Seattle’s Newest Street on the Waterfront Takes Shape

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If you’ve visited Pike Place Market recently, and enjoyed the view across Elliott Bay from the new Marketfront Pavilion, you’ve probably noticed work happening on the former footprint of the Alaskan Way viaduct where it used to slope up the hill toward Belltown. The work to create Seattle’s new waterfront has been pretty visible in recent months, but what’s happening here to create a new connection between the waterfront and north Downtown has gone under the radar.

Map showing the new Elliott Way connecting the waterfront to Belltown. (City of Seattle)

Recently city crews finished installing 18 girders over the BNSF railroad tracks at the point where those tracks exit the 116-year-old Great Northern Tunnel coming from Pioneer Square. Those girders will support a four-lane bridge over the tracks that will form the central segment of Seattle’s newest street: Elliott Way.

Cross-section of the new planned Elliott Way above the BNSF railroad tracks at Pike Place Market (City of Seattle)

Setting aside its incredibly uncreative name, Elliott Way will essentially recreate the Alaskan Way viaduct between the waterfront and Belltown, with only two fewer travel lanes than the elevated highway had. Drivers heading northbound on the new Alaskan Way will see the street turn into Elliott Way and would have to make a left turn onto Pine Street to continue driving on Alaskan Way.

The good news: Elliott Way will have separated bike facilities on each side of the street, raised and separated from vehicle traffic, and distinguished from the decent-sized sidewalks. Landscaping should also make the ride more pleasant, though we likely shouldn’t read too much into rosy renderings. However, green walls planned to cover up the backside of the Market Garage will be a welcome sight.

Rendering showing the new Elliott Way’s bike lane and sidewalk. (City of Seattle)

People biking toward the waterfront from Elliott Way will be well-positioned to continue south on the new two-way Alaskan Way bike path adjacent to the waterfront park. Northbound is a different story. People cycling will need to cross Pine Street, bike on the west side of the road for a block, and then cross Alaskan Way again at Virginia Street to continue on a separated trail. That trail doesn’t fully connect with the amazing Elliott Bay trail north of Broad Street. This could all be remedied by installing a separated path on the west side of Alaskan Way all the way to Broad, but Seattle hasn’t committed to funding that, and it’s also likely that conflicts would arise with the Port of Seattle on that segment of the waterfront.

As for Elliott Way, does Seattle need a new four-lane road bridging Belltown and the waterfront? It seems like the answer is no. The environmental impact statement for Seattle’s waterfront improvements showed that traffic on the northern segment of Alaskan Way, between Pike and Pine street where the new Elliott Way branches off, is expected to be 40% lower during peak periods than at the busier southern end of Alaskan Way near Colman Dock, where there are also only two general purpose travel lanes planned. That analysis assumed a 5% to 10% increase in vehicle traffic due to “regional population and employment growth”–a fact that is completely contradicted by Seattle having nearly flat traffic volumes for the past decade despite massive population and employment growth. This extra capacity will continue to encourage people to drive to Seattle’s new waterfront.

Rendering of a bird’s eye view of the new Elliott Way. (City of Seattle)

Despite the overbuilt nature of the road, Elliott Way should also create a new set of connections for people walking, biking, and rolling between north downtown and the waterfront. The new road is expected to open in two years. The Office of the Waterfront has a live camera where you can watch construction progress.

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Ryan Packer lives in the Summit Slope neighborhood of Capitol Hill and has been writing for the blog since 2015. They report on multimodal transportation issues, #VisionZero, preservation, and local politics. They believe in using Seattle's history to help attain the vibrant, diverse city that we all wish to inhabit. In December 2020, Ryan started a three-month stint as editor of Seattle Bike Blog.

4 COMMENTS

  1. “Despite the overbuilt nature of the road…” This phrase describes any number of projects I see going on around the city. I had wondered why taxes and fees in this city and county were so high that people were pushed onto the streets, yet somehow they never have enough money. The reason is becoming clear.
    I say Seattle needs a new slogan.
    “Seattle: Overbuilt Homelessness”

  2. First of all, thanks for the article. I knew about a lot of the pieces of the post-viaduct plan, but not this one.

    It has taken me a while to figure out why they bothered with this. I don’t think it is about making it easier to get to downtown (or at least, the heart of downtown). I think it has more to do with driving along the western side of town. This could be a short trip (https://goo.gl/maps/hw9KvkwPcfoXpcGS8) or a longer one (e. g. Magnolia to West Seattle). This includes a fair number of trucks. The options for going there are:

    1) Hug the coast, using Elliot and Alaskan Way. This has the drawback of crossing the railroad tracks, which adds to congestion (as delays are inevitable).

    2) Go up to the SR 99 tunnel. This adds traffic along Mercer or Denny (which are very crowded streets that lack bus lanes).

    3) Drive through the heart of downtown on one of the Avenues.

    4) Drive on Elliot and Western.

    I don’t think the last two are good options. If you assume that we need the capacity, this is probably the best choice. South of Blanchard, Elliot Avenue could be one lane, while Elliot Way is two lanes. According to the plans, the street is initially one lane, then branches to two (leaving a lot of potential space for pedestrians or bikes).

    Alaskan Way could be reduced to one lane each direction between Lenora (where Elliot Way branches off) and the point at which it becomes Broad. This basically reduces the amount of through traffic along the northern waterfront.

    This is not that different than the “surface+transit” option (except without the transit). This replaces the viaduct with surface roads involving Alaskan Way and Western (northbound) along with Elliot Avenue and Alaskan Way (southbound).

    This brings up one of the main weaknesses of the tunnel — the lack of a Western ramp. If there was a Western ramp, none of that would be necessary. We wouldn’t have to have so many lanes on (any part of) Alaskan Way.

    As to whether you need that or not is a different story. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you just live with lots of people slogging their way on Mercer or Denny. But at the very least, this does open up the possibility of reducing the width of a couple of streets — streets that I would argue will definitely benefit from a road diet. Elliot Avenue between Blanchard and Lenora is full of people. Two lanes (even if one goes up the hill) is not good. Likewise, at least this offers up the possibility of one lane each direction for a good chunk of the waterfront, while maintaining the same car/truck capacity. I’m not saying I would do it this way (it seems crazy to spend that money on a road) but it is reasonable, given the obvious failings of the tunnel.

  3. Yeah I took a look at the new construction a few weekends ago. It’s fairly far along, especially compared to the repaving of the new Alaska Way along the waterfront. They’ve only done a few blocks far as I can tell. One thing I did notice is it looks like they have done some of the initial work on two of the pillars that will hold up the staircase once it is built. If you look into the parking lot/construction yard you’ll see them.

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