Future Of Shaky Viaduct Divides Seattle Residents Efforts are under way to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an elevated highway along Seattle's waterfront that was weakened by an earthquake. Officials have wrangled over what to do about it for 10 years. Meanwhile, city residents have become frustrated with the system's inability to act.

Future Of Shaky Viaduct Divides Seattle Residents

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block.

Downtown Seattle is one earthquake away from a transportation catastrophe. The city's last big quake weakened an elevated highway called the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and another good shake could bring it down. Despite that urgency, the city has spent the last 10 years trying to decide what to do about the highway.

And as NPR's Martin Kaste explains, Seattle takes one more step today with a referendum on the matter.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

MARTIN KASTE: Standing underneath the Alaskan Way Viaduct, you can't help but think what's happened to similar double-decker highways in earthquake zones like California and Japan.

Elliot Kreeger has stopped here for a hot dog, right below Seattle's Viaduct of Damocles.

ELLIOT KREEGER: I'd like it taken down before it falls down.

KASTE: Kreeger lives near the waterfront, where you get gorgeous views of the Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound - that is, where the viaduct isn't in the way.

KREEGER: I've always thought it was a shame that Seattle has not taken advantage of the water and this area. And this definitely is a scar.

KASTE: But a lot of native Seattleites are also kind of fond of the old highway. Like the hotdog vendor, Torben Bernhardt.

TORBEN BERNHARDT: It's okay. I mean it's like you get a good view when you're driving on it. It's much easier getting home on the viaduct than it is a lot of other ways downtown.

KASTE: This ambivalence has dragged out the debate about what to do about the viaduct. It's been through all the hoops - a stake-holder committee, city council, a mayoral veto, a veto override and, finally, a plan.

DOW CONSTANTINE: I'm here today to re-emphasize my support for the downtown tunnel.

KASTE: County executive Dow Constantine, with a phalanx of business and labor reps, endorsing a state project to build a tunnel under downtown.

CONSTANTINE: We need to be able to keep people and freight moving.

KASTE: In theory, the tunnel is going to happen. The Department of Transportation has already signed the contracts. But, this being Seattle, the fight is still on.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Whoo.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hey.

KASTE: A Hummer waved at us. That's a good sign.

These sign-wavers are with Protect Seattle Now, a group that got a tunnel referendum question on today's primary election ballot. Some of them would like to see the viaduct rebuilt. Others don't want a highway at all, just more transit. But they all agree on what they're against.

ANITRA FREEMAN: The tunnel, it's the absolutely worst and most expensive alternative.

KASTE: Anitra Freeman says the price tag, four billion or so, is just one of the reasons not to like the tunnel. Yes, the state is paying most of the bill, but the city may have to cover the overruns. And what happens if the tunneling machine gets stuck under downtown? Or if there's a cave-in under somebody's skyscraper?

FREEMAN: The people I talk to who are against the tunnel have a whole list of reasons, and have really thought about it. And the people - everybody I talked to who supports the tunnel, it's all for one reason: I'm just tired of this, I want to do something.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN)

KASTE: It's not for nothing that the pro-tunnel campaign, funded in part by the contractors, calls itself Let's Move Forward. Campaign spokesman Alex Fryer says the ongoing resistance to the tunnel reflects the national mood, a time when economic crisis makes voters shrink from big projects.

ALEX FRYER: Your mentality kind of just starts spinning into a negative vortex where you just - you can't do anything. You're just paralyzed.

KASTE: Tunnel opponents worry about the opposite mentality. Spokeswoman Esther Handy.

ESTHER HANDY: They're cutting basic health. They're cutting our K-12 system. They're cutting our highest education system. And we have a transportation department that's saying: We just need to build something - we've got billions of dollars, let's just do anything. It's just crazy.

KASTE: Today's referendum probably won't be the last word on the issue. In the meantime, the state has installed seismically-triggered gates on the viaduct, in hopes of limiting the number of cars that are up there, if and when the big one hits.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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