The Truckers' Magic Carpet

Industrial Seattle is passionate but divided on the viaduct.

Here's one potential beneficiary of the Alaskan Way clusterduct: the makers of motivational office posters.

Mike Skrivan, delivery manager for the concrete-and-aggregate company Glacier Northwest, has two such posters hanging in his office; one advises "Harmony," the other advocates "Serenity." He's going to need many more posters to calm his jitters over the looming viaduct teardown.

"It's going to screw everything up," says Skrivan, whose concrete plant sits at the foot of the First Avenue bridge, just south of the viaduct. "There's no good way through our city as it is." Skrivan manages a fleet of about 60 cement trucks in Western Washington, roughly half of which use the viaduct each day to get to and from jobs. These trucks have had a hand in 60 percent to 70 percent of the Seattle skyline, he says. He tracks their movements using GPS-assisted software: On a good day, his computer screen will show lines of animated trucks crawling up and down I-5, Fourth Avenue, and the viaduct. On a bad day, such as when the Nisqually earthquake hit Seattle six years ago and closed the viaduct, those trucks stand still in downtown traffic or wander off in circuitous routes on the city's outskirts. Twenty-minute trips can stretch into two-hour slogs. And taking the scenic route is not good for concrete.

"We're not carrying something that's like, 'OK, we're two hours late, so what?'" says Bill Parfitt, Glacier's vice president and general manager of its Washington division. "We're carrying something that if we don't get if off the truck in a reasonable period of time, at the very best the product's just wasted. And at the very worst it's setting up in the truck—and then you have huge problems."

Glacier's not the only trucking company fretting about a viaduct-less Seattle. Though trucks account for only 4,000 of about 100,000 vehicle trips on the viaduct every day (according to a study conducted last year by two groups that have supported removing highways), the people in those trucks really, really like their viaduct.

"It's really hard to compare car traffic and truck traffic because those 4,000 trips aren't discretionary; none of them are recreational," says Dave Gering, executive director of the Manufacturing Industrial Council of Seattle. "They're all deliveries. Think of it as 4,000 transactions that are basically depending on the viaduct."

Charlie's Produce, a local supplier of groceries and floral products, is pondering switching over to night deliveries absent a viaduct. Booze haulers are trying to figure out how to make the narrow window of restaurant deliveries.

"If you'd like to go see a concert at the Ballard Firehouse or go eat dinner atVolterra, somehow that beer's got to get there," says Steve Loeb, president of Alaskan Distributors, which puts "at least 10" liquor-carrying trucks on the viaduct each day. (OK, admittedly if you try to see a concert at the Ballard Firehouse, you're going to have bigger problems than a lack of beer, since the place has been closed for about a decade. But you get his point.) "It's either going up I-5," says Loeb, "or it's going up 99."

And the problem with I-5, says Rick Goetz, vice president of construction-equipment haulers Nelson Trucking, is it "doesn't take more than a sneeze and traffic is in a standstill." Because of weight restrictions and narrow lanes, Goetz's company doesn't even use the viaduct—he's just worried about viaduct traffic being diverted onto the highway.

If that sounds like a consensus, it's not. The demographic that perhaps needs the viaduct most has been the least successful at developing a lobby. Contribution papers sent to the city's Ethics and Elections Commission show various anti-viaduct groups have raised almost a half-million dollars for their fight; the only group that can sort of be considered pro-viaduct, the No Tunnel Alliance, has scraped together about $23,000. (And $10,000 of that's from real-estate developer Martin Selig, probably not a subscriber to Heavy Duty Trucking.)

"I don't think they're as organized as the environmental people," says Newell Aldrich, legislative assistant to City Council member Nick Licata. "In terms of lobbying the council, I don't think they've done a whole lot."

State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, says she's heard from Ballard Oil President Warren Aakervik Jr., who's concerned about fuel-shipping restrictions under a tunnel option, and from the North Seattle Industrial Group. But few others who would love a new or rebuilt viaduct have made their presence known. "I did see some yard signs in Queen Anne the other day," Kohl-Welles says.

There are two possibilities here. The truckers could be gearing up for a clandestine influence battle—something that's already happening, according to BobViggers, Charlie's Produce's general manager. "We are low-key," he says. "We're working behind the scenes." Or the trucking lobby could be afflicted with the same indecision that's stricken just about every other player in the debate.

"We're in favor of the tunnel, last I heard," says Glacier's general manager, Doug Anderson.

"Reality says either rehab the current viaduct or build a new elevated structure," says Alaskan's Loeb.

"Building a giant concrete wall that will cut off access to our waterfront for the next hundred years is not the answer to our freight-mobility needs," says John Creighton, head commissioner of the Port of Seattle, whose waterfront tenants haul freight around the viaduct.

So freight haulers are coming down on the side of a tunnel/rehab/new-elevated-structure/anti-"wall" option. That may be hard to wrap one's head around, but envision it this way: no surface solution.

"It's a magic mushroom answer for a concrete-and-steel problem," says the Industrial Council's Gering. "The topography of this city is just really tough," with bridges, hills, and a messed-up street grid being the primary obstacles for heavy trucks. "It would be a disaster."

Any viaduct redesign that can't hold the current traffic capacity, says Glacier's Skrivan, is going to mean changes for his company, which is now involved in five downtown jobs. "We would maybe have to increase our fleet size," he says. "That would drink a lot of fuel and put a lot of CO2 into the air." To prevent such a slowdown in operations, Glacier might ask the city for special routes allocated for trucks only.

Or there might be a miracle and the viaduct will stand. "To me," says Gering, "it is the magic carpet ride that makes this city a great place to live."

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