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Viaduct 2002 - Pied Piper Music On The Viaduct
Pied Piper Music On The Viaduct
By Charlie Chong
August 6, 2002

What is there about this part of the North West that sends so many people dancing along and singing the words piped to them with absolutely no critical thoughts about the truth or lies in those lyrics?  Let's go dancing with them on the Viaduct, the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

The "earthquake damaged" Viaduct

The Viaduct is actually a series of separately constructed bridges.  The posts and transverse beams form frames called "bents", which hold the upper and lower road decks.  The Report of the Structural Sufficiency Review Committee [six engineers]:

          "After the February 28 Nisqually earthquake, WSDOT [Washington State Department of Transportation] discovered extreme distress in the Viaduct unit that turns the curve at Washington Street near Pioneer Square.  This unit showed signs of residual lateral displacement that predated the earthquake, but now showed signs of moving further to the east after the Nisqually event." [page 18]

This unit is approximately 222 feet long and consists of four bents, numbers 97-98-99-100, "and is largely independent of other units." [page 19]

Read the Structural Sufficiency Review Report carefully and you will find that the damage to the 97-100 bents curve is the only major damage identified. Further, this is the only unit that had extensive repairs after the earthquake.  Other than superficial damages, the only other damages that might cause a viaduct collapse are "potential."

 There you have it:  222 feet of a 2.1 mile Viaduct was seriously damaged in the 6.8 Richter scale earthquake, triggering fears of possible collapse of the entire 2.1 mile Viaduct.  222 out of about 10,613 feet of Viaduct - a little more than 2%.  One 4-bent bridge unit damaged while, as engineer Victor Gray points out, 63 mostly 3-bent bridge units received superficial damage, if any.  Or, as Matthew Fox asks, if other units were so dangerous for people, why didn't they also get emergency repairs?

The Structural Sufficiency Review Report

This is the WSDOT report by six experts who warn us of a 1 in 20 chance of "exceedance" - when an earthquake collapses a structure.  So it's a 5% risk?  But the standard - as reported in the Review Report - is 1 in 10 or a 10% risk.  What data supports the 1 in 20 conclusion?  Why not 1 in 40 or 400?

What is the real risk?  We get damaging earthquakes about every 35 years.  The recurrence of another Nisqually 6.8 earthquake is 150 years.  But that 6.8 should have liquefied the soil under the Viaduct  but did not.   

"Accordingly, for the purpose of developing recommendations for the repair of the Viaduct, we suggest using a threshold acceleration of approximately 0.25g [instead of the 0.19g of the Nisqually earthquake] to represent the level of earthquake ground shaking that might be required to trigger a failure of the Alaskan Way Seawall and associated massive lateral spreading that would jeopardize the integrity of the Viaduct."  [Page 10]

Then - they write that "the 0.25g acceleration would have a recurrence interval of about 350 years."  And still there are people who are afraid to drive on today's Viaduct!  So - it falls down next week?  Or in 150 years?  Or 350 years?  Hurry up, Seattle!

While this Review has much that is valuable and useful expertise, it must be read with caution:  the six engineers did a paper review - of previous engineer reports, meaning they themselves did no examination of the Viaduct itself.  This is like judging a pie not by looking at or tasting it but only by reading the recipes - or as a baker corrected me - by only reading the reviews of recipes.  Just remember that we are about to invest $12 billion dollars based upon their recommendations.

The WSDOT "Preferred Alternatives"

First, the "bored tunnel":  using this method of connecting from the waterfront to Aurora Avenue [further north than now] seems expensive but necessary.  My only question would be why not spend this money instead to bore a tunnel under I-5 that would completely by-pass downtown?

Second, the "cut-and-cover tunnel":  the most expensive, time-consuming alternative, $12 billion and 12 years to start with and easily double that in reality.  

Why the cut-and-cover?  We read about needing the sea-wall fixed.  Well, $12 billion to fix a sea-wall makes it a very expensive sea-wall and what has the Port of Seattle done with the tax monies they collect from us?  Pay themselves bonuses instead of fixing the sea-wall?  Is the sea-wall a case of deferred maintenance, bad repairs, or did the earthquake stir up those sea-wall-devouring insects featured in that press conference with the mayor?

Some of us who use the Viaduct have protested, at the WSDOT "open-houses", against tunnels.  Why?  Simply put, some of us are afraid that underground next to the harbor water and with a tear in the waterproofing film of the tunnel - we drown like rats.  Also, we read the articles of people killed in the tunnel fires when cars or trucks collide and explode.  We don't see ourselves or our families as pieces of charcoal.  "We will engineer safety," an engineer assured me.  And I thought, sure and this is the city where a floating bridge sinks, ferry boats crash into docks, the bus tunnel has the wrong size rails, and where light rail is over budget and behind schedule besides being irrelevant to traffic congestion.  

Does the Viaduct Block the Waterfront?

Some downtown dwellers want to "connect to the waterfront."  Well - if Capitol/First Hill residents were equally as self-centered they could demand that I-5 be removed so that all their streets could connect with downtown.  But they're neither selfish nor stupid.

The ill-informed at Allied Arts need to come down and see how the Viaduct has nothing to do with blocking their "connecting to the waterfront."  Start with Yesler  where James runs into it.  Going north, Cherry stops at First, not at the Viaduct.  Columbia, Marion, Madison, Spring go down to the water.  Seneca and University have steps that go down from First.  Yes, Allied Arts, there is a bluff there.  And on that bluff is the Pike Place Market - from Union to Pike to Pine to Stewart to Virginia.  And between Virginia and Lenora is Steinbrueck Park, still on the bluff.  Lenora has an elevator.  So tearing down the Viaduct to enable "connecting to the waterfront" is a crock.

 Some people are sold that they will be getting an expansive park at the waterfront.  They might - if the city can afford substituting the park for tax revenues from the inevitable high-rise condos, office buildings, and hotels.  [Remember the dream of a larger Westlake Park?]  And will that Gold Coast population want other people recreating in their front yards?  

What does $12 Billion get?

For one roadway in Seattle that already works for 110,000 vehicles and 25% of the north/south traffic each day and should last another 25 years in a normal life span for bridges?

 It gets us - after at least 12 years of construction detours and worse - a highway with the same 3 lanes, no increase in capacity, probably slower speeds in tunnels, and in those tunnels the steady view of tiled walls and ceilings instead of the unique and breathtaking panoramic views of mountains, water, ships, harbor and rail facilities, downtown streets, buildings, people, and skies with clouds, moon and stars.  Future generations will curse this one for reserving those views for the very rich in their waterfront condos and offices.

Think what $12 billion could do with the tremendous backlog of infrastructure repairs and replacements in roads and sidewalks, water pipelines, parks.

Will this investment relieve Seattle traffic congestion - or magnify it tremendously for the next 12 and more years?  Not only will it affect the Viaduct traffic flow but also the surface Alaskan Way.  How will they handle ferry traffic?

How much relief?  How much better relief by investing that money in other traffic-congestion relief transportation?

Retired engineers Neil Twelker and Victor Gray propose fixing the Viaduct for $300 million, using jet grouting and liquefied concrete to form underground concrete columns and using isolation bearing to cope with earth movements.  WSDOT engineers and a UW professor say this won't work here but not why it won't work.  Who's right?  Can we do a test?  Like walking out of the Rolls-Royce show room and test-driving a Chevy we can afford.

Is Resistance Futile?

We began by asking why so many people dance along with no critical thoughts to expose the propaganda of the transportation "experts."  We can now conclude and suggest that the answer lies in the deliberate use of primal fear in all of us, the fear experienced in actual earthquakes.

The WSDOT even tried to use this fear to push for the replacement of 520 across the lake ["experts" claimed that 520 would collapse in the same strength earthquake as would collapse the Viaduct - provided it centered right under the bridge].

Seattle Council Member Nick Licata should be thanked for arranging the Viaduct Forum on Wednesday, August 7th.  He brought House appropriations chair Helen Sommers and House speaker Frank Chopp to the table where they both firmly and clearly told WSDOT and the City of Seattle to get "realistic" about funding the Viaduct replacement.  

What should we do about this pipedream?  Keep asking the right questions.  Vote down the transportation tax proposals which include the Viaduct.  Tell the Downtown merchants that if the Viaduct goes down we will then avoid downtown and shop at the suburban malls.