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Viaduct closure; Emergency system triggered by seismic sensors

A map showing where automated traffic control gates will go on State Route 99 in Seattle. The automated viaduct closure gates system improves safety by preventing people from driving onto the viaduct after a moderate to severe earthquake.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has been calling for a closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct as soon as possible.  That's because it's an earthquake hazard.  Other leaders think that's an over-reaction, since a new tunnel is already in the works. 

But the Viaduct will close this weekend for its semi-annual inspection.  Drivers will have to re-route their travel for two days.  Routine maintenance on the old structure was scheduled long before the earthquake in Japan. 

State authorities have been saying for more than a decade that the Viaduct must be replaced because it's vulnerable to earthquakes.   That became painfully clear during the Nisqually Quake in 2001.

This weekend's closure is bound to create traffic headaches for folks who don't plan ahead.  But, planning ahead is a specialty of the state Department of Transportation. 

Travis Phelps is a spokesman, who's job it is to remind people the Viaduct will be shut down Saturday and Sunday,  between 6am and 6pm each day.  

"This is going to allow our bridge inspection crews to go out and measure all the cracks and settlements. Other crews will also be able to go out and repair guard rails and put some fresh lane strips down and do many kinds of minor repairs."

The inspections happen twice every year.  He adds people may have also noticed that they're already building detour ramps for the southern mile of the viaduct, close to Safeco Field.  That mile will be the first part of the Viaduct to close, sometime next year. 

As soon as next month (April) the state will have an emergency closure system in place. According to Phelps, it will be able to close the viaduct in the space of two minutes if necessary. A system of flashing signs, bells and mechanical arms will ease drivers off the Viaduct. It will be triggered by seismic sensors.

Notes from Bellamy on earthquake fears

The recent publicity blitz coming from the Seattle Mayor's office is not so surprising.  He is sticking to his election promises and trying with all his might to get other elected officials to join him and turn back the clock and stop the expensive tunnel replacement project. 

Some Seattle writers have responded to his call...which is skillfully placed opportunistic coverage that plays on natural fears raised by the recent tragedy in Japan. 

Denny Westneat echoes a radio interview with KPLU's competition (KUOW) in his column printed in yesterday's Seattle Times.  In this week's Seattle Stranger, Dominic Holden unabashedly calls for the calling off of the tunnel in a very well-researched article, which hit the web and the streets of Seattle today in the print edition.  Holden's headline is revealing of his stance.  He calls the tunnel insanity that must be stopped.

Based on my past encounters with Washington Governor Chris Gregoire and my knowledge of the state's political history, I sincerely doubt the tunnel plan will be stopped.  And I think both the Governor and the Mayor of Seattle are trying hard to be good politicians during tough times. Integrity is a word that comes to mind.  Pragmatism too.  Here's an interesting piece of mine from last October, related to all that. 

In my story, the governor promises the buck stops with her and there won't be any cost overruns for Seattle.  But how such costs might be paid for is more complex.  And her comment led to an insulting jab at her from Mayor McGinn.  He famously dared later that day to say publicly that he doesn't trust her, because she has gone back on her word.  All of this is true.  Politics Northwest.


Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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