On Monday, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) released the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the new, post-viaduct Alaskan Way and accompanying promenade along the waterfront. It shows us our future along the waterfront: a massive roadway, nine lanes in parts, separating our city from its waterfront in much the same way that the Viaduct separates us today. Years in the making, it is nonetheless jarring to see solidified into a final document such a disappointing public amenity as this proposed oversized waterfront roadway. But how did we get here?

Alaskan Way south of Washington Street. (City of Seattle)
Alaskan Way south of Washington Street. (City of Seattle)


Alaskan Way south of Madison Street. (City of Seattle)
Alaskan Way south of Madison Street. (City of Seattle)

Well, let’s look at the history. First, we selected an underground freeway from point A to point B over investing in our downtown street grid. Why use the whole toolbox when you can use a sledgehammer? There is also the fact that, at this point in time, we have no alternative to ferry queuing along the reimagined waterfront of Washington’s largest city, the road is largest where two lanes are devoted entirely to this purpose. Washington State Ferries are a part of our state’s highway system, so car-centric street designs are just part of the package, I guess.

But, overall, the main culprit is, as the fingerprints in the FEIS suggest, the benign-sounding idea of the Level of Service. SDOT is still using this concept, developed by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), that measures success of a roadway by using a grade level of congestion.

Level of Service descriptions. (AASHTO)
Level of Service descriptions. (AASHTO)
Level of Service and other characteristics between No Action and Preferred Alternatives. (City of Seattle)
Level of Service and other characteristics between No Action and Preferred Alternatives. (City of Seattle)

This chart shows how the new intersections that are predicted to have incredible levels of delays (over 200 seconds) like Pine and Spring Streets would go to “A” levels of service with the new roadway. It is notable that further south, the intersections don’t receive as high of letter grades because we simply can’t add any more lanes on top of the ones being added for ferry queueing.

The director of the City’s Office of the Waterfront, Marshall Foster, made his point quite well when talking to KING 5 earlier this week: “The traffic on that viaduct will move underground, but the buses, the freight, and the uses that are on there today, they do have to continue to use the surface street.” In other words, the Alaskan Way we are looking at now is basically the same Alaskan Way that we would be getting without a deep bore tunnel. The tunnel is not expected to keep a large portion of traffic off our city streets, because our city streets are where they want to be.

Comparisons are already being drawn between the new Alaskan Way, and the “new” Mercer Street, and the comparison is apt on many levels. First, the head engineer at SDOT, Angela Brady, is the same on both projects. And we can look back and see the arguments used in the Mercer Street FEIS toward the Level of Service standards. This chart shows LoS as “F” in a no-build alternative along Mercer by 2030, and green (which could mean anything from A to D) in the alternative we recently completed–the same design that became swamped with traffic almost immediately and is now only two seconds faster than before.

Mercer Street Level of Service grades, from the FEIS (City of Seattle)

Do we need to see the principle of induced demand play out on our waterfront? One of our city’s greatest assets?

One of the most frequent ideas heard from city representatives is that Seattle is entirely built out, and that we aren’t adding streets: it’s time to make what we have work better. But time after time, when the opportunity arises to improve the “level of service” for drivers in automobiles, whatever the price to the environment, public space, and Vision Zero standards, we frequently take it. We have seen this with Lander Street, Montlake Boulevard, and of course every single piece of the SR-99 tunnel. When will we stop seeing this city only through a windshield perspective? When will we start investing the millions of dollars for these projects in Seattle’s future instead?

Let SDOT know how you feel about the proposal by emailing the project manager at Angela.Brady@seattle.gov, the Director of the Office of the Waterfront at Marshall.Foster@seattle.gov, and filling out this contact form. Also let the Seattle City Council know how you feel as they will have to approve the plan. Look up the your councilmember contact info here. The waterfront resides in Councilmember Sally Bagshaw’s district (206-684-8801 and sally.bagshaw@seattle.gov).

October 2016 – Waterfront Seattle FEIS by The Urbanist on Scribd

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Ryan Packer lives in the Summit Slope neighborhood of Capitol Hill & has been writing for the blog since 2015. He reports on multimodal transportation issues, #visionzero, preservation, and local politics. He believes in using Seattle's history to help attain the vibrant, diverse city that we all wish to inhabit.


  1. This certainly seems to be the complete opposite of Vision Zero. Also disappointing, I had assumed the main reason for tunneling was to improve the waterfront by getting cars away from that area, except for local trips and deliveries. They should have just built a new viaduct since this is basically the same result, maybe worse since pedestrians will now be intermingled with traffic instead of separated by the viaduct like now.

  2. What’s wrong with the design that was just built on top of the new seawall? Four lanes for traffic, the rest of the space for parking and pedestrians? If we’re not going to get a “low line” park, that’s the next best design. And on top of that it’s working!

  3. A nice elevated park to replace the viaduct would be good so we can be where the view is and the trucks, cars and buses aren’t. Wait… The Urbanist hated that, too.

  4. I guess some people won’t be satisfied until no mode of transportation can exceed 10 mph. It sounds like the folks at the Urbanist are opposed to the tunnel as well, and I have to wonder which option they supported instead. The surface option? Because that would have been 10 times as bad as this plan.

    • The speed of moving cars and trucks is too high in urban areas. As soon as someone needs to pull in or out of traffic or make a turn, the roads can’t handle it. I’m not sure the speed and spacing of vehicles to enable merging and 90-degree turns, but I think 10mph is probably about it.

  5. It’s really disappointing to see SDOT still using the outdated LOS measure. This plan demonstrates a sorry lack of creativity. I bet 1 of those 2 ferry lanes could be eliminated by transitioning towards ferry reservations. And/or keep the 4 general purpose lanes, but make the outside lanes bus-only during peak hours. By rolling out the red carpet for cars aren’t we just giving drivers less incentive to pay the toll to use the new tunnel? Keep playing this out and the result is lower tolls and less revenue for WSDOT. All for what? To make it easy to drive along the waterfront?

    • As a Seattle to Bainbridge daily commuter, I can tell you reservations would not work for that trip because there are so many daily car commuters that no tourist would ever get a car on unless they add more boats or only low reservations on 1 boat.

      The only way to get rid of the ferry lanes is to move the parking/waiting to somewhere that isn’t the street. This is problematic because no one wants to build over the Sound for various reasons.

      • Or, move the car ferry to a different pier. Would be great to turn Colman dock into a passenger only ferry and shift the larger car ferries to a different location on the waterfront away from the urban core & with closer access to the freeways.

        For example, Circular Quay in Sydney is passenger-ferry only and serves both commuter & tourist traffic.

        Would require cooperation from WSDOT & the Port of Seattle to identify a new location for the car ferries.

        • They are remodeling Colman dock now. They could add a second level for car storage and get ride of the ferry queuing lanes. That is a ton of space for a single level parking lot.

          • Agreed. I am baffled that they don’t have at least 2 stories of parking. Make it 3 (2 stories and uncovered roof) and sell any extra for daily/monthly parking.

        • It would have to be further south, closer to the tunnel entrance and I-5 ramps at the stadiums. Added benefit of foot traffic being closer to the stadium means a smaller need for taxis. AND any extra parking helps out during games.

  6. I dont know. A wide urban highway will problably attract all sorts of tourist and develeper money. It will be like seattles own lakeshore drive.

    • San Francisco’s Embarcadero is a better analogy. Their freeway was torn down & replaced with a 6-lane surface street, pretty similar to our situation.

      I’ve visited there many times and it’s not a terrible place. It’d be better without the road, but it’s still fine having tourist attractions alongside the road.

      • The Seattle waterfront project turns into 8-9 car lanes + additional bike lanes around the ferries, which is a *lot* bigger than 6 lanes…

        • Those aren’t travel lanes, they’re people queueing for the ferries. As much as you want this to sound like a huge freeway, it’s in line with the existing road.

  7. It’ll be interesting to see what the signal timing is like. If there are long all-way walk signals and short lights for vehicles, it’ll be ok. The wait time to walk across Mercer is very long.

    • Even when you don’t have to actually cross Mercer, it’s still a very loud and unpleasant place to hang out…

    • given that they’ve used LOS (level of service) for cars as the key design metric, the signal length and timing will likely be very inconvenient for pedestrians in order to prioritize traffic flow/speed. It looks like no all-way walks are planned either. mercer street was designed with the same metric in mind, and it takes minutes to cross it as a pedestrian. Given this, I’m also afraid that slow pedestrians won’t be able to make it across 8-9 lanes in 1 signal.

      • I looked up LOS on Wikipedia. I hope that A-F schedule gets thrown out. It might make sense for a highway outside of an urban growth boundary. In an urban environment, I’d suggest intersection metrics should account for a set of priorities: 1. Protecting unprotected users from cars and trucks. 2. <30 second waits for walk/cycle signals 3. Transit mobility 4. Freight mobility

      • LOS is not a good use for an urban area. I’m not sure it’s ever a good use. LOS in most of Detroit is A and it’s a vacant wasteland. I’d rather have LOS of F in an urban area. That means it’s vibrant and alive in most cases.

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