Friday, October 5, 2007

The Alaskan Way Viaduct

It should come as no surprise that the engineers came to the conclusion that the viaduct cannot be saved by adding some bracing and grouting around the foundations. Afterall, that is the least costly of the alternatives. It is even less surprising that the engineers came to the conclusion that the preferred alternative is to build a tunnel. Afterall, that is the most expensive alternative.

Engineers are paid a percentage of the total cost of any project. It should come as no surprise that they skip the least expensive alternative and endorse the most expensive. To do otherwise, they would have to be saints. Or stupid.

The fix-it alternative has been pooh-poohed from day one and it is the one alternative that makes sense. It makes sense if you realize that the viaduct has been through several fairly severe earthquakes without significant damage (moving a couple of inches is not significant if you are a two mile long, fifty feet high and forty feet wide elevated roadway; these things are designed—if they are designed right—to move a little). If you look at the report that was written BEFORE the 2001 earthquake, the report that predicted that the whole thing would fall down for sure at the next tiny quake, you realize that the structure has withstood what they promised would be fatal. Simply put, the viaduct isn’t falling. Not even close. The fix-it alternative is the cheapest, surest and best alternative.

So let’s assume that it has to come down. Then the next best alternative is to not replace it. Here the proof is in the pudding. Several cities have eliminated their elevated roadways and not one has suffered the predicted dire consequences. Rather, every city that has torn down their elevated roadways report great news. But let us assume that the critics of such an idea are right when they pronounce that ‘those other cities are different; their elevated roadways went through the city’, or that they had ‘alternatives that we don’t’ or some other bullshit excuse why we can’t do the same thing here in Seattle. Seattle has shut down some streets for months, even years and some how, some way the cars found a new way around, they managed to get where they wanted to go and the swallows returned to Capistrano. When they built the West Seattle high bridge, all traffic was routed through a cow pasture path of a street with people predicting hour long commutes to and from West Seattle. But people aren’t that stupid. They adjusted, took new routes, started earlier—or later—and West Seattle is still there. Right now, they are busting up the approaches to and from the Fremont Bridge like its personal, and still the cars, trucks and buses get through. Not perfectly, but they get through.

Before you spend a couple of billions of taxpayer money, you should at least try the ‘no-build’ alternative. I would think it would be criminal not to. I’ve already used the ‘stupid’ word too many times, but it fits here, too.

Even the re-build it alternative is better than the tunnel. Don’t believe the drawings: it doesn’t have to be that big or that ugly. Don’t believe the costs either: it doesn’t have to be so expensive. Look to Sound Transit, believe it or not, if you don’t believe me. Look to what Sound Transit is building from Tukwilla to SeaTac where the light rail will be elevated. It is in these few miles, where they finally agreed to go elevated, that they are saving $200 million (though they are wasting more than $200 million on the tunnels—they are not going to come in under budget) and shaving months off of the construction schedule (though they are going to run into so many problems in the tunnels that they will never really complete the light rail). Sound Transit has put in columns every one hundred yards and then they bring in the roadway in segments which have been poured off-site and lift them into place. They draw wires through the roadway, apply tension and finish a hundred feet every couple of days. The ‘roadway’ is twenty-seven feet wide and that is three lanes of highway. “Hey! Why not build two of these roadways, side-by-side and you end up with a pretty darn graceful and smallish viaduct that can be built in months instead of years!” By separating the two roadways with a couple of feet you avoid really bad head-on collisions and let sunlight to the ground below (think of it as a two mile long skylight). If you got on the stick, you could even use the off-site concrete yard that Sound Transit is using and the forms, but that would be too smart. Even if you don’t do that, you save a lot of money.

Which leaves us with the tunnel. The Worst Alternative.

You should never sink four billion into two miles of roadway. Put it another way: “There is no one mile of your total transportation system that is so damn important that you spend $2 billion per mile.”

Then there is the billion dollar question of how in the hell you get from the Alaskan Way to the south mouth of the Battery Street tunnel? Stand at the foot of the Harbor Steps and look up at the top of the Steps and ask yourself ‘how could a truck, car or bus get from here-to-there in a quarter mile?’ Then, somehow dig a hole about twenty feet deep and then ask the question again. Then, add moisture to the roadway in your tunnel climbing from subterranean Alaskan Way to Battery Street tunnel and you are feeling--well, at the risk of being redundant—stupid. Or if you will, blazingly, totally, George Bushably, stupid.

Now, if you still want a tunnel, go Google “Major tunnel fires” and notice that every major tunnel has a major fire. They will tell you that they will forbid flammable cargo. This ignores the fact that every car, truck and van is carrying flammable cargo—it is called ‘gasoline’. They will tell you that they will have fire suppressants and equipment and blah, blah, blah because by the time that the fire happens, all those guys are dead and someone has forgotten to recharge the foam, the wires have corroded and blah, blah, blah and it’s another major tunnel fire and these things happen. Personally, I don’t want to be in a two and a half mile long tunnel when someone goes sideways and someone smashes into them, setting them on fire and a couple of others catch and explode. And I would sure not like to be the mayor that thought up this tragedy-waiting-to-happen.

Finally, I am not sure where Seattle, this country or this world is heading. But I am pretty sure that ‘transportation’ will change dramatically in the next twenty odd years and I don’t think we ought to be building four billion dollars of anything that is in response to our current problems. Better to fix-it or try to manage it without replacing or if we must replace it, do it with a little better technique than we usually do. Anything would be better than digging up the city and spending every dime we got on a tunnel.

Or maybe I’m stupid, but I doubt it.

1 comment:

mao said...

I'm enjoying the new blog! Some good stuff here.

Just thought I should mention: the "!--[if !supportEmptyParas]-- !--[endif]--" is a Microsoft Word thing.

You might want to try Windows Live Writer--it's a free text-editing package that will post directly to a blog service, including blogger. And I'm not just advocating it because I work at Microsoft. It's a great little tool.