An example of how Seattle slowly struggles with its own complex problems

alaskan way viaduct by Chas Redmond

Views: Is viaduct fix politically impossible?
[Via All Today’s News – Sightline Daily]

If Seattle isn’t serious about replacing the quake-damaged Alaskan Way viaduct, how serious should the rest of Washington be about it?

Next year will bring the 10th anniversary of the Nisqually earthquake and the 10th anniversary of the engineering report that the viaduct had to be rebuilt or replaced – lest it collapse in the next big shake.

Despite nearly a decade of facing what some would consider a dire threat, Seattleites seem poised for yet another Big Dither.


Our strong collaborative instincts here in the Pacific NW also make it hard to rapid arrive at a solution. Maybe that is good but sometimes you may have to move fast.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct is built similarly to the Cypress Street Viaduct that collapsed in Oakland during the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989. During the NIiqually Earthquake in 2001, the Viaduct was damaged and the need for it to be replaced was recognized.

As I was in a building in downtown seattle at the time of the quake, I have some personal views on this. The Alaskan Way Viaduct is built on fill, which can liquify during a strong enough quake, bringing down a thoroughfare that carries about 110,000 vehicles a day. There is a degrading sea wall that helps stabile everything.

Here is a simulation of what would happen if the Nisqualy quake had lasted 60 seconds instead of 40, had been 20 miles away instead of 30 or was a magnitude 7.0 quake instead of a 6.8:

This simulation is actually at the corner where I used to work. The building is right next to the Viaduct, just out of sight on the right. When the earthquake hit, I was in my office on the third floor on the south side. I looked down the hallway looking East and could see the floor ripple. Fortunately, the building had been retrofitted – retrofitting that was required – against quakes and stood.

Luckily for us, the quake did not last long enough to structurally damage the building. But the Viaduct needs to be fixed before another big quake.

But Seattle has been working on finding new options since 2001 and seems to have finally settled on a tunnel for the traffic rather than rebuilding the entire viaduct above ground. The state is on board and money will be available.

However, in the typical fashion seen when herding cats, a few people have decided to try and stop this process by using citizen initiatives to force a change.

So we shall see what happens.

3 thoughts on “An example of how Seattle slowly struggles with its own complex problems

  1. The whole video reminds me of the damage caused in the San Francisco area by the earthquakes there both in 1906 and the Loma Prieta. Anyone who has seen that damage would do anything to keep from being trapped in a car on the viaduct or in a fire when the building has collapsed. I don’t see why anyone other than engineers has any say in the matter!

  2. I used to live in Seattle as well. Now I live near Boston; the big Dig comes to mind whenever I think about Seattle’s plan. It came in way above budget. Of course the Alaskan Way project would be on a smaller scale. Traffic flow is a nightmare in Seattle, anyways. Great simulation. Reminded me of Mark Reisner’s description in A Dangerous Place about what would happen to the East Bay in a catastrophic quake.

    1. Nightmares of the Big Dig are a real concern, just on a smaller scale. WHile the tunnel itself will be a couple of miles, if that, what is holding things up is who pays if it goes over budget. It is a game of chicken and no one really seems ready to blink.

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