49 reasons to relax about the viaduct
Everyone is doing their best to find a solution for the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Unfortunately, the disagreements of our political leadership...
Special to The Times
Everyone is doing their best to find a solution for the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Unfortunately, the disagreements of our political leadership right now seem profound. State leaders advocate for a rebuild. City leaders advocate for a tunnel. Others, myself included, wish that a surface/transit option were part of the discussion.
However irreconcilable the differences seem, there is something that we should all agree on — that a smart transit investment must be part of any viaduct solution. Transit can be implemented quickly, will save money, increase our options and is better for the environment.
One transit success story already exists that proves this point — the investments made before we closed the Metro Transit bus tunnel for light-rail construction. Closing the tunnel put 1,100 buses back on city surface streets every day. Many predicted gridlock. The opposite happened. Buses today on average move faster through downtown than they did when the tunnel was open.
How did we avoid a congestion nightmare? Meticulous planning produced what a Metro manager called "a thousand different ways" to keep downtown Seattle moving. Metro, working with Seattle's Transportation Department and other agencies, took actions like restricting vehicle access to streets such as Third Avenue, creating transit-signal priorities and changing bus-stop patterns.
I asked my Metro planners to tell me whether there were "a thousand different ways" we could use transit to reduce traffic on the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The answer was astounding. It wasn't a thousand ways, or even one hundred. It was 49. Forty-nine traffic management ideas and street improvements that, when combined with expanded service options and the arrival of Link light rail, can remove about 30 percent of all trips on the viaduct. Forty-nine things can remove up to 35,000 car trips from the viaduct!
Many of these proposed improvements retain or build on actions we took to mitigate the tunnel closure, including concentrating bus service and volumes along key downtown streets; changing on-street and off-street parking policies to discourage car trips into downtown; keeping Third Avenue a transit-only corridor; and adding dedicated transit lanes on Second and Fourth avenues.
No matter which viaduct option you support, we can all agree that if 35,000 trips can be removed from the viaduct, it makes sense to take 49 transit-supportive actions combined with incentives to encourage people to use transit.
Removing 35,000 trips helps make the "tunnel lite" option viable, which saves more than $1 billion from the original tunnel estimate. Removing 35,000 trips should allow for a smaller rebuild, which should save many hundreds of millions of dollars. And transit that absorbs 35,000 trips is essential to seriously contemplating any surface option.
These 49 actions (see www.metrokc.gov) do have impacts and will cost some money. The capital improvements will cost tens of millions of dollars. More buses, drivers and hours of service will cost an estimated $10 million to $15 million a year. These actions will require a partnership among Seattle, King County and the state of Washington.
These investments will leverage Seattle's and King County's "Bridging the Gap" and "Transit Now" initiatives. Spending $10 million a year to save up to $1 billion is something we can all agree is a smart investment for all of us.
Therefore, rather than simply wait for the March vote on the viaduct options, we should all work together during the legislative session to take whatever steps are necessary to make these 49 investments a reality.
We don't need to stop at 49. There are dozens more. If we are bold and innovative, it may be possible to absorb even more of the viaduct trips. Ten percent of Metro boardings are paid for with a U-PASS, a partnership between Metro and the University of Washington. Imagine the possibilities if we put bus passes in the hands of all downtown Seattle employees. We must explore congestion pricing, more passenger ferries and parking policies that increase incentives to use transit. More RapidRide service and beefed-up regular transit service can create 20,000 additional bus seats each day.
A thousand things kept Seattle moving without its popular bus tunnel. We must be as creative when replacing the viaduct. Better transit and fewer cars translate into better health and a cleaner environment, less pollution and more pedestrian-friendly and transit-oriented development — and it will save us all a lot of money, no matter which viaduct option we choose.
We can all agree on that.
Ron Sims is the King County executive. Metro Transit is part of the county's Department of Transportation and among the 10 largest bus systems in the country.
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