Long, long rant below the cut. Summary:
I believe when WSDOT rebuilds SR-520 and SR-99, it should just rebuild them. Not redesign them beyond what it will take to make them not fall over in an earthquake or other catastrophic event, within reason. Essentially, I am arguing that our existing roads are actually ok, and that it is the people driving that makes them not work; no amount of new lanes will account for that.
There are a few things I've noticed about Seattle, and they fall into distinct categories. I'm going to go after two of those things here, one being the syndrome I call "Why aren't we New York yet?" and the second one being "well, if we build some new thing..."
I'm going to go after the second thing first. It relates to highways, and a lot of public money being spent to replace highways. Now there are people at both extremes of the debate. There are people for whom highways are so distasteful that they never wish to see their hard earned taxpayer dollars expended to build another highway. And there are those who find highways so neccessary, so never to be complete in their capacity, that there is no end of dollars we can spend on highways, but we need to keep spending those dollars to make highways work better.
Now in the course of my life I have observed a few things about human behaviour, and on Seattle area roads I have noticed one thing in particular: A phenomenon I call "The Great Wall of Washington". This wall is formed by a line of cars on an 8-10 lane freeway. They are horizontally aligned, across lanes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 (at the least), and they are all doing at least 10 miles an hour under the speed limit. This usually occurs when a modest bit of concentration would leave 2 or 3 lanes clear for other drivers who wish to go the speed limit, or god forbid, faster.
Now, on busy freeways, I have noticed an entirely different phenomenon: The driver who believes him or herself entitled to do at least 20 miles an hour over the speed limit. This during a time when the maximum traffic speed that could be expected on the freeways, given the volume, is about 20 miles per hour tops.
What I have just described is a condition wherein people on wide open roadways where going fast would be both fun and productive for all involved, decide that everyone should go slow. And people on crowded roadways where everyone should be paying attention and helping overall traffic attain a decent median speed, decide that they and only they, are entitled to go fast. And so what we have are the everlasting harbingers of human behaviour, messing with what should be an easily understood, and most importantly, functional daily, piece of existence.
So we've got these people who go slow when fast is the operative word, and who go fast when slow is the operative word. And we've got these other clowns, those who insist that nothing we do transit-wise is going to address the real problem. As I've been able to gather, the real problem to these people is that Seattle isn't New York yet.
I'm going to stick with the roadways here, however. In Seattle proper, we have 2 roads which need replacing in the immediate future: State Route 99, the Alaskan Way Viaduct; and State Route 520, the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge.
Both of these facilities were constructed eons ago, which to the observer should be the clear sign as to why they never considered such things as extensive shoulders, long on and off ramps, separate lanes for High Occupancy Vehicles, and of course the ever-important seismic durability. In Seattle, I consider the last two things I mention to be important: HOV capacity can never be high enough, and of course I would prefer to be able to drive through an earthquake: a frequent occurence on the US West Coast.
However, the other things: Shoulders, on and offramps, and what might be called "Federal Highway Standards" are about the least important things in the world, to me. And when it all comes right down to it, if I'm in the mindset that a car road should eventually be obsolete, I'm willing to put up with the realities of living in the car-based world while we have them, in hopes that later, when we don't have them in quite the same hugely influencing numbers (in this country at least), we can do something different: So for me the idea is, rather than try to accomodate all possible uses on these corridors which already work pretty well as-is, why not build good facilities that can handle today's capacity, and in the process of planning for the future, speak of inevitable conversions of portions of this right-of-way, to HOV use?
This comes back to SR-99 and SR-520 in a couple of ways. First, SR-99, an elevated freeway along the waterfront downtown in Seattle, is vehemently attacked by the anti-car crowd. So when it comes to replacing this aging facility, they prefer not replacing it. Just demolish it and be done with it and build a "boulevard" with "transit capacity" As if that was ever in the plans (it was not, not in anyone's plans but the anti-car folks) Now there are a couple of other options on the table: Rebuild the highway viaduct, or build a tunnel instead, so we get a surface boulevard AND maintain the capacity through the corridor.
Having spent rather a lot of time on SR-99, the solution that has occured to, I guess, only me at this point, is that maybe we should demolish the existing poorly designed viaduct, and reconstruct a new viaduct on almost exactly the same footprint as before, only a structure that will last 50+ years and withstand multiple earthquakes. It occurs to me that the existing facility already did that, so it shouldn't be a challenge for us in the modern era, to do the same.
The state DOT, in charge of the project, to my knowledge, will hear nothing of this. The new roadway must be built to exacting federal highway standards: this means shoulders and other things, which add an additional 25% to the footprint of the existing roadway if they were to tear down and rebuild! And of course the city wants the tunnel, which is just awfully expensive, to the tune of at least an extra billion dollars above the cost of any other option (rebuild)
What I'm saying is: Why? SR-99 as designed and built, has functioned as an extremely reliable roadway. There is no reason to re-engineer it to conform to any modern standard other than seismic tolerance. SR-99 does not shutdown FREQUENTLY for accidents; regardless, no matter how much shoulder capacity they build, nothing short of robotic cars can properly account for the stupidity of the drivers of the central Puget Sound region. I have been stuck in the central Puget Sound on the best designed and built roadways: either because of an accident, or because of over capacity utilization, or because of the afforementioned stupidity. It doesn't matter how many lanes or how wide the shoulders! People are just stupid. In Seattle we drivers enjoy SR-99 as a pretty safe bet. We know no outsiders are going to be properly confident on this road we call our own (as opposed to the Interstate) and we bank on that when time-critical things need to happen, such as getting to the airport. The Washington DOT won't even entertain the notion of building an exact capacity replica of the existing roadway without adding an additional 25% to its footprint. Even though the existing 100% of roadway works just fine I'd say 90% of the time.
Similarly with the SR-520 bridge. This is a floating bridge, quite a technical marvel, quite the thing for Washington State to crow about. SR-520 is the primary corridor which connects us tech-savvy urban dwellers of Seattle, with our great Eastside (suburban) jobs at Microsoft and others. There are times of the year when navigating this roadway is a maddening exercise; and we know the existing structure is reaching the end of its maintainable existence. Therefore we are "planning" for the future.
What do these plans consist of? Well, adding at least one lane in each direction of traffic capacity, for one. Another: Adding a new interchange which would increase capacity even further. And I'm talking about traversing both historical city neighborhoods, and explicitly set aside nature lands (our fair city's arboretum, for one)
We all know the key liability in this whole equation is our floating bridge: yet not once, have I ever heard seriously considered, the notion that instead of "fixing up" the entire eventually to be obsolete corridor, that we'd just replace the existing liability (the bridge) with an identical structure.
Cost-wise, we're looking at around 2 billion dollars to upgrade the 520 corridor. And probably 5 years loss of that highway's capacity. Yet I have never heard talk of building an identical bridge albeit one with no risk of sinking to the bottom of Lake Washington, and floating it out to the existing bridge, and unhooking the existing bridge, and hooking up the new one. "Not an improvement!' you say? I say you're wrong! This bridge probably won't sink for at least 50 years. I'll take those odds.
So the viaduct tunnel is to cost 6 billion dollars, and the 520 replacement, at least 2. Meanwhile, they could spend 2 billion or less putting up a more or less identical viaduct (footprint) and a couple hundred million TOPS replacing the aging bridge. We in Seattle would have money for a better transit system which the next post regarding this topic will address, as I tacke the question in full: "Why aren't we New York yet?"