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Thursday, March 2, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnists

Shut down the viaduct

Special to The Times

It has been five years since the 2001 Nisqually earthquake left the Alaskan Way Viaduct in immediate need of replacement. Today, everyone in Seattle is still exposed to the risk of this critically weakened roadway failing. Our elected officials have not taken the simplest step to reduce Seattle's risk of disaster: Close the viaduct.

Last year, a group of University of Washington faculty wrote the mayor and other local, state and federal officials urging them to plan to close the sinking structure within a suggested two-year timeframe. There is no need to delay. We should set the date and close the viaduct as soon as possible. As professionals who know the risks, we believe Seattle should not let another five years go by.

Earthquakes are natural and unavoidable, but the potential for disaster from an earthquake can be minimized. A key way to reduce our vulnerability is to ensure that our "lifeline" infrastructure — transportation, electrical, water, communications and emergency-response networks — will continue to function after an earthquake. As a country, we witnessed the results of failing to do this when Hurricane Katrina hit the vulnerable levees and population of New Orleans.

To reduce Seattle's potential for disaster, our elected officials should take immediate action to prevent the catastrophic failure of the viaduct.

This is far from the only measure that should be taken to reduce Seattle's disaster potential. But catastrophic failure of the viaduct will put lives at risk. And it's also costlier than planned closure. The social and economic effects of sudden disruption of lifeline networks are always greater than if the disruption is planned and executed with the public's cooperation.

Another Nisqually earthquake may hit tomorrow. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates a more than 80-percent chance of a similar earthquake in the next 50 years.

But the effects of the Nisqually earthquake were minor compared with the additional earthquake hazard Seattle faces. Last year at this time, a study was released on the likely effects of a moderate earthquake on the Seattle Fault, which cuts through the area south of downtown. An earthquake of this magnitude will produce shaking in the Seattle region four to five times greater than felt during the Nisqually quake, causing an estimated $33 billion in regional property damage and economic losses.

Many local businesses will probably fail or be forced to relocate. All six major highways in the Puget Sound region will likely be closed or partially closed for several months due to damage. At least 40 bridges in the region are likely to fail. Damage to transportation systems will make movement of people and freight around the region difficult for weeks or months, slowing emergency response and long-term economic recovery.

One way or another, because of closure or catastrophe, Seattle is going to have to live for at least a few years without the viaduct. The city already has a set of detailed plans for dealing without the viaduct, outlined in City Council Resolution 30725. These publicly vetted plans can be implemented to improve the rest of the transportation system — rerouting traffic, fixing bottlenecks in the street grid, adding transit service, improving flow on Interstate 5, and adding a new connection from Spokane Street — to keep Seattle moving without the viaduct.

After the viaduct is closed and trips rerouted, we can collect information upon which to base the decision of how much additional road or transit capacity is needed, and where. We can test whether these "temporary" fixes to the transportation system might, in fact, provide a lower-cost permanent solution. This approach has proven successful in other cities that faced similar issues of failing infrastructure, scarce resources and the chance to reclaim waterfront public land.

Maybe we'll find like other cities that we don't need to build a new section of waterfront highway after all. Maybe we'll find that replacing the Highway 520 bridge and strengthening other key bridges are better investments than a new highway on the waterfront.

The debate on these important decisions is ongoing, justifiably. Seattle's citizens will not be well-served if leaders fast-track the expensive tunnel alternative claiming urgency when all that needs to be done to eliminate the urgency is to close the viaduct. Then we can have the discussion about what is the best solution to serve Seattle for the next 100 years.

Scott Miles is a Seattle-based disaster-planning consultant; David R. Montgomery is an earth and space sciences professor at UW; Bill Beyers chairs the Geography Department at UW. Also contributing are Marina Alberti, UW associate professor of urban design and planning; Hilda Blanco, UW Urban Design and Planning Department chair; and Kristina Hill, associate professor of landscape architecture at UW. For information on Seattle-area earthquake risk, http://seattlescenario.eeri.org/ and http://www.crew.org/

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