The Alaskan Way Viaduct (known colloquially as just the Viaduct) has been a fixture of Seattle’s waterfront for nearly 66 years. It is nine years older than the Space Needle, 37 years older than the Fremont Troll, and 59 years older than the Seattle Great Wheel.
When the viaduct first opened in the early 50s, the Emerald City was a much different place than the one we know today. In 1950, the city’s population was 467,591. Tourism brochures encouraged visits to Alki Point, the Government (Ballard) Locks, and [Lacey V. Murrow] Floating Bridge. As the city’s centennial approached in 1951, civic leaders developed the first-ever Seafair and built a new history museum to celebrate.
Traffic concerns downtown and on the waterfront date back to at least the 1930s, and a viaduct for Alaskan way was first recommended at this time. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Seattle had bigger things to worry about, and another traffic study wasn’t completed until 1945. Like the rest of the country, Seattle’s postwar prosperity of the late 40s and early 50s caused an economic boom, increasing population, and a surge in automobile ownership, all of which only worsened downtown traffic.
After three years of construction, the first portion of the Alaskan Way Viaduct opened to traffic on April 4, 1953. The following year, it was connected to the Battery Street tunnel, and in 1959, the southernmost portion through Sodo opened. Various on and off-ramps were added through the 60s, with the final ramp (Columbia Street) opening in February of 1966.
Seattle’s love-hate relationship with the Viaduct is almost as old as the highway itself. With visions of waterfront development and the possibility of creating a community park, City Planning Commissioner Pete Best suggested demolishing the double-decker roadway in 1970. City Councilmember John Miller echoed Best’s suggestion two years later, calling the Viaduct “an eyesore” and accusing it of separating the downtown business district from the waterfront. In 1974, he and another City Council member suggested that the completion of the West Seattle Bridge would render the Viaduct obsolete.
Of course, there was also the question of earthquakes. The Viaduct’s first big quake was in 1965, where a 6.5 magnitude shook the greater Seattle-Tacoma area, causing damage to countless buildings and bridges. While it took 36 years for the next major earthquake to hit, earthquakes in California left Seattle concerned.
A 6.5 magnitude quake shook the San Fernando Valley in 1971, leveling buildings, killing 65 people, and spurring important changes in construction practices. In 1989, San Francisco experienced the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta Earthquake, which damaged numerous roadways, including the Embarcardero freeway. Built in 1959, the Embarcardero freeway was an elevated, concrete freeway, similar in many ways to Seattle’s Viaduct.
In 1995, two professors from UW’s civil engineering department gave the state recommendations on how to improve the Viaduct. The same year, WSDOT asked the state legislature for half a million dollars to study alternatives to the elevated highway.
In 2001, a wake-up call came in the form of the Nisqually Earthquake. The 48-year-old Viaduct experienced visible damage to support columns, joints, and floor beams. This damage, coupled with the nearing end of the structure’s useful life, spurred debates of what to do next.
Three years later, WSDOT announced that they had chosen to replace the Viaduct with a tunnel. In response, community and political debates and the lack of a decision waged on for nearly five years. In January 2009, the city, county, and state agreed that a tunnel would be built.
The part of the Viaduct deemed most dangerous (the 1959 addition through Sodo) was removed in 2011. In 2013, a custom-built tunnel-boring machine, playfully dubbed “Bertha,” arrived from Japan and began its 1.7 mile journey under Seattle.
It was anything but smooth sailing for Bertha. Four months after the journey commenced, Bertha hit a steel pipe, overheated, and sat dormant for two years while repairs were made and fingers were pointed. Drilling was halted once more in early 2016 after a barge holding the dirt removed by Bertha’s drilling tilted, dumping sludge into Elliott Bay and damaging a dock. The following day, a sinkhole opened up near the drilling site.
Bertha reached the end of her trail 29 months later than the date originally projected.
A landmark, an eyesore—call it what you like, but the Viaduct is undoubtedly an iconic piece of the Seattle waterfront. It has been shown many times on film, from amateur (“Under the Viaduct,” anyone?), to movies and television shows. While it may have blocked the view from the windows of some waterfront properties, nobody who has driven the Viaduct northbound on a clear summer’s day can deny that the Viaduct itself offered a million-dollar view to everyone. And who can forget the great view of the iconic Pink Elephant Car Wash rotating neon sign on the approach of the Battery Street Tunnel? Or the constant “thud, thud” of passing automobiles that has become as much part of the Waterfront’s soundtrack as seagulls begging for French fries?
Is anybody else going to miss the Viaduct?
Although the ramps closed last week, the Alaskan Way Viaduct will close forever at 10pm tomorrow, Friday, January 11th. There’s still time for one last drive.