Freeway fighter

One Seattle old-timer is sticking up for another one: Yes, Charlie Chong is fighting to protect the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

The former City Council member says development interests want to exploit the recent earthquake to grab valuable waterfront property. As a West Seattle neighborhood activist, he was a noted critic of a 1994 proposal to replace the viaduct with a privately operated underground toll road. (Under that plan, the toll-road builders would have received several acres of city-owned property along the waterfront for future development.)

The earthquake did establish two indisputable facts. The 1953 elevated roadway, which survived the 6.8 shaker without significant structural damage, is tougher than its critics would have you believe. It's also a necessary part of the city's transportation infrastructure—when the viaduct was closed temporarily for inspections, Interstate 5 went into perpetual rush-hour mode.

Back in 1994, Chong met the late Mac McGrath, a crane operator on the original viaduct project who was annoyed with much of the misinformation going around about the structure. Although it is often compared to the Bay Area's Embarcadero freeway, which buckled in a 1989 quake, the design of the viaduct is actually quite different. The upper deck of the Embarcadero sat on horizontal supports (and slid off under the stress of the quake); the two decks of the viaduct and the pillars are constructed as a single unit. The viaduct isn't "built on fill" (in the words of its critics); it's built on pilings sunk into the hard soil below the fill level.

Don Anderson, a retired transportation engineer who spent three decades with the Washington state Department of Transportation, remembers his own "very enlightening" conversation with McGrath about the viaduct construction. He says the DOT has always built roadways to very high standards and notes that he's a little surprised that the earthquake seems to have emboldened the viaduct's critics rather than silencing them.

Nobody's silenced Charlie yet. "Watch your local, beloved state legislators—not what they say at home but [what they] do in Olympia," he warns in a not-yet-published opinion piece. "Watch your City Council do nothing."

Not so fast

Is the Seattle City Council ready to join Sound Transit's critics? That's what council member Nick Licata wants to know with a resolution asking the agency to delay implementing its light-rail plan until the project's review committee completes its study.

Licata would also like to see citizen representatives added to the committee—one for each of the proposed stations on the light-rail line. "The council's been, I think, extraordinarily quiet about [this issue]," he says. With Licata's resolution set for an April 2 vote, his colleagues will have no choice but to speak up.

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