Seattle Turns the Page on Iconic Viaduct

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The views of the city and Puget Sound were of the. (Photo: Andriana Syvanych/Shutterstock)

Seattle's stacked concrete Alaskan Way Viaduct is just 2.2 miles long, but it looms large in the city's landscape. On Jan. 11 at 10 p.m., it will close forever. In about three weeks, motorists who once traveled through the city on the elevated highway will instead zoom along underground.

The roadway is well past the 50-year lifetime it was designed for, but it's being pulled down for another important reason: it's just not safe. A local earthquake in 1965 and one in California in 1971 spooked Seattleites, but the aftermath of the larger Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, which caused elevated roads to strain or collapse entirely in the Bay Area of California further put the safety of the viaduct into question. When the 6.5 magnitude Nisqually earthquake damaged support columns and cracked joints in the viaduct in 2001, it was clear how much damage a stronger earthquake (which the area is overdue for) could do — causing injury to people driving on it and anyone below. The viaduct is also sinking in places.

In 2005, when former Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis was criticized for the gas tax imposed to fund the tunnel (which the state department of transportation recommended in 2004) he asked: "Do you want to be the responsible public official when the next earthquake hits and it collapses?" reported the Seattle Times.

After some delays in building the new tunnel — including several caused by funding issues and others involving the tunnel-boring machine, Bertha, which broke and required years-long repairs — the new roadway is set to open the week of Feb. 4.

Similar projects to take down elevated highways and open up access to the waterfront have been incredibly successful, including San Francisco's Embarcadero Freeway and Manhattan's West Side Highway. Both of those projects got rid of unsightly elevated highways that put drivers' needs ahead of everyone else's.

The view will improve

Wide angle view over Alaskan Way, with the Highway 99 Viaduct along the Seattle Waterfront, with the downtown cityscape in the background
While the views from the Viaduct are lovely, looking at it from almost anywhere else in the city reveals it as an eyesore. This is a view from the ferry terminal exit. (Photo: VDB Photos/Shutterstock)

While the view for drivers from the viaduct are, admittedly, awesome (in both directions, you'll get a sweeping view of Puget Sound as well as the city, as you can see at the top of this file), the structure of the road actually impedes everyone else's perspective of the landscape. I'm a newish local to the area, and the first time I took the ferry into Seattle from my home on a nearby island, I was struck by how incredibly ugly the road was as we pulled into the docks.

The ride to Seattle on the ferry from Bainbridge Island (there's another one from Bremerton as well) is nothing short of glorious, with views of snow-capped Mount Rainier when it's clear, and Seattle's iconic skyline sketched across the firmament. Then as you get closer, the eyesore of the viaduct cuts the waterfront off from the rest of the city visually, as if it's all behind a rope, constrained. There's no green space, and cars dominate all the paved-over spaces, creating a grey-on-grey-on-grey landscape.

On the ground, it's even worse, with the viaduct (and that none-too-quiet) traffic looming overhead so that on the all-too-few sunny days, pedestrians and cyclists are shaded by perpetual gloom and deafened by the cars double-deckered above. Even when it's lightly drizzling — the norm in Seattle — fat drops of filthy rainwater fly down from the cars above. (And all this is part of the popular tourist area of the waterfront where hundreds are on foot, walking down from Pike Place Market.)

Pioneer Square shops along the Seattle Waterfront, with the looming Highway 99 Alaskan Way Viaduct in the background
Looking out from the historic center of downtown Seattle, Pioneer Square. It's easy to see how the viaduct blocks the view down to the water and of the mountains beyond. (Photo: VDB Photos/Shutterstock)

Obviously, I'll be glad to see the viaduct go, and not just for aesthetic reasons. The planned waterfront park will provide a much prettier vista as you enter Seattle from the water, opening up one of the main ways into the city (over 6 million people a year enter via ferry). But the images above will be transformed in other ways, too, from an all-concrete landscape to one with a wide waterfront promenade, native grasses and trees, a bike trail and bus stops (along with some parking). It will be a lot more relaxing, pleasant, and healthy for all.

It will also allow views from downtown and the historic Pioneer Square area out to the water — and long-denied sky and light will again be restored to the neighborhood. It will also be significantly quieter when the cars are moved underground, so the area will be a lot more peaceful in addition.

Seattle, despite decent light-rail and bus systems, growing-in-popularity ferry routes, and a downtown Amtrak station, is still a very car-based city. There are 637 cars for ever 1,000 residents of Seattle, which is a higher car-ownership rate than Los Angeles. But like many cities, Seattle faces a future of greater population density, which means fewer personal cars, and locals who want all the light and views they can get. And these people want to revel in their city, not pack off to the suburbs as soon as they can afford to.

The era of the car is on its way out and the removal of elevated highways shows how beautiful urban life can be when single-occupancy vehicles don't dominate the landscape.