The Viaduct Conspiracy

[ Seattle in 1925 ]

As the stakeholder committee gets into it, viaduct buzz is noticeably notching up. Local urban designer David Sucher, who has been relentlessly predicting a retrofit for years, recently reiterated his view here, but what caught my attention was his assertion that the government has been intentionally misleading the public — our local version of the Iraq War, as he put it.

A few months ago over at Crosscut, C.R. Douglas evoked similar suspicions in a blog post about the “myth” of unstable soil under the viaduct columns, questioning why he was only just learning that the viaduct “is on fairly stable footing.” The answer, of course, is that he hadn’t done his research. No such myth ever entered into any legitimate engineering analysis of the viaduct. Still, Sucher chimed in with a comment about the “conspiracy of silence.”

To paraphrase the conspiracy theory, if I may: Safety concerns and the cost of retrofitting were both dishonestly overstated by government officials in order to garner support for the tunnel option, which was then believed to be a big political winner. Now that the tunnel is off the table, these same officials have no choice but to pretend to entertain the possibility of the surface option, since they can’t reneg on their prior safety and cost claims. The surface option supporters play right into it because they’re such ideologues that they refuse to listen to even a word about a retrofit. But in the end, all that’s irrelevant anyway because the conspirators have perfect confidence that no consensus will be reached and the retrofit will become the inevitable fall back option. Capiche?

Meanwhile, Popular Mechanics just put the Alaskan Way Viaduct on its top ten list of “pieces of U.S. infrastructure we must fix now.”

Though it may sound like I’m being totally dismissive, I’m actually not. I’m not so naive as to believe such a thing could never happen. But this Sightline comment thread from two years ago all but puts it to bed for me. One study (Twelker/Gray) supports a relatively cheap retrofit, while multiple studies — including some that were conducted in Universities and have been peer reviewed — are in agreement about the high cost of retrofitting. Also, the first engineering study showing the high cost of a retrofit was done in 1995 “before the tunnel idea was even on the drawing board,” pre-Nickels, pre-Gregoire. I suppose the new administrations might be compelled to carry on the conspiracy to preserve the Party, but how far can you stretch this thing?

But still, I’m keeping on open mind on this. If any of you readers out there can point to concrete evidence on viaducty shenanigans, let’s have it.

14 Responses to “The Viaduct Conspiracy”

  1. David Sucher

    You’ve stated my perspective almost perfectly though I’d add several things:

    1. I don’t think that anyone consciously lied to us. That would be overstatement. But people have a tendency — all of us — to see what they want to see. But the selective display of facts to buttress a particular goal leads to the same situation as outright lying: an uninformed public relying on incomplete view.
    Let me rephrase it: no one lied but no one told the truth.

    2. I believe that the earlier retrofit studies from the mid-nineties showed that a retrofit could be done for several hundred million. Do you have other information?

    And I think that the CR Douglas view is the one held one by just about everyone: that one of the problems of the current viaduct is that it is built on un-stable liquefaction-prone soil. That is definitely the message put out.

    3. None of the conspirators actually conspired over anything but silence on all options. Neither tunnel advocates nor surface/transit advocates wanted serious consideration of a repair and so they had a joint and unspoken interest in playing it down, really eliminating actually, the possibility of a repair.

    4. I am surprise you suggest that Popular Mechanics is a source worth citing on the facts of the matter.

    5. While I personally favor the repair as it comports more with my own urban design priorities for the city, my prediction of retrofit is based as much as I can on an objective assessment of the intractable politics and economics which will lead to piecemeal repair. And that’s not an ideal situation because it misses opportunities. For example:

  2. David Sucher

    One other point:

    It is now a full 8 years since we discovered that we had a “serious emergency” and we are still having “Stakeholder” groups to _discuss_ possible solutions. None of the decision-makers has been acting like they are truly worried but only that this is an “opportunity.”

    Some “emergency.”

  3. Kate G.

    Please, which page number of the Popular Mechanics article deals with the viaduct? I want to skip the other nine pages.

    Thank you.

  4. Joshua

    I am not a supporter of the retrofit option, but I have always wondered why, if the viaduct is in such danger from the next big earthquake (which apparently can happen anytime now), the city hasn’t shut it down. Anyone know why? Certainly after last year’s bridge collapse in the mid-west, a few officials must have made the connection…

  5. Brian

    To why “they” have not shut down the viaduct despite the dire predictions, is it too shocking to consider that our elected leaders are taking a calculated risk? You gamble that the big one won’t hit soon to avoid being the politician who dumps 100k cars onto I-5 (minus those who’d change their trips, routes, and schedules). What if the quake doesn’t come for forty years? You’d look like a fool. So hopefully it doesn’t come in your lifetime. Yet you declare over and over that there is a “crisis” that requires action and try to bring about the fix you think is best. But if God forbid disaster strikes and hundreds or even thousands are crushed to death on the waterfront, you can at least claim you were shouting from the rooftops.

    I don’t even mean this to be a cynical comment, I just think that’s what’s going on.

  6. David Sucher


    I am not sure what taking a “calculated risk” has to do with it. If there is a substantial danger they should do something — and SEPA and lawsuits are not a factor. The State has the power, appropriately, to exempt projects from SEPA when there is an emergency. It is totally irresponsible for them to let a dangerous situation sit there.

    Btw, I am not now and have never said that the Viaduct doesn’t need work. I don’t doubt that it does. Every object which is 50 years old needs repair, rehab.

    The issue is the misuse of a real problem — a bad dictator in Iraq, here a Viaduct which needs repair — to manipulate the process to do something far beyond what is necessary to deal with the initial problem because one has other goals. That is the story.

    Consider what Glenn Greenwald said in an interview at The Art of the Possible .

    “One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to assume competence and benign intent on the part of political officials when deciding how much power to give them. We ought to assume the worst about them — about their abilities, integrity and motives — and only then, based on those suppositions, should we decide how much power, and what specific powers, we’re willing to vest in them.”

    That also goes for big-ticket local items for which there is no existing budget. “Trust but verify.” And the local press has doesn’t it when it comes to the Viaduct.

  7. danb

    This past January Gregoire made a public and highly unequivocal statement that the viaduct will be torn down in 2012 no matter what. Either this is a lie, or she is not in on the “conspiracy.”

    This stated deadline also indicates that the safety concerns are being taken seriously, finally. I agree with Brian about calculated risk. Shutting down the viaduct immediately would not fly with the public, but setting a deadline and allowing time for a plan to be developed is a reasonable compromise.
    The above 2001 study estimated $948M for a retrofit and $760M for full replacement. Please don’t make me read any more of these tedious things!

    If the above numbers are realistic, then it is a pretty safe bet that the surface option would be significantly cheaper than a retrofit. So for those, like myself, who believe the surface option is the best option for the future of our city and planet, there is nothing irrational about dismissing the retrofit option.

  8. Dan Staley

    Most of the time, emergencies are declared post facto. Why? Too many emergencies would be declared the other way (Orange Alerts during the 2004 election cycle, Dubya-Em-Dee anyone?) to manipulate the public [link] to do what a government wants. I think we’ve seen enough of the manipulation of manufactured fear from this crew to realize why we should be careful in this way.

    Now. I substantially agree with Brian and Dan’l. I think what Brian describes is what is happening. You have to give time for society to change; act too quickly and the old maxim comes into play:

    There’s never enough time and money to do it right the first time, but there’s always enough time and money to do it right the second time.

  9. vanderleun

    Why would anyone want to spend the money to tear down the viaduct when just waiting will git ‘er done for you?

  10. David Sucher

    Believe what you want. I have no dog in this fight because I doubt I will be living in Seattle when the bills come due. I am just telling you what I see.

    Gregoire’s statement makes no sense. I am not saying she is lying but I am saying that she has probably not through through the issues and was trying to look bold and decisive, after acting weak and confused. Anyway she’ll be gone in 2012. :)

    The issue is summed up in Cary Moon’s good question question: “If we can do without the Viaduct during 5 years of construction, then why can’t we do without it at all?”

    Well a lot of people will say that we can’t do without the Viaduct UNLESS we make commit to huge interim transit investments, which cost is not figured into any plan which tears down the Viaduct to replace it with something else.

    And in any case we are making NO such preparations for alternative transport during construction. Such systems must be in in place well-before the Viaduct is shut down. We aren’t even planning such systems nor thinking how to finance them or make them politically palatable. (Who is going to volunteer to have more buses through their neighborhood? Top of QA, maybe?) And 2012 is not that far away, though conveniently after the date at which our Governor will end her second term and probably retire, laeving the issue to her successor who in typical NW fashion will be able to disown whatever tentative decisions she has made.

    No, it’s a mess and the State/City is doing nothing to solve it. The only REAL action which is actually happening is repairing the Viaduct.

    Just look. Actions talk.

  11. David Sucher

    I forgot to mention that there ARE ways to deal with the incedible problem of the construction period (i.e. you can’t paint the part of the floor on which you are standing) such as the “Elliot Bay Bridge”
    which reporter Danny Weastnet favors
    or this “high viaduct”
    which also looks intriguing.

    But I don’t think that WSDOT has the flexibility to honestly consider such alternatives. That’s fine if they want to prove me wrong.

  12. Chris Stefan

    For what it is worth the structural engineering community is in agreement that the viaduct should be shut down as unsafe ASAP. Almost every engineer who has had a serious chance to look at the current condition of the viaduct has come to this conclusion.

    Frankly I wish the DOT would “red tag” the structure it might provide the incentive needed to actually do something about the situation.

    For another unsafe bridge that should be closed to traffic see the 14/16th Ave S bridge which looks like it will collapse into the Duwamish before anything is done about it.

  13. Emmitt Devine

    Wonderful blog you have here but I was wanting to know if you knew of any user discussion forums that cover the same topics talked about here? I’d really love to be a part of community where I can get opinions from other experienced people that share the same interest. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Bless you!

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