(This post is part of a series.)

It appears that a growing number of Seattle residents are questioning whether the Alaskan Way Viaduct—the elevated highway that hugs the Seattle waterfront through downtown—ought to be torn down and replaced with…well…nothing at all. There has been a lot written about this in the past few years—especially recently.

This is not nearly as radical an idea as it might seem. Portland removed a waterfront freeway in the 1970s. San Francisco tore down its Embarcadero Freeway after it was damaged by the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, and city residents liked the results so much that they just tore down another stretch of elevated highway through downtown. Vancouver, BC, never built an urban freeway; after a vigorous citizens movement that grew alarmed by what I-5 did to Seattle neighborhoods, the city killed an extensive freeway plan in the 1960s. That leaves Seattle as the only major city north of Los Angeles that still reveres the urban highway.

Of course, every city is different, and has unique transportation needs. Although much of the traffic once carried by the Embarcadero simply vanished once it was torn down, that highway didn’t serve the same function in its city’s transportation scheme as does the Viaduct.

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  • But at a very minimum, transportation planners should be looking very closely at replacing the viaduct with an at-grade boulevard. This could very well be the least-cost solution to replacing the Viaduct. Replacing the Viaduct with a tunnel—the alternative preferred by most city officials—would cost at least $4.5 billion. With an average of 55,000 round trips on the Viaduct per day, that’s about $80,000 of tunnel for each vehicle: a huge amount, even if the city could count on a full-throttle economy and a free-spending electorate (which it can’t).

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