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Sunday, January 7, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Danny Westneat

A thousand ways to fix viaduct

Seattle Times staff columnist

When the downtown Seattle bus tunnel closed for two years of construction, transit bosses were braced for gridlock.

"There was a lot of concern it was going to be a disaster, with buses jamming the streets and traffic backed up all over the place," says Jim Jacobson, deputy manager of Metro, which runs the buses. People were so worried buses would be at a standstill that the city chose to ban cars from Third Avenue, the street above the tunnel, during rush hours.

Then people fretted that cars would hopelessly clog the other streets. So Jacobson says they did "a thousand little things" to compensate — such as moving bus stops farther apart and eliminating some parking to aid traffic flow.

Fifteen months ago, the tunnel closed. A funny thing happened: Most commuters have been getting through downtown faster than ever.

That's right: faster. Buses are traversing almost every downtown street quicker without the tunnel. In some cases, dramatically so.

Metro has logged car and bus travel times before and after closing the tunnel. Car speeds stayed about the same. (They were expected to slow.) But buses, carrying more riders, surprisingly are faster on all streets except First Avenue.

Example: When the tunnel was open, it took a typical bus nine minutes to go through downtown on Third Avenue. Now it takes less than six.

Even on some streets that now have up to 20 percent more traffic on them (because Third Avenue is often closed to cars), the buses still are faster. Why? Apparently because of those "thousand little things."

It makes you wonder: Did we need this bus tunnel? If we'd known back in the '80s that we could get superior results by making a series of little changes to street use rules and signaling, would we have spent $480 million and ripped up the heart of downtown for nearly four years?

It's a moot point now. On the plus side, at least we have a place to put light rail.

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But the tale of the bus tunnel has me wondering again about our other tunnel, the one not yet built. What to do with the Alaskan Way Viaduct is down to two choices: build a new elevated one or a tunnel. It's the big ugly or the big costly.

Do we really need either one? What if we did a thousand little things instead?

This idea is not mine. It's been talked about for years: Tear down the viaduct, reduce Highway 99 to a small boulevard through Seattle and then try to make up for the loss of the freeway with busways, freightways, beefed-up arterials and so forth.

I have no idea if it would work. I could quote experts saying it'd be smooth sailing. And experts saying it would paralyze the city. You know, it would sound a lot like the debate about the bus tunnel.

So here's my modest proposal: Let's just try it. Close the viaduct. It's unsafe anyway, remember? Let's come up with a thousand-point plan like they did for the bus tunnel and shut down the viaduct for a month or two. Then see what happens.

I suspect if we did this experiment it would at least help clear one kind of viaduct gridlock. The political kind.

Danny Westneat's column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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