A cover on I-5 with homes, shops, art spaces and parks built on top could pay to make the highway safer. Seattle city
menterstate 5 is not safe against earthquakes, and there is no money to fix it.
Within our lives, there is a good chance that Seattle will feel the violent tremors of an unimaginably strong earthquake, and when that happens, the stretch of Seattle I-5 will probably be damaged without repair.
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The route that the state's busiest highway takes through downtown Seattle involves a series of elevated structures. Those structures include some bridges supported by hollow columns, which are now known to be especially dangerous in an earthquake. Legislators in Olympia have not allocated funds to update those hollow columns, and there are currently no plans to do so.
Given these vulnerabilities, experts in response to state earthquakes have completely ruled out the attempt to use I-5 in case of a major seismic event. First responders will deliver life-saving supplies on other roads.
But I-5 is falling apart even if an earthquake doesn't hit soon. The road pavement is 30 years late for replacement. By 2040, a whopping 278 I-5 bridges in the region will be at least 70 years old and must be completely replaced. The latest government estimates place the cost of lameness along with the I-5 we have (with minor corrections and patches) until 2040 at around $ 2.5 billion. And if you think I-5 traffic is bad right now, just wait a few decades when there are millions more people waiting to use it.
I-5 faces these challenges just when voters across the state have actively rejected transportation projects, including basic bridge repairs, by approving Initiative 976, which reduces billions in transportation funds and limits tariffs on transportation. the car bill at $ 30.
The answer to what we are going to do regarding I-5 could come from the heart of Seattle, where urban planners in the largest city in our region are looking for ways to mitigate the dangers posed by this highway. While lawmakers in Olympia avoid answering the question and voters across the state cut funding for transportation, I set out to explore radical ideas about the future that is taking shape. And what I found surprised me.
It turns out that building a multi-million dollar roof on I-5 with thousands of housing units, restaurants, shops, art spaces and open parks at the top could be an effective way to pay for the highway to be safe.
And then there is a second idea, even more radical. Since I-5 is an unsafe road that is failing in almost every physical aspect and there is no plan to fix it, and since highways are helping to destroy the environment with tons of pollution caused by the weather, there could be A solution for us. The face: it may be time to eliminate I-5.
menterstate 5 is the most important highway in Washington in almost all metrics. It is by far the busiest. According to traffic counts from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), 274,000 vehicles pass each day along the busiest stretch of I-5, in Seattle, north of Mercer Street. (For reference, only 16,000 vehicles enter Seattle on Interstate 90 each day). I-5 is the most important cargo route in the state, and the section of Seattle I-5 has the greatest cargo weight. WSDOT estimates that an average of 16,000 trucks transport goods through Seattle on I-5 every day, moving more than 81 million tons of cargo annually in Seattle alone.
And in almost every way, our most important road is falling apart.
The road has not been seriously updated since construction began in 1958, after President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Assistance Law. The five-star general's plan was to link all major military installations in the United States with a connected highway that had no tolls or traffic lights.
The federal government paid most of the bill, and the work began with a two-story bridge that crosses the Canal del Barco (the waterway that connects Lake Union with Lake Washington). The last section of I-5 in Seattle was completed in 1967 in southern Seattle, near Tukwila. Engineers expected the pavement to last 20 years, or until 1987, before it was necessary to rehabilitate or replace it completely. That did not happen. Most of the pavement drivers that run today are the same things that were on the ground in 1967, according to a report from the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC).
The pavement is just one of the many structural problems facing the road. Most of the bridges, signs, railings, lights, drains and barriers of I-5 must be significantly replaced or rehabilitated. That translates into $ 14 billion of work just to preserve the statewide highway until 2040, or about $ 2.5 billion in the Puget Sound area, according to the PSRC report.
Bridges are one of the most worrying aspects of these necessary repairs and replacements. It is estimated that $ 675 million must be spent on the I-5 bridges to keep them running until 2040, at which time, again, almost all of the I-5 bridges must be completely replaced. And that $ 675 million includes only basic repair jobs; It does not represent the cost of making I-5 bridges seismically safe. It will cost an additional $ 1.1 billion estimated to upgrade the bridges for seismic safety.
That is a massive amount of money that legislators in Olympia have not yet funded. And given the fact that voters cut funds for transportation, it is unlikely that extra money will arrive for the bridge in the short term. This reality is the reason why state emergency preparedness experts have basically decided to give up I-5 in Seattle.
John Himmel, security and emergency operations manager at WSDOT, told me that in the event of a "catastrophic earthquake," federal supplies will land first in Moses Lake, east of the Cascade Mountains, and then be sent to the airports of this area, such as Sea-Tac and Paine Field. The products will avoid I-5 in Seattle using Interstate 405 and the new State Bridge 520 floating bridge.
"Currently, I-5 will not be considered a lifeguard because … some of the main bridge fights in that corridor," said Himmel. "It goes around in 405 because it was a less expensive option to upgrade to 405 because of the money we had."
Most roads in this other "lifeline" are not even guaranteed to survive a really big earthquake. An earthquake in the Cascadia subduction zone (CSZ), which would affect Seattle, would be the strongest type of earthquake. Only the newest engineering wonders of our region, such as the new Highway 99 tunnel and the State Route 520 floating bridge, are expected to survive unscathed by a CSZ earthquake.
Road vulnerabilities are the reason why the state estimates that in case of a CSZ earthquake, it is likely that it will not have help for weeks, not just days, according to Barbara LaBoe, a WSDOT spokesperson. "We need the public to be aware that there is a seismic risk in the region, and they must be prepared for that," LaBoe told me. "People should have supplies for two weeks. If there is a truly catastrophic earthquake, it may take a while before the trip returns."
And there is no reason to think that the stretch of I-5 in Seattle will begin to function quickly after a catastrophic earthquake. The 1950 engineering behind I-5 makes the road prone to earthquake damage, especially along a smaller subset of bridges that are built with columns that are completely hollow inside.
There are 20 of those hollow column bridges across the state, according to WSDOT. Seven of those bridges (six on SR 520 and one along I-5 in Tacoma) are scheduled to be replaced, but there are no plans to replace or improve the remaining 13, all of which are on I-5. Six of these hollow column bridges support I-5 and its entrance ramps in Seattle between the convention center and the Boat Channel Bridge.
DeWayne Wilson, bridge asset management engineer at WSDOT, said it was "unfortunate" that this technology would be used in conjunction with I-5. He said it made the columns "a little more vulnerable" than if they were a solid core, but he also added that these bridges are unlikely to completely collapse in a major earthquake. He noted that these columns were not damaged during the Nisqually Earthquake of 2001, which had a magnitude of 6.8.
"In general, what we are saying is that there would be some level of damage that would require the closing of the bridges (I-5), but it will not collapse. It all depends on the details (of the earthquake)," said Wilson. "After an earthquake, the bridge would close and may require repairs, but it would not collapse, that would be a rarity with our earthquakes."
Those hollow columns may have been enough during the Nisqually earthquake, but what happens when we have an earthquake of 9.0 CSZ? Wilson told KUOW in 2016 that there is a "high risk" that these columns can "explode" during a severe earthquake. John Stanton, an engineering professor at the University of Washington and an expert in hollow columns, said in the same story that he would "stop talking and run away" if he were standing under one of these bridges during an earthquake.
But Mark Gaines, a bridge and structure engineer at WSDOT, told me that a new Stanton investigation shows that these bridges are actually stronger than previously thought. "This concern about implosion was a real concern, but through his tests it was not something he has seen," Gaines said.
Stanton did not respond to a request for comment, and Gaines said the study he referred to could not be published until it is completed early next year. Gaines said it is unlikely that these I-5 bridges would collapse completely during a CSZ earthquake, but that they could be irreparably damaged. Gaines added that an unknown question is how these bridges will handle an earthquake that shakes longer, which could happen with a CSZ earthquake.
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"One thing we are seeing is how our structures behave if they are at a high level of agitation for several minutes," Gaines said. "We don't have much information about that."
Wilson reminded me that this was not a physics or engineering problem. In essence, we are dealing with a political problem. If we spend enough money, we could be very close to ensuring that I-5 will not be sandwiched with cars in case of an earthquake and could function as an important safety route later. But that ultimately depends on the voters and legislators.
"Everything has a cost, and we could label everything as essential, and it will be more expensive," Wilson said. "It is up to society to determine that. It's about how much funding the company is willing to allocate to this need."
So, if it is up to us the Seattle voters to decide whether or not we want to rebuild our 50-year highway, we can also decide to do something completely different. Maybe it's time for us to eliminate it.
meIt's easy to feel that Interstate 5 is a natural part of Seattle. Cut a scar so deep in the city that it is hard to imagine that it is not there. But the highway is not a natural formation, nor an especially old artificial work (Pike Place Market, Smith Tower and even the Space Needle before I-5). So, if the highway is falling apart and does not help us in case of an emergency, and if there is no plan to fix it, can we get rid of it?
A town planner proposes to eliminate I-5 completely in the center as well. Google Maps / Courtesy of Doug Trumm and The Urbanist
That is the revolutionary idea driven by Doug Trumm, local writer and publishing director of Urbanist. Trumm has been calling for the elimination of I-5 from downtown Seattle since 2016. He argues that, given the deficiencies of the road, it is falling apart, it is a big driver of carbon emissions, it is almost always blocked and there is no money to update it. we should completely discard the center part of the highway.
Trumm's idea has not yet won any politician.
"No, I haven't heard any support from people who hold office positions or high positions, because they don't like to move the boat that way," said Trumm. "But I certainly believe that there is an appetite for some ambitious things like this, which are better transportation, better parks, healthier cities and less pollution."
Trumm argues that instead of rebuilding the old highway, we should completely eliminate the road between the I-90 and SR 520 interchanges. That way, drivers could still approach downtown, and east-west connections to the two floating bridges of our city would still be intact. But the stretch of highway between I-90 and SR 520 – more than 50 blocks, worth more than one billion dollars, according to Trumm's estimate – could be reused in homes, parks and commercial development. That's all Seattle urgently needs, while an unstable and old highway clogged with vehicles that destroy the weather is something we may not need.
Trumm noted other highway elimination projects around the world, in places like San Francisco and Seoul, as proof that eliminating highways can actually reduce congestion. He said his ideal version would set aside part of the current space occupied by I-5 for a high-speed underground railway, although a WSDOT spokesman told me that it was unlikely that the I-5 right of way could handle the high speed. rail, as the route curves too much for fast trains.
The biggest impediment to the Trumm plan is probably all the cargo that moves on this section of the highway. Trumm said the Port of Seattle could still use I-90 for cargo transportation eastward, and I-5 for cargo transportation southbound, and the new tunnel on Highway 99 (an investment of $ 4 billion without public transport benefits) for freight transport to the north.
"I am not going to say that there are no impacts on freight transport, but I think they can still be mid. And the idea that we can have less congestion may be attractive to transport companies," said Trumm.
The more he talked to Trumm, the more he felt like we were highway engineers in the war on cars. We were sitting in a coffee shop in the city center where he had ridden his bicycle and I had taken a bus and a train. He told me that he and his wife had donated their car to KUOW years ago, and now they only use public transportation or bicycles. I own a car, but I drive it less than three times a month and try not to mention the ownership of my car in an educated company.
Trumm told me that he didn't even want to expand I-405 to compensate for the removal of sections of I-5. (He commented: "The east side … already has enough freeways. It's not a problem in Seattle.") But when I asked him if this idea was part of a war against cars, he had a quick response.
"There is a war, but it only collects bodies on one side. It is a war against pedestrians, this is how we see it," said Trumm, invoking the broader "we" in solidarity with his comrades without cars. "When it comes to feelings, they may feel attacked, and we have no intention of doing so. The idea is that everyone has mobility options, but what we have now is that each street will have cars."
But there seems to be no possibility that I-5 doesn't have cars in downtown Seattle soon.
I shared the idea of eliminating the Trumm highway with Jeff Storrar, planning manager for the entire WSDOT system for I-5 and the person looking for how to coordinate the massive problems the highway faces. The kind state employee gave me a rejection as strong as he seemed capable.
"I would simply reiterate … that we recognize that this is one of the most critical parts of the transportation system in the state," Storrar said.
That does not prevent Trumm from wanting to tear the 50-year-old highway. If suddenly Trumm was in charge of the world, he said he would go ahead with his plan. "Yes, when the eco-socialists-urbanists take over, I think we would do this," said Trumm.
WWhen teams began demolishing thousands of homes in the 1950s to make way for the new "Seattle Highway," not everyone wanted a concrete scar to cut the city. A movement began to mitigate the damage of the incoming highway, and in the summer of 1961, protesters took to the streets. Protesters called for the road to be covered with a cover, urging road designers to "Keep Seattle Beautiful" by placing a park on top, according to a news report from the Seattle Times.
Protesters were able to delay the construction of the project for five months, according to a later story in the Times. But his pardon of a scar on the highway ended up being only temporary. Before the end of the decade, there was a concrete-free highway that extended from Tacoma to Everett and crossed the heart of Seattle.
More than 50 years later, calls to close I-5 are repeated, but this time there is an additional urgency: putting a cover on top of I-5 could be the best way to make the earthquake on the largest road in Our city be safe.
The land below I-5 and the air above are owned by WSDOT, the same agency that will probably pay for the necessary repairs on the road. If a structure was built on the highway, WSDOT could sell or lease the land to private developers, and that money could help offset road repair costs. It's the definition of win-win: Seattle gets more land for housing, business and community spaces, while the state gets money to fix its old path.
"Repairing the highway is going to be expensive," Natalie Bicknell, one of the people advocating closing I-5, recently told me. "One of the reasons why WSDOT likes our idea and supports it a lot is because they need money."
Bicknell is part of the Lid I-5 coalition, a volunteer-driven group that is making significant progress towards reconnecting downtown Seattle by building a new highway structure. The cap has been backed by multiple members of the Seattle City Council, and recently $ 1.2 million was assigned to conduct a major feasibility study to close I-5 between Madison Street and Denny Way, approximately 18.5 acres of land. That study will come out in the spring of next year.
The city is studying I-5 between Madison and Denny. Seattle city
The Lid I-5 group has already presented a solid case for the project, even before the feasibility study is completed. An earlier study found that a cover on I-5 could support seven-story buildings throughout the structure, with some spaces capable of supporting buildings up to 45 stories.
The ability to create new buildings along some of the most expensive real estate in the country makes the cover look like an obvious investment in public land. The campaign estimates that it will cost less than $ 750 per square foot to build the lid, but the land created will be worth more than $ 1,000 per square foot.
Cover activists are not officially supporters of what exactly the structure will sit on (they want that decided by an inclusive scope to various stakeholders), but they have worked with design students at the University of Washington to examine various scenarios . The cost of the cover and its economic impact vary significantly depending on the type of structures or parks that are placed on top.
A 2018 UW report, which studied an area slightly larger than the city's study area, found that a low-density design could generate 1,842 housing units (497 of them as affordable units) and at the same time leave the 68 percent of the cover as open space, or 20 acres of new parks. That model would require $ 2.7 billion in total costs and a net worth of $ 2.1 billion. But if the design had a higher density of buildings, with only 11 acres of parks and 4,531 housing units (1,223 of them as affordable units), then the project would require $ 4.4 billion in total costs but a net worth of $ 5.3 billion.
The idea of putting 45-story buildings on top of I-5 in downtown Seattle may seem radical, but closing highways is nothing new. In fact, Seattle is home to what is probably the country's first covered park. Freeway Park opened in 1976 and is considered a national milestone for highway reuse. Riisa Conklin, executive director of the Freeway Park Association, sees many parallels between Seattle's new effort to close I-5 and the effort that built this first highway park.
"The momentum (behind Freeway Park) was driven by the community and the grassroots, so I also love the Lid I-5 project, because it comes from the community," Conklin told me as we walked through the winding Freeway Park recently. "It's a grassroots movement, driven by volunteers, and again analyzes how we join this wound in our city and rejoin our neighborhoods? How do we create more public land, more public housing, the things our city needs most?"
Cities across the country, including Dallas, New York, Chicago and Washington, DC, have followed the example of Freeway Park and designed and built tapas.
Even the Seattle area has a growing list of parks with covers. Interstate 90 passes under two caps when it leaves Seattle, first in Judkins Park and then on Mercer Island, where the interstate is buried under one of the largest caps per square meter in the country. Medina is home to two parks with a cover on SR 520. Bellevue is in the process of building a park with a cover on I-405. And WSDOT will begin construction of a new park with a cover on SR 520 in northern Capitol Hill, near Roanoke Street in 2023.
There is a pattern between these tapas in the Seattle area: they are close to the homes of rich people. Therefore, it makes sense to build one in the heart of downtown, where average incomes are lower than in ultra-rich areas such as Mercer Island, especially because this cover could create much-needed affordable housing.
The Lid I-5 group wants to finish the construction of the center cover of I-5 within 10 years, a plan they consider reasonable.
"Every time WSDOT builds or repairs a highway, they plug it," Bicknell said. "We know what is going to happen. We just don't know when it will happen. Our group doesn't want it to happen in 50 years."
In addition, who knows if I-5 will remain standing in 50 years. The last megathrust earthquake in the Cascadia subduction zone was more than 300 years ago, and seismologists estimate that these earthquakes occur at regular intervals every 400 to 600 years. That means it could attack tomorrow, or it could strike in hundreds of years. Either way, today's I-5 is not ready for that.
"We feel that Seattle should be able to do this. It is much richer than many of the other cities that are doing it, and it has a greater need," Bicknell said.
"And let me tell you this: none of those places has the seismic concerns we have," he said. "All those places simply did it to improve their urban environment. Making the modifications to I-5 that are necessary to make it safe would save lives in case of an earthquake. What could be a better motivating factor than that?"