduct’s role.

Commenting on the discussion, Hotchkiss observed, “The necessity to restructure is a fortuitous catalyst for enhancing the viaduct’s role as a function and a symbol. It is a path, it is a route, it is a connection of the city to a larger world that is Cascadian, continental and global.”

Hotchkiss says the “interweaving” of city-oriented, water-oriented, and world-oriented links represented by the viaduct justifies an international design competition for a strong, functional and aesthetic successor to the present structure. “Because of the seismic issue, this approach is both practical and visionary,” Hotchkiss believes.

As key highway links age or hit maximum capacity, the challenge of creative replacement becomes inescapable if transportation is to enhance rather than undercut what Campbell calls “the experience of the city.”

Every panelist noted Seattle’s current wealth. Yet Schell and others mused over how this translates into public investment. The mayor said “the biggest challenge is how to fit 19th century governments into 21st century problems — at a time when people don’t want to pay for improvements. There is no constituency for change, yet change is inevitable.”

GLENN R. PASCALL’s column appears regularly in the Business Journal. He is a Seattle-based economic and public policy consultant, and a senior fellow at the Institute for Public Policy and Management at the University of Washington.