Monday, 25 May, 2020

The Alaskan Way Viaduct Must Come Down, Not Be Converted Into a Park, Part 1


Editor’s note: This is cross-posted from The Northwest Urbanist.

East Marginal Way under construction.
East Marginal Way under construction.

A group of Seattle residents called Park My Viaduct is campaigning to convert the city’s waterfront freeway into a linear park, akin to New York’s High Line. They are proposing to save 14 blocks of the concrete double-decked structure, put the idea to a vote in the November 2015 election, and construct safety improvements at a cost of $250 million. But this idea is in opposition to the entire purpose of the ongoing waterfront reconstruction, which has already had a public participation process and is currently being built. The entire viaduct should be demolished as planned.

The proposal calls for saving 14 blocks of the viaduct between Pine Street and Railroad Way, a distance of nearly one mile and almost the entire remaining section. (Waterfront Seattle)

Aesthetics and accessibility

The campaign’s main point is that the view from the viaduct is spectacular. Unfortunately, the view of the viaduct from anywhere else is depressing. Its heavy gray columns and decking are an aesthetic burden on the heart of Seattle’s waterfront and a constant reminder of the car-centric planning that the city should be moving away from. Walking underneath feels oppressive, dark, and dangerous. It contributes nothing to urban livability, and that won’t change much even with well planned walkways and vegetation on top of it. There are equally stunning and accessible views of Puget Sound and the Olympics from many places along the waterfront, like Myrtle Edwards Park, the Olympic Sculpture Park, Colman Dock, and the many piers.

The planned waterfront parks include an artificial hillside leading up to Pike Place Market that will offer equally impressive sightseeing. Marshall Foster, Director of the Office of the Waterfront, explained that the Overlook Walk “…connects people and makes this critical connection from the market and Pike-Pine to the waterfront,” and “…gives you that great elevated view over Elliot Bay”. He said it is more cost effective to build a new well-designed structure for this purpose rather than preserving the old one, and that removing the viaduct is “…foundational to everything we’re doing right now”.

The seawall reconstruction, also a key part of the project, is on-track to be completed in mid-2016 and within budget. The City negotiated a win-win with waterfront businesses when it compensated them for closing during the nine months of construction, which Foster said is cheaper than maintaining access would have been. Pier owners are taking advantage of the closures do make significant repairs to their own structures.

A conceptual render of the Overlook Walk above Alaskan Way. (Waterfront Seattle)

Park My Viaduct is proposing that the viaduct’s lower level be demolished and the upper level be preserved for the park. This will reinforce the inhuman scale of the structure even more than the opposite, which might have made a little more sense. But that top deck is about 55 feet high, and it would need to be accessible to people of all ages and abilities from street level. That means huge ramps would be needed (770 feet long, by my calculations using ADA requirements) along with outdoor elevators and escalators that would be prone to mechanical failure in the city’s wet climate (as any transit tunnel user will know). Access could be achieved by building ramps on the uphill side of the viaduct to 1st Avenue, but they would create the same kind of imposing overhang that the current ramps do at Columbia and Seneca Streets.

Underneath the northbound off-ramp at Seneca Street.

Costs and funding

The estimated cost is $250 million for seismic retrofits and building a five acre park, which would come to $50 million per acre. Compare that to my rough estimate to cap I-5 for $20 million per acre. And so far, the group has not proposed any funding source. However, the vote that the group is planning for November 2015 is probably a local improvement district (LID). A LID imposes an additional property tax on land owners in a small area to fund neighborhood projects, but only after a majority of owners vote to approve it. This would directly conflict with the City’s plans to fund half of the $420 million waterfront park with the same mechanism,

The planned LID would not be voted on until shortly before the parks and other improvements are built in 2017 or 2018. Foster told me that downtown property owners, through BOMA and the DSA, have already voiced general support for the LID but need more details. They want the new waterfront to make connections into the heart of downtown neighborhoods, and recently the Pike-Pine corridor was added to the scope of work.

The vote may also be for a citywide levy. Seattle has taxed itself for projects that don’t directly benefit all property owners before, such as the levy for the Pike Place Market renovations ($73 million). But residents may not be willing to pay for a lone park project when they just approved forming the Seattle Park District to generate permanent funding for creating and improving parks citywide. And a citywide levy would likely not be high enough to raise money in time. Starting in 2016 the Seattle Park District will levy a property tax of about $0.33 per $1,000 of assessed value, which will raise about $50 million per year. An identical levy for the viaduct park is probably higher than voters would be willing to go, but it would also take five years to accumulate enough funding. By that time the waterfront projects are supposed to be finished.

Look for more on why the Viaduct must come down and not be converted into an elevated park in Part 2 tomorrow.

Scott Bonjukian is a graduate student at the University of Washington’s Department of Urban Design and Planning. He writes about local and regional planning issues at his personal blog, The Northwest Urbanist.

Sunday Video: Paper City


Paper City by Maciek Janicki on Vimeo.

Just in time for the holidays, a beautiful video of a snowy, paper city.

What We’re Reading: Preserving Historic Capitol Hill

Melrose Building by Rob Ketcherside on Flickr.

On the docket: A 6-story, mixed-use building could be on the horizon for 23rd Ave and Union St, but it’s still subject to Council approval in January.

New blues: On Thursday, the Seattle Police Department debuted a whole new uniform, department logo and patch, vehicle design, and options for police body cameras.

WSDOT is lying: Bertha is still entirely doomed no matter what the State say, and Grist highlights this “clusterfuck”The Stranger further argues that WSDOT needs to answer seven fundamental questions, and then points out that WSDOT is lying on project’s progress. And, what we can learn from the experiences in other cities that have removed highways.

Council makes big moves: The Seattle City Council pushes ahead with ORCA integration with the Monorail, and may proceed with annexing White Center.

Visualizing the city: You can get very unique results when you combine the skills of scientists, developers, and super-computers.

Keeping the lights on: After a week of drama in Snohomish County, the County Executive and County Council managed to come to an agreement on the budget to avert the state’s first County government shutdown.

New island: Copenhagen is slated to expand by making new islands for growth, and they’ll do it better than Dubai.

Punking the NIMBYs: A satirical post on CHS arguing for historic preservation of Pike/Pine’s nearly last fine surface parking lot (don’t worry, there are plenty left to save!) Meanwhile, Capitol Hill’s REI building may get actual historic status.

Tax the rich: Governor Jay Inslee is seeking taxes on wealthier Washington residents from the sale of stocks, bonds, and other assets.

Religion and economics: Just in time for the holidays, there’s a new theory that links religious diversity with national economic development.

Expanding transit: In addition to our own coverage of the new Long Range Plan for Sound Transit, Tacoma Transit has specific details on light rail’s future in Tacoma.

Total collapse: A look back on the failure of the Columbia River Crossing project.

Skyscraping on First Hill: Adiós, McDonalds, hola new 17-story mixed-use building!

Bad manual: The Trip Generation Manual is taken down for grossly over proscribing road capacity needs.

A pee break: Pioneer Square needs a bus layover facility if we want better reliability on high frequency routes, and it can double as affordable housing.

Growing chains: The evolution of Portland’s neighborhood greenways.

Map of the week: There’s a new website out that tracks the historic resources across Snohomish County, thanks in large part of the Snohomish County Historic Preservation Commission.

Complete streetsSeattle Bike Blog makes a very clear case of why Holman Road is not a complete street, and that we should be very careful when applying the term.

More carsharing: The City Council is likely to expand the authority of SDOT to permit more carsharing. If so, BMW’s DriveNow might join Car2Go on the City’s streets.

Harmonizing marijuana: There may be an effort in the next legislative session to harmonize the rules for medical marijuana and recreational marijuana (as a land use planner, I hope so! Oy vey!)

A better Dexter: SDOT is deploying new bike lanes on Dexter to make it even better for cyclists; the arrangement should also improve the street for drivers.

Tweet of the Week: “I am traffic.”


This week’s tweet is a refresher course on one of the most basic laws of urbanism. A city is a place with a lot of people, and not a lot of space. The most successful cities are the ones that do the best job of embracing that fact.

Downtown Seattle by Henry Faber on Flickr.

Lindblom’s tweet never mentions the word “car”, but we all know that he’s talking about motor vehicle traffic. For better or worse, cars take up a lot of space. In a city full of cars — and where roads are free to use — congestion (or “traffic”) is the inevitable result.

Traffic is about demand as much as it is about supply. Seattle is a fast-growing, dynamic city, and all of those new residents and workers will need some way to get around. A city without transportation demand is a city without people.

And Lindblom’s tweet is also a reminder that we have the power to improve our own lives. Every time you walk or bike or take grade-separated transit, not only are you reducing the number of cars on the road, but you’re also freeing yourself from the stress and delays of roadway congestion.

Sound Transit Board Adopts Updated Long Range Plan and Approves 2015 Budget

Public involvement event for updating the LRP, courtesy of Sound Transit.
Public involvement event for updating the LRP, courtesy of Sound Transit.

Yesterday, the Sound Transit Board held their final meeting for 2014. There was a lot on the agenda in order to close out the year, including: an agreement with Amtrak to operate along Sound Transit-owned trackage in Pierce County, adoption of the 2015 Service Implementation Plan, and a presentation on improving wayfinding and signage. However, the most significant items that transit nerds will care about were the adoption of an updated Long Range Plan and approval of the 2015 Budget.

The Board’s 2015 Budget

The Sound Transit Board approved a $1.2 billion budget for 2015. Highlights of the Board’s budget include light rail construction, fleet replacement and retrofit, and implementation of new Route 580. The 2015 budget will include $932.9 million in anticipated revenues while expenditures are projected to be $1.2 billion. Sound Transit currently has $155 million in unrestricted cash on its balance sheets, which will fund the lion’s share of $280.0 million spending gap. Additional revenues will come from the Capital Replacement and Emergency/Loss reserves, which is projected to cover another $48.4 million. The agency projects that up to $173 million in bonding will be necessary to meet its obligations for 2015, largely due to capital investments, not operations.

On the budget, Sound Transit Board Chair and King County Executive Dow Constantine said:

Sound Transit is poised to see record ridership growth in 2015, while staying on track for the early, under-budget completion of light rail to the University of Washington and rollout of the next rail expansion plan.

Service-wise, there will not be too many changes, but Sound Transit does have 2,000 unrestricted service hours to allocate toward overcrowded buses, largely on the Eastside. Sound Transit will begin a new Sound Transit Express service designated as “Route 580” funded under the new budget. The route will operate from Lakewood Station to Puyallup Station via SR-512. The route is focused around providing access to connecting Sounder trains to/and from Puyallup neighborhoods and Lakewood when not serviced by Sounder trains. The route is peak-oriented with only 20 daily trips, and would replace Pierce Transit Router 495. The success of this route will be interesting to watch over the next year.

There were some major capital expenditures allocated through the budget, largely for light rail expansion and completion work. These biggies include:

  • Completion of station construction, systems installation, and testing of University Link ($121 million)
  • Northgate Link construction ($208 million)
  • Pre-construction work to prepare for East Link ($143 million)
  • Preliminary engineering and final design funding for Lynnwood Link ($16.3 million)
  • 22 new Sound Transit Express buses–5 of which will be double-deckers buses for Snohomish County routes–and the retrofit of seven Sounder locomotives ($19.7 million)

The Updated Long Range Plan

2005 Long Range Plan, courtesy of Sound Transit.
2005 Long Range Plan, courtesy of Sound Transit.

After a year of engaging the public, collaborating with municipalities and other agencies, and talking about what should be in an updated Long Range Plan (LRP), the Board finally adopted a final version that will guide Sound Transit’s investments in new services and facilities over the next 20 years. The decisions were not easy as there were so many good ideas for future investments by the agency, but choices had to be made.

27 text amendments to the Long Range Plan were considered by the Board. 12 of these text amendments were considered individually due to the establishment of entirely new policy as opposed to the clarification and enhancement of existing policy under the LRP. The Board further considered 14 map amendments to the LRP on an individual basis.

One of particularly contentious text amendments amongst the Board was T18, an amendment to study a second tunnel in Downtown Seattle for high capacity transit. Boardmembers Mayor Ed Murray and Councilmember Mike O’Brien sponsored the amendment to the LRP. Board members were not favorable to the language, which seems odd considering that the concept appeared to be very practical. Specifically, the amendment as proposed said: “In addition, as part of implementing a regional transit system, Sound Transit can explore policy and funding alternatives to address significant regional facilities such as tunneling for future core system capacity (through Downtown Seattle); operation, maintenance, and storage facilities; and transit vehicles.” During the voting on this amendment, Mayor Murray was shockingly absent having left for a separate press conference. Ultimately, T18 lost on a 6-to-8 vote, and therefore failed to be included in the LRP.

Surrounded by Friends




Recently on the 3/4, a young man in a red beanie, huge red sweatshirt, massive gray sweatpants, and oversized basketball shoes boarded with his girlfriend. He recognized me.

“Wha’s UP, bro?” he hollered, as we bumped fists.
“Ey, good to see you!”
“Good to see you too! You’re the cooles’!”

As they left out the back door, I yelled, “thanks guys!”
“Have a good one!”
“You too,” said the girl.
The boy tarried for a moment and roared, “STAY OFF THE 7!”
“Oh, I love that thing!”
He frowned, pausing on the back door steps. “WHY?”
“I like the people!”
“Aw, SHUT UP!”

We both laughed. He laughed perhaps because he found my thought absurd. I laughed at his ebullient tone, and wondered if he thought I was sarcastic or serious. Faithful readers, you know that I really do like the people.

Some time later, I was strolling around the Henderson Street layover around 11pm. They play classical music from the loudspeakers over the Saar’s Market parking lot, which I love. There’s something so refreshingly anachronistic about hearing Tchaikovsky in the ghetto that it almost seems appropriate. The rich emotions and high drama, violins and cymbals crashing above a heated urban discussion–doesn’t it kind of make sense? The scene feels steeped in time, anchored in the universality of the ongoing human condition. Down on the ground near my feet is a sleeping figure, a regular on this stretch.* He recently thanked me for the biscuit I gave him; he’d wanted my offering of biscuit, but not of boiled eggs. Clearly the guy doesn’t know what a perfect boiled egg tastes like.

Tonight three men are in the bus shelter, passing the time. One is older. The other two are pushing their hands together as a show of strength. Garbage flutters around little circles, signs of life in your periphery. On first driving the 7 I remember being struck by the fact that people hang out at bus stops on Rainier in ways they don’t elsewhere. Not even on Aurora are bus stops destinations in their own right, the urban answer to porches and park benches. The men look at me as I walk toward them.

“Have a good night, gentlemen,” I say.
“You too,” says the old man. “Don’t work too hard, bumpity bump on those roads out there!”
“I’ll try not to!”
I’m stretching my shoulders as I walk away, one arm straightened out, pulled towards me in the crook of the other. I’m a fiend about stretching on my breaks. Keeps my body feeling happy.**
“Ey, how you do that,” one of the other guys says. I show him how and then cross Henderson street, now empty of traffic.

“Eey, my friend.” It’s the third fellow, walking out after me. I turn back. We meet in the middle of the roadway, standing on the double yellow line together. I know he’s about to ask me for a transfer. Several blocks away a building was shot up with automatic weapons a week ago. Sixty bullet holes, not counting the shattered glass windows. Sometimes you hear firing at night. Of course I give him a transfer, but I’d do so anyway, because of the dark spirited eyes, the wrinkled brow, the curly hair… don’t these describe friends of yours, of mine?

“Happy Father’s day,” I say.
“You know what? God bless you,” he says, patting me on the shoulder. I’ve never felt safer standing in the middle of Henderson Street. He thanked me again a few days later, introducing himself by name. Elbee.

“You are just the sweetest,” a pair of girls said later that night. “You deserve that paycheck!”
They’re followed by an older man who recognizes me from a long time ago. He talks about how he likes my attitude, and I tell him how I love the route.
“I know you’re telling the truth,” he says.
“Yeah? You can tell?”
“Yeah, I’ll tell you how. We, us number 7 riders out here, we see all the new drivers come through here, all the new guys who get forced onto this route. You see all these new faces. And then, after a shakeup or two goes by, they all get the hell out of here and you never see ’em again. As soon as they can pick other routes, they’re gone. But you’ve stayed! I first saw you out here something, five years ago! And you’re still here!”
“Thanks, man! Thank you!”
“Aaaaand, and your attitude is exactly the same as when I first saw you!”
“I can’t help myself!”

*As it turns out he is no longer a regular on this stretch of cement– he was completing a probationary thirty-day stretch before being allowed back into a shelter downtown. Now he sleeps in much greater comfort. “Two more days,” he grinned at me as the thirty days were winding down.

**Is your job a sitting job? Please, for the love of all that is holy, stand up. Do it now. Standing up, even for a few seconds, makes all the difference. It gets your blood flowing again and restarts your metabolism. Standing up for thirty seconds every hour will do more good for your body than running five miles on the weekends. You don’t need to buy a bowflex machine. Just stand. There was an excellent flurry of articles in the New York Times detailing this a couple years ago. Read more hereherehere, and here.

More Puget Sounders get parking benefits than transit benefits


The Puget Sound Regional Council, the regional authority charged with managing growth, published some interesting results on subsidized transportation from their Spring 2014 Regional Travel Study. The PSRC found that there is a massive imbalance between workers receiving subsidized parking and subsidized transit benefits.

A bit more than half of all workers in the Puget Sound received some sort of subsidized parking benefit. When those who were offered subsidized parking, but declined to use it were counted, the number rose to 60% of all employees. When employees were offered subsidized parking, nearly 88% elected to use it. Subsidized parking comes in a number of forms: free parking, partial or full payment of parking costs in pay parking lots, and Federal benefits in the form of the parking subsidy.

However, the 34% who were not offered a parking subsidy does seem staggering considering that the majority of Puget Sound residents commute to work by car. This suggests two things:

  1. Part-time employees may not be entitled to the same level of benefits as regular employees, and
  2. A substantial number of companies out there that do not elect to offer any form of parking subsidy to their employees. Most of these are likely to be large organizations or based in city center locations like Downtown Seattle or Downtown Bellevue.

On the other hand, subsidized transit benefits appear to be much rarer in the Puget Sound. Only 29% of respondents indicated that they could receive subsidized parking. And of that 29%, only half said that they actually used their subsidized transit benefits. A large share, however did not know if subsidized transit was even available. While this latter group skews the data, it seems fair to assume that the true number of Puget Sound employees who could use some sort of subsidized transit benefitis closer to 35%. However, the most striking piece of data here is that 85% of commuters do not–or cannot–take transit using a subsidized transit benefit.

The PSRC further indicated that 30% of Puget Sound commuters were offered “other commuter benefits” like bicycle parking, vanpooling, telecommuting, and other similar options and programs. However, most commuters did not elect to use these.

Perhaps the most interesting takeaway from the PSRC’s study is that when people are offered a transit subsidy benefit, half of them will choose transit. If this benefit were expanded as a standard in the same way that parking subsidies are, the number of commuters using transit would almost certainly skyrocket.

Governor Inslee Announces New Transportation Package for State

SR 520 construction tour by WSDOT on Flickr.

Yesterday, Governor Jay Inslee (D-WA) held a press conference on a new 12-year transportation policy for Washington State. His backdrop for the event was the recently-opened transit center on SR 520. During his press event, the Governor announced his plan for a $12.2 billion statewide multimodal transportation package. The vision for the new transportation policy is focused on maintenance and safety of existing infrastructure, clean air and water, and capital investments in new roads and transit facilities. Inslee stated at the event that:

This is a plan that will keep us safe on the roads, reduce traffic, create jobs and help clean our air and water. This is how we can build a transportation system to move all of Washington State forward.

Funding for the measure would be raised by the issuance of new bondsincreased fees to drivers, and a carbon tax on polluting industries–a huge policy shift for a state that that has traditionally relied on gas tax revenues. The Governor says that he will not be proposing a new gas tax increases.

The transportation crisis is real for Washington State; a whopping 52% decrease in basic maintenance funding is projected over the next 12 years, and at least 71 more bridges will become structurally deficient over that time putting the traveling public at serious risk for new catastrophic bridge collapses like the Skagit River Bridge in 2013. This is of course to say nothing about critical projects that remain entirely unfunded, or services that have been reduced due to the recession.

The plan does provide real benefits to transit and non-motorized users. At least $1.2 billion would be allocated toward a range of alternative transportation modes. Line items identified in the plan, include:

  • Transit projects ($162 million)
  • Regional Mobility Grant increase ($300 million)
  • Complete Streets programs ($117 million)
  • Safe Routes to School Grants ($150 million)
  • Bike/Ped Grants ($150 million)

The plan further covers things like special needs transit, transit operations, and Commute Trip Reduction programming. Local transportation agencies also would see a share of possible new revenue granted by the proposal. As seen in the table below, a wide range of transportation packages could be enacted by cities and counties across the state. Sound Transit would have an option to go to voters for approval of Sound Transit 3, which would expand rail-based services dramatically in the 3 counties covered by the authority. King County would be entitled to a new Congestion Reduction Charge to benefit public transportation by approval of the County Council through 2018. Water-based counties could also levy new taxes to increase or establish foot-ferry services, like the King County Water Taxi. And, Community Transit would get badly needed authority to increase sales taxes in order to return to pre-recession services, subject to voter approval.

Local options for transit.
Local options for transit.

The Governor is passionate about the issue of climate change. His package is considerably more green than past transportation packages have been. The Governor is using this package as an opportunity to provide better alternative transportation commuting options to the traveling public while hitting heavy emitters hard through a carbon tax. Ultimately, consumers will bare the cost of pollution by the purchase of more expensive goods generated from carbon-intensive industry. The package finally makes the State commit to a higher level when it comes to walking, biking, and taking transit.

However, the Governor’s proposed spending is bloated when it comes to funding new transportation investments. 54% of the total transportation package would be allocated to the construction of unnecessary new highway and road expansion projects. $5.8 billion will be spent on numerous megaprojects, including local boondoggles:

  • SR 520 expansion ($1.443 billion)
  • SR 509 corridor completion ($957 million)
  • SR 167 corridor completion ($856 million)
  • I-5/JBLM ($278 million)
  • I-405 Renton-to-Bellevue ($1.315 billion)

To round out the paved pork, the Governor is further proposing highway expansions in Snohomish County and North Spokane (US 395).

The shortcomings from the Governor’s plan are clear: most of the real benefits to traffic reduction are not guaranteed under the proposal while the investment side of things is actually in inconsistent with the policy’s stated environmental goals. The addition of new pavement will not ease congestion for commuters and the traveling public. In fact, the proposed highway projects will increase gridlock and further come at the cost of transit. New “capacity” for vehicles on the roads will not reduce commute times.

Rather, the Governor’s plans would induce sprawl, increase carbon emissions, and inevitably misallocate local municipal (and state) revenue to fund low density development. Aside from the dollars that the Governor’s plan directly provides for transit, the lionshare of revenues have to be passed at a local. This puts each transit funding option at risk of non-adoption by either councils or voters. In sum, this leaves the Governor’s plan as deeply flawed for the 21st Century transportation that Washington State needs.

For more information on the Governor’s proposal, see his policy document Let’s Move Forward.