Traffic Plummets on the Highway Seattle Is Spending a Fortune to Replace

Traffic has collapsed around Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct. Image: Sightline
Traffic has collapsed on Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct. Image: Sightline

For months now, the largest tunnel boring machine in the United States has been broken down under the city of Seattle. Meanwhile, traffic on the highway that the tunnel is supposed to replace has plummeted, raising more questions about whether the project is worth the enormous expense.

The project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a buried highway in Seattle is off to an absolutely disastrous start. Image: Wikipedia
The project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a buried highway is off to an absolutely disastrous start, but there’s also a big upside to the new traffic patterns. Photo: Wikipedia

The state of Washington intends to spend $3.1 billion to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct — an elevated double-decker highway right by the waterfront — with an underground highway tunnel. But Bertha, the tunnel boring machine, is stuck a thousand feet into its path and will take months to get running again, if the state can get it running again at all.

Meanwhile, Clark Williams-Derry at regional think tank Sightline has made an amazing discovery: Traffic on the viaduct has plummeted by 48,000 vehicles per day in the last three years, or 44 percent, raising questions about whether this awesomely expensive undertaking is needed at all.

The reason for the traffic drop? A lot more people are taking buses. Some have avoided driving because of construction delays. Of those who are still driving, some have shifted to surface streets. Combine that with the fact that, across America, driving is declining in general — and maybe Seattle doesn’t need to replace this highway after all.

Williams-Derry puts it like this:

Nobody knows if Bertha will ever get moving again, let alone complete her job. But given these figures, maybe it doesn’t matter. Seattle has seamlessly adapted to losing the first 48,000 trips on the Viaduct. No one even noticed. No one even noticed that 40 percent of the Viaduct’s traffic just disappeared! Could accommodating the loss of another 62,000 be that hard if we, I don’t know, tried even a little?

  • They should finish the tunnel and use it for transit, then replace the viaduct with an at-grade boulevard.

  • MattyCiii

    Burying Boston’s viaduct was supposed to be around the same price. It was finally completed 9 years later than planned for 5 times the expected cost.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Dig

    Generations of citizens will be paying for that fiasco.

  • Kevin M

    What transit alternative could serve the same need and be built for same or less cost? What maximum capacity could that alternative serve as compared with the capacity of the tunneled highway? How would travel times compare?

    Draw your breaks, Washington.

  • douglasawillinger

    They could still finish some variant of a waterfront cut and cover tunnel for the best of both worlds.

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