City, state stalled on transportation solutions

This August, northbound I-5 from Spokane Street into downtown will be reduced to as little as one lane during daylight hours as construction crews repair the freeway's bridge deck. How do the powers-that-be suggest that commuters cope?

On the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) Web page describing the project, under "What Can Drivers Do?," the first bulleted item is: "Take a vacation between Aug. 10 and 29."


Let's set aside the fact that many people don't even have three weeks of vacation in a year. Let's even ignore the bureaucratic arrogance in assuming that we can plan our precious vacation time to suit highway construction schedules.

WSDOT also suggests ("use alternate routes") that drivers flood neighborhood streets in Georgetown, Beacon Hill and the Rainier Valley. Presumably by this last bit they're suggesting Martin Luther King Jr. Way should be an alternate route. Have they even driven it in the past three years?

Which leaves me wondering: If WSDOT can't suggest anything better than vacation time and other torn-up arterials for coping with three weeks of lane closures, what happens when the Alaskan Way Viaduct comes down?

The voter message on March 1 was pretty clearly a pox on everyone's houses, especially those of the people who suggested the advisory vote would be meaningless. It wasn't, as judged by the cover every politician associated with the debacle, save Peter Steinbrueck, ran for immediately afterward.

The rampant Kumbayah-ism certainly affected Gov. Gregoire and Ron Sims and Frank Chopp, but it was most amusing in the case of Mayor Greg Nickels, who, up until minutes before the vote, was insistently pushing his tunnel, and who afterward was an instant evangelist for political harmony and an at-grade waterfront solution. Never let it be said that a seasoned politician cannot read the meaning of "70 percent NO." Especially when his likeliest reelection opponent is on the NO side of the issue.

That would be Mr. Steinbrueck, who is the only politician to emerge from this month's special election smelling like a rose rather than a small, striped mammal. Steinbrueck says he doesn't know whether he'll run for mayor in 2009 - he will devote his immediate post-city council energies, as he announced just before the election, to pushing the at-grade solution not listed on this month's ballot. But if he does choose to run for mayor, he's on the popular side of an issue sure to remain contentious for the coming year; he'll be off council come November, so that he can campaign and fundraise freely; and if he does choose to run, he'll be taking aim at the man whose signature proposal of his second term got 30 percent of the vote.

But a precinct-by-precinct analysis explodes the idea that Steinbrueck has some sort of a mandate from a unified no-no vote. Turns out the neighborhoods that most supported the tunnel opposed the rebuilt viaduct, and vice versa. Downtown and a handful of neighborhoods - Magnolia, Laurelhurst, Capitol Hill and the lakefront from Montlake south - supported the tunnel. Most other neighborhoods supported the viaduct rebuild and opposed the tunnel. In those wealthier, close-in precincts, support for a new viaduct was vanishingly small, and so both options went down in defeat. Stalemate.

So what's to be done? Well, first of all, while everyone involved is taking a breather and pretending they didn't just play a counterproductive game of political chicken, we might still have an earthquake at any time. That would solve the timeline problem.


If that doesn't happen, we might pay close attention to the traffic patterns in August. Most of us can't take vacations at WSDOT's whim, but we can alter our driving habits to avoid hopeless gridlock. It happens every day. Come August, we'll either find nightmarish backups on I-5 and south end surface streets, or it won't be as bad as all that displaced traffic would suggest. If the latter, then perhaps we really can get away with no waterfront freeway through downtown. (We're going to have to for some period of time, anyway.)

If commuters really do feel they have no other choice than to crawl along in the I-5 backup, we might want to look at a tunnel or viaduct along Western Avenue so that the viaduct can stay open during construction.

Regardless, we've also got two big-ticket regional transportation measures on next fall's ballot; an aging I-5 will need to be completely rebuilt through most of Seattle in the near future; and there's still the vexing question of replacing the SR 520 bridge. All are more important to this region's transportation future than the Alaskan Way Viaduct. All are being largely ignored in the media-fueled drama surrounding the Viaduct.

The longer we stall our investments in transportation, the longer we'll sit in traffic, to our economic and environmental misery. The Viaduct is the least of our problems.

Nationally syndicated columnist, radio host and Eat the State! co-founder Geov Parrish may be reached via

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