Who'll be to blame if viaduct, 520 bridge collapse?
Imagine the finger-pointing if an earthquake were to topple the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct or plunge the Highway 520 bridge into Lake Washington...
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
Imagine the finger-pointing if an earthquake were to topple the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct or plunge the Highway 520 bridge into Lake Washington, killing perhaps hundreds of people and crippling the region's economy.
As was the case with the levees in New Orleans, the dangers of the viaduct and floating bridge are well-known. And like New Orleans, if an earthquake strikes before Seattle's most perilous bridges are replaced, we'll be looking for someone to blame.
Politicians, clerics and ethicists agree we have a moral obligation to fix infrastructure such as highways and levees that we know pose a risk to the public.
But where does that obligation lie?
Is it solely the responsibility of government leaders to keep us safe and figure out how to pay for it? Or do we all share in that burden, even those who rarely drive the viaduct and 520 bridge?
The dangerous duo
Alaskan Way Viaduct
Length: 2.2 miles
Capacity: Carries nearly a third of Seattle's north-south traffic. During peak traffic, more than 9,000 vehicles per hour cross the downtown segment of the viaduct. State engineers estimate that as many as 820 people could be on the viaduct at any given time during peak rush hour.
Other uses: Also carries a major portion of the city's utilities, including electric, telephone, gas, water and sewer.
Highway 520 bridge
Length: 2.4 miles, including 1.4 miles that float. It's the world's longest concrete floating bridge.
Capacity: Carries more than 8,400 vehicles per hour during peak traffic periods. Engineers estimate as many as 600 people could be on the bridge at a given time during peak rush hour.
Other facts: Originally a toll bridge, but toll was taken off in 1979. Has 33 floating pontoons kept in place by 62 anchors.
Source: State Department of Transportation
And if lives are at stake on those roads, what does it say about us that we've spent or set aside billions of dollars for new stadiums, mass-transit projects and corporate tax breaks before fixing the hazards?
"The political reality is that seismic safety, like hurricane protection, is not a mass politics issue," said Peter May, a University of Washington professor who has studied the politics of disasters.
"You do not get groups of people marching on city hall saying 'protect me from the earthquake.' "
Still, lawmakers last spring approved a politically unpopular gas-tax increase that would raise billions of dollars for fixing the viaduct and other structures.
But there's a chance voters across the state will repeal the new tax this fall. That likely would put plans to replace the viaduct on hold.
We all take calculated risks with our own personal safety. Constrained by finances, for instance, most of us drive cars that are far from the safest available.
The same is true for government leaders. They constantly weigh public safety against other demands and, more importantly, against the public's willingness to pay.
It's hard enough getting taxpayers to shell out money for projects that have obvious benefits, such as a new school or a bike path. But when it comes to building more hurricane-proof levees or earthquake-proof highways, government leaders must ask people to pay billions upfront for a benefit they might never see.
Nevertheless, Andrew Light, a philosophy professor at the University of Washington, said he thinks there is an "absolutely unassailable case" that the state has a moral responsibility to address the known hazards on two of its most heavily used bridges.
Light said government cannot always be there to protect people who choose to put themselves at risk. But with the viaduct and the 520 bridge, he argues, it is essentially the government putting people at risk. He said it's unreasonable to expect average citizens to assess that risk for themselves.
"There's a fundamental bond of trust we have with the people we elect that, when it comes to our daily lives and the infrastructure that we inhabit, we've put our safety in their hands," Light said.
Long before Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, scientists knew that a major hurricane on just the wrong track could overwhelm New Orleans' levees. But repeated calls to bolster the city's defenses were thwarted or ignored.
1954: New $8 million elevated road opens to traffic.
1965: Viaduct suffers no major damage in 6.5-magnitude earthquake.
1989: Concerns raised about viaduct's safety after a similar double-decker freeway in Oakland, Calif., collapses in an earthquake, killing 42 people.
1994: State floats idea of replacing viaduct with a tunnel.
1995: Concerns about viaduct raised again after 7.2 quake in Kobe, Japan, flattens several bridges and kills more than 5,500 people. Legislature denies state Department of Transportation request for $500,000 to study viaduct-replacement options.
1996: Study finds the viaduct was built on soil that could liquefy in an earthquake, says structure needs nearly $350 million in repairs to bring it up to seismic codes.
2000: Legislature approves $500,000 viaduct-alternatives study.
February 2001: Viaduct survives 6.8-magnitude Nisqually quake. Engineers later discover new cracks and find the structure has shifted several inches. Viaduct is closed repeatedly over the next few months for emergency inspections and repairs.
May 2001: State Department of Transportation sets aside $5 million for new study.
June 2001: Team of independent engineers recommends replacing viaduct; report gives one-in-20 chance that viaduct would collapse in a major earthquake in the next 10 years.
2002: State estimates that replacing viaduct will cost at least $3.2 billion, much more if it is replaced with a tunnel. Later, voters overwhelmingly reject Referendum 51, a $7.8 billion transportation package that included $450 million for the viaduct.
2003: Inspections show more shifting. State calls for new inspections every six months. Legislature approves 5-cent-a-gallon gas-tax increase for spending package that includes $177 million for the viaduct.
2004: Viaduct continues to shift. State announces it prefers replacing viaduct with tunnel.
2005: Legislature approves 9.5-cent gas-tax increase, which would help raise $8.5 billion — including $2 billion for viaduct. Gas-tax opponents qualify Initiative 912 — which would repeal the gas tax — for the November ballot.
Source: Seattle Times archives
"This disaster was one of the most preventable disasters that we've seen in American history," said Greg Stone, an oceanographer who works at Louisiana State University's Coastal Studies Institute.
Ari Kelman, author of the book "A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans," contends man is as much at fault as nature for the damage Katrina caused.
"Yes, the hurricane was a natural event. But the numbers of people who are going to die were grossly inflated because of human negligence," he said.
Likewise, Kelman said, it would be a "social catastrophe" if nothing is done about the viaduct or the 520 bridge and an earthquake brings them down.
Concerns about the viaduct's safety surfaced at least by 1989, when an earthquake in the Bay Area pancaked a similar elevated freeway, killing 42 people.
In 1996, a study found the structure was built on soil that could liquefy in an earthquake. It said the viaduct needed nearly $350 million in seismic upgrades.
Meanwhile, the true extent of Seattle's earthquake vulnerabilities has become clearer in recent years, as scientists learn more about the geologic faults beneath the city.
State officials have gone to great lengths attempting to calculate what losing the viaduct or the 520 bridge would do to traffic congestion and the region's economy.
But the state has never projected how many people would be killed if one or both of the bridges collapsed at peak rush hour. State officials say coming up with such projections is problematic: There are too many variables in traffic patterns and in the size and character of earthquakes.
There is some disagreement about which structure would pose the biggest threat in an earthquake or, with the 520 bridge, a severe wind storm.
But the state and the city of Seattle have clearly made replacing the viaduct their highest priority.
Built a half-century ago, the viaduct sits on fill that is held in place by a badly deteriorating seawall. The double-decker road is plagued by crumbling concrete, exposed rebar and weakening joints.
Gov. Christine Gregoire said state engineers told her the viaduct probably would have collapsed if the 2001 Nisqually earthquake had lasted 15 more seconds.
Since that quake, the viaduct has shifted more than four inches. If it moves much more, the state plans to shut it down.
"Our best advice is to get off it five minutes before the next quake," state Department of Transportation spokeswoman Linda Mullen quipped earlier this year.
"It's not a little problem, it's not a maybe problem," said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington. "The viaduct is just a question of when. If you're on the lower level when it goes down, you're dead."
Gregoire says every political leader should be losing sleep over the state's long-neglected bridges. "There's no question in my mind — you're either going to fix it or somebody's going to die," she said.
State Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said it's maddening to know that the levees in New Orleans could have been fixed for a fraction of the tens of billions of dollars it will take to rebuild the city. He said the same is true for Seattle's bridges.
"It's way cheaper to fix it now," said MacDonald, "when you're not removing crushed beams and dead bodies."
Cheaper and the right thing to do, said the Rev. John Boonstra, executive minister for the Washington Association of Churches.
"Every reader of the Bible should remember: The time to build the ark is before the flood," he said.
Here in Washington, elected officials are stepping up to their obligations on the viaduct and other bridges, MacDonald said.
Earlier this year, the Legislature passed and Gregoire signed a 9.5-cent gas-tax increase that would provide $2 billion for the viaduct and $500 million for the 520 bridge, among other projects.
But a group opposing the increase quickly gathered 420,000 signatures for Initiative 912 to repeal the new gas tax. The initiative will be on the November ballot.
And that, UW professor May said, raises yet another question: "How far should public officials go in protecting somewhat indifferent citizens who have other concerns?"
State House Transportation Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said the moral burden for fixing the viaduct now rests with the voters.
But I-912 spokesman Brett Bader said he feels no such burden. He said he doesn't lose sleep over the prospect that I-912 and its backers might someday get blamed if people die on the viaduct.
"The thought hasn't cross my mind," Bader said.
Even without the new gas tax, Bader said, he thinks the state and city have more than enough money to replace the viaduct, or at least do enough repairs to make it safe.
He pointed out state and local government have spent or earmarked billions of dollars for other projects.
"They could have built a new viaduct; instead, they chose to build a monorail, light rail and two stadiums," Bader said.
What's more, he asked, if safety is such a concern, how can government officials justify delaying action while they quibble over whether to rebuild the viaduct or replace it with a tunnel that won't block the city's view of Puget Sound?
"The problem is not money," Bader said. "The problem is priorities and leadership."
Bader said using the disaster in New Orleans to bolster arguments against I-912 is a cheap political tactic.
But Hallenbeck thinks it's a fair comparison.
"The problem we're having is that people are saying, 'It's not my problem,' " Hallenbeck said. "That is exactly what they said in New Orleans. ... But go ask anybody in New Orleans, 'Would you have paid an extra hundred bucks in taxes last year to replace that levee?' Do you think you'd get any less than 99 percent saying yes?"
Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom describes some of the factors that may have led to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon on Thursday, May 23.