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If this is the new millennium, somebody must be pushing another plan to tear down the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
The two-deck elevated section of state route 99 just gets less and less respect as Seattle continues its transition from roaring frontier outpost to Tidytown. It’s big and ugly, noisy trucks drive on it, and tourists arriving on boats don’t think it looks all that world-class–serious charges all. Several prominent Seattle architects recently held a “charrette” (architect-speak for “big cocktail party”) in which they drew wonderful pictures of the wide sidewalks that might be built along the waterfront if the Viaduct suddenly disappeared. (There were trees, too.)

But the discussion isn’t limited to the architectural in-crowd. The state Department of Transportation is working on a study of whether the Viaduct should be reinforced, replaced, or simply demolished, with a recommendation expected some two years down the road. The Discovery Institute is working on its own proposal to replace the Viaduct with a tunnel under Alaskan Way (expected release date: December 5).

However, there’s a serious problem that the demolish-the-Viaduct crowd hasn’t taken into account. The Viaduct isn’t a piece of modern sculpture–it’s a major freeway. Each day, about 190,000 drivers motor through downtown on Interstate 5 and about another 100,000 make the trip on SR99. So this not-entirely-attractive structure represents one-third of the north-south freeway capacity in a city in which worsening traffic is the major civic gripe. Is anyone seriously thinking of just tearing the Viaduct down and not replacing it?

At least the Discovery Institute folks are facing reality with their tunnel proposal–sort of. Viaduct critics are quick to trot out state estimates for retrofitting ($344 million) or replacing the Viaduct ($530 million), but a similar tunnel proposal costed out at more than $1 billion when it was proposed six years ago. That proposal also would have funded construction with vehicle tolls, an approach the Discovery Institute study would emulate.

“The attitude toward tolls for new [transportation] facilities may have changed in the post-695 world,” the Institute’s Bruce Agnew comments hopefully. An interesting theory: State voters slashed their car taxes in the hope they could instead pay tolls to drive on public streets. The Discovery Institute should recall why the Seattle Transportation Group’s 1994 Alaskan Way toll-road proposal was easily available for extended study. The state’s plan to allow private companies to build new roads and bridges and charge tolls proved so unpopular that most of the formal proposals were stashed in file cabinets by fearful bureaucrats.

The threat that an earthquake could cause sections of an unreinforced Viaduct to collapse has some validity; the two-mile-long roadway is constructed on pilings sunk into fill dirt. But won’t this unstable land make tunneling more difficult and expensive? And would you really prefer to be underground when the big one comes?

Lastly, a major element in getting the architects interested in the project is the prospect that several acres of new view property could be made available for development. So that pesky Viaduct will no longer mar the views of neighbors–it’ll be those brand-new yuppie condos that will do the view-blocking from now on.

Still, the studiers should study away. The “city beautiful” arguments for trashing the Viaduct notwithstanding, we’d all like to see the plans and cost estimates. But proponents need to understand that the burden of proof is on them to explain why we should spend two or three times the going rate (cost overruns not included) on a proposal that won’t add a bit of freeway capacity. Are we really this rich a city? Is the public ready to pay a toll for driving two miles down the waterfront? Let’s see what folks think.

Although she probably meant it as a compliment, it was amusing to read state Rep. Karen Schmidt’s comment in the Seattle Times after hearing Discovery Institute president Bruce Chapman’s speech on the Viaduct proposal and 14 other concepts for improving Northwest transportation. Chapman’s ideas, she said, were “not constrained by politics, environmental regulations, or money concerns.”

But the fate of the Viaduct most certainly will be.