Seattle’s downtown waterfront has had a tumultuous couple of years. There was the protracted fight over whether to replace the damaged Highway 99 viaduct with an underground highway, a surface highway or a rebuilt viaduct, which became a central issue in the 2013 mayoral election. The tunnel plan won out, but construction has hit one snag after another and is years behind schedule. Last year, a campaign to rebuild the viaduct into an elevated park collected enough signatures to put the issue to a vote.
Seattleites finally got the chance to decide on the elevated park idea last week in the August primaries. It was an overwhelming no, with at least over 82 percent voting against. (Washington votes by mail so ballots are still trickling in.)
With the elevated park off the table, the city is ready to push ahead on the street-level portion of its waterfront plan, which, among other things, includes a promenade, a park, a bike path and a redesigned Alaskan Way surface street. But a group of pedestrian, bicycle and transit advocates is trying to throw up a roadblock. They want the city to revise the Alaskan Way plan, part of which the group refers to as a “highway on top of a highway.”
The mile-long Alaskan Way proposal is essentially split into two sections: north of Columbia and south of Columbia. The advocates are generally happy with the northern two-thirds of the design; that offers two car travel lanes in each direction, curb bulb-outs at intersections to shorten crossings for pedestrians and center medians on some blocks.
“The street crossings [in the northern section] will be a lot shorter. It’ll be easier for people walking of all ages and abilities,” says Lisa Quinn, Feet First executive director. “That will be a good improvement to our current waterfront.”
(Credit: Seattle's Office of the Waterfront)
(Credit: Seattle's Office of the Waterfront)
But Quinn isn’t satisfied with the city’s proposal for south of Columbia.
The design varies from block to bock, but in general, it is 96 feet wide with two 12-foot bus lanes, four 11-foot car lanes, a left turn lane, two ferry loading lanes and a center island median.
“When you get to south of Columbia you still have an eight-lane highway,” says Quinn. “The waterfront is a transportation hub for people walking. We’re the most vulnerable. But we’re not being prioritized, we’re being compromised.”
Part of the problem stems from the many, many competing needs of the major north-south corridor. As Quinn says, there is significant foot traffic from tourists, ferry riders, bus riders and residents. There is bike traffic. There will be heavy car traffic from drivers getting off the ferry and people heading into downtown since the highway tunnel will bypass downtown. Alaskan is an important route for freight traffic coming out of the port. And the ferry uses space on the road to queue its car traffic.
“There’s so much trying to happen in a constrained space it does have a very practical challenge in terms of the width of that road,” says Marshall Foster, director of Seattle’s Office of the Waterfront. “We’re trying to strike this very, very hard balance. But without throwing someone off the island — transit or ferries or something else — this is the optimized solution that’s going to make everybody be able to do what they have to do.”
Compelled by feedback from constituents (including a set of strongly worded letters co-signed by Feet First, Transportation Choices Coalition and Cascade Bicycle Club), the city looked at alternative designs that could narrow the road width. But Foster says freight capacity and ferry queuing lanes weren’t up for negotiation, and projected traffic volumes will require two general travel lanes in each direction. So dedicated transit lanes were the only thing on the chopping block, an outcome nobody wanted.
Since the number of lanes isn’t likely to change at this point, Quinn says she and her transit and bike allies are pushing for two big changes: reduced lane width and slower speed limits.
“One thing they haven’t really done is reduce lane width to 10 feet for general purpose and 11 feet for transit,” says Quinn. “They can be looking at NACTO guidelines to make this even better.”
Foster says they have been looking at NACTO for design ideas and points to the curb bulb-outs, elevated crosswalks at every intersection and the bike facility as examples of progressive street design.
But, he explains, “we’ve looked very intensely at lane width now and continue to do so to make sure they’re consistent with rest of city. The waterfront is the sole surface freight route in the city. We need to maintain a minimum freight width for lanes.”
The speed limit on the route is currently 30 mph. Advocates want it reduced to at least 25 mph, a move they say would be in keeping with the city’s Vision Zero goals.
Foster says it might happen, but only if there were a, “citywide policy change for center city. It’d be weird to make that call on one street.”
Though the street will likely get built to the full 96-foot width, Foster says they’re moving ahead with an eye to the future. They’re designing the curb geometry and drainage in a way that will allow them to eliminate lanes as needed later. For example, if Sound Transit’s third light-rail phase gets built, fixed rail will eliminate the need for bus routes on the waterfront.
Quinn thinks the design as it stands is a look backward instead of forward to the less car-dependent city Seattle officials have said they want.
“We’re setting ourselves up to look at this as a missed opportunity to make something great and connect our neighborhoods,” she says. “Ultimately what we want is to design it correctly now in service of the direction the city wants to go.”
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.