Pass through “Viadoom” for a better Seattle waterfront

A number of projects are underway at Seattle’s waterfront and while they are all intended to help the city in the long run, they may lead to short-term transportation issues:

The Washington State Department of Transportation will demolish the viaduct, freeing up 26 blocks of urban land. It will be replaced with a street-level boulevard and 20 acres of waterfront public space designed by James Corner Field Operations. Soon, Highway 99 will traverse Seattle below ground in a long-delayed bi-level tunnel dug by the world’s longest boring machine after a prolonged political fight pitting governor against mayor that made Seattle the laggard in a trio of major urban highway teardowns, alongside Boston’s Big Dig and San Francisco’s Embarcadero.

But this transformation stands to be a painful one. The highway closure kicks off a two-year stretch that City Hall calls the Period of Maximum Constraint and everyone else calls the Seattle Squeeze. The viaduct’s 90,000 cars are losing their north-south waterfront right of way. There’s mass-transit help on the way, in the form of Seattle’s massive light rail expansion, which is set to open a key northern extension in 2021. In between, downtown commuters and residents will contend with a ferry terminal rebuild, a convention center expansion, 600 daily buses moving from the downtown transit tunnel onto surface streets, a streetcar missing link on hiatus, and street closures related to the construction of the city’s second-tallest building.

The first three weeks of the Squeeze—known, somewhat apocalyptically, as Viadoom—are expected to be the worst, until the new State Route 99 tunnel opens on February 4. In anticipation of V-Day, local TV news has been running countdown clocks, and city officials are urging anyone who can to work from home, switch up hours, or take time off. Further amping up the state-of-emergency vibe, Mayor Jenny Durkan hired Mike Worden, a retired Air Force major general, to oversee the city’s response to the Squeeze. (His office did not return a request for an interview.)…

As with marquee waterfront-highway removals in Boston and San Francisco, the hope is that the viaduct’s demise can give downtown a waterfront worthy of Seattle’s setting. The design for the redeveloped space, by James Corner Field Operations, aims to string together several of the city’s major attractions, though some of the bells-and-whistles in the competition-winning design, like a swimming-pool barge and a downtown pocket beach, have been toned down.

It sounds like this will be a win for the city in the long-run. A few years ago, I was some of the locations mentioned in the article and I could see how these changes would benefit both residents and visitors.

At the same time, I could imagine many residents would want to know why this all seems to be happening at once. This is a complaint I have heard regularly in the Chicago area: why is there construction on multiple major roads at the same time that then makes it very hard to find alternatives? People can get the idea about the long-term benefits and still experience frustration at the day to day difficulties these projects pose.

Additionally, what are the odds that all the projects finish on time and on budget? Major infrastructure projects in American cities can end up with significantly larger price tags and seem to last forever as circumstances (and budgets) change. Again, these projects often need to happen but residents may perceive that officials and those involved in the construction do not care much for their time or pocketbooks.

Of course, an easy solution to all of this is to simply pursue these projects far before they become such boondoggles. That, however, is far easier said than done.

Comparing 4 years to finish rebuilding a major interchange to other major undertakings

After the Illinois Department of Transportation recently announced construction on the Jane Byrne will take four more years, the Chicago Tribune compared this time frame to other tasks:

Two world wars were fought and won in less time. Rows of skyscrapers went up in less time. The transformation of Navy Pier, less time. New Comiskey Park, less time. Dan Ryan reconstruction, less time. Millennium Park, less time. The Deep Tunnel Project — oh, wait. That engineering feat began in the mid-1970s and isn’t expected to be completed until 2029. Somebody, go pick on them…

Still, four years is a long delay. Especially for a network so central to Chicago. We’ll never understand why IDOT didn’t order more intense work or bigger crews around the clock and on weekends. Let’s just say that if Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker shares Emanuel’s devotion to penalties and accountability, he’ll make new friends by the thousands.

Is this part of a larger trend of major infrastructure projects today running over schedule and over budget? There are hints yet people are unlikely to hear much about or celebrate projects that are completed on time and near budget.

Comparing the completion time to other projects may not be fair. Some of these sites were closed or not in use when the construction happened. Some happened with some private money at play. Others had more space to work with. Doing the work when the state and other taxing bodies had more money (or were less worried about debt) could help. And World Wars have their own logic compared to construction projects. (That said, I am still amazed how much the United States was able to mobilize and produce in a roughly 5 year span during World War II. Such devotion to the war mission led to unbelievable change.)

Would it simply be better for the Chicago region to accept a Carmageddon week where the interchange is closed and all the possible crews are brought in for 24 hour shifts for that time to rush work forward? Find a week with less traffic, probably a summer week, and give drivers plenty of notice about other options (ranging from mass transit to alternative highways, such as I-294, that can route traffic around the center of the city). Suffer short-term pain, make some serious progress, and show that efforts are underway to reduce the long-term burden of the interchange construction.

Quiet naming of the Barack Obama Presidential Expressway

The Chicago area now has the Kennedy Expressway, the Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway and the Barack Obama Presidential Expressway:

With little fanfare from officials, signs went up in recent months marking the newly named Barack Obama Presidential Expressway, a stretch of about 80 miles of Interstate 55 from the southwest suburbs to Pontiac.

While the March unveiling lacked the usual pomp and circumstance, state Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, said politics — the Illinois Department of Transportation is overseen by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner — didn’t play a role. Ford said they didn’t want to have a ceremony without the former president and couldn’t coordinate with his busy schedule…

“It’s part of the making of President Obama,” Ford said. “He traveled that road for many, many years. One day he’s going to be happy to travel that road (again) and have some reflections on all those times that he traveled down it.”…

The expressway’s renaming isn’t just to invoke nostalgia. Ford wants the expressway’s markers to one day spark a conversation about the former president among young people who weren’t around for Obama’s presidential days.

Chicago and the surrounding region like to honor people with roads and highways. Numerous other public facilities could be renamed for politicians and other leaders; think airports, major government buildings, parks and protected land, libraries, and schools. At the least, plenty of travelers use these three highways named after presidents and will be reminded of the figures after seeing numerous signs.

About the choice of road: the argument that this was a route Obama regularly traveled between Chicago and Springfield makes sense. At the same time, the route covers largely suburban and rural areas. Obama seems to identify more with the city of Chicago. Is the name the Dan Ryan Expressway so sacrosanct that the Obama Expressway could not connect with the Kennedy Expressway? Or, they couldn’t have renamed the Stevenson which reminds people of a candidate who failed in running for president multiple times?

We need more public art along highways

I recently embarked on the Troll Hunt at Morton Arboretum. The best troll I saw sat on a hill overlooking I-88. One week ago, I viewed this troll from the highway coming back from an early morning trip to O’Hare Airport. Here are two views of the troll looking toward the highway:

TrollOverHighway2

Joe the Guardian at Morton Arboretum. Created by Thomas Dambo.

 

TrollOverHighway1

Joe the Guardian at Morton Arboretum. Created by Thomas Dambo.

This is a busy stretch of road with over 160,000 cars passing by daily (as of 2014). As the pictures suggest, this is not a particularly scenic area. At this point, the highway is at a lower point with a hill to the east near the interchange with I-355 and to the west at the Naperville Road exit. The north side has hills at the edge of the Morton Arboretum and large power lines. The south side has various office buildings and residences. A driver here is in the middle of the western suburbs just over 26 miles from State and Madison in Chicago’s Loop.

Having art here is a great idea. The troll certainly catches your eye as you drive by. It adds whimsy to what is a fairly typical stretch of highway. It enhances the brief stretch of greenery provided by the Arboretum. Perhaps most importantly, it presents something unique and thought-provoking. It is not another billboard trying to catch your attention. It is not a building with a sign displaying its inhabitants. It is not something that your eye quickly passes over. It is there for you to enjoy, to ponder. I do not know if it would make the daily commute any shorter but it may make just a little bit more enjoyable.

Inserting a number of installations or figures along major highways would not take much. This would require the cooperation of private landowners – for example, the Arboretum has six more trolls to see that require admission while only this one is visible from the highway. I realize that this art may not generate much money. Just imagine if the land on which this troll stands could be converted into office space or luxury condos. Or, at the least, a billboard could sell advertisements. Instead, put public art on the sides and tops of buildings. Find spaces between structures. Highlight interesting topographic features. Use private land and structures to benefit many. Give drivers and visitors something to look forward to as they file away yet another highway mile.

 

Two dead suburban transportation projects: the Metra STAR Line and the Prairie Parkway

A large metropolitan area of over 9 million residents could benefit from more transportation options for residents and visitors. Here are quick summaries about two projects that never got off the ground:

The STAR Line

The suburb-to-suburb STAR Line rail system was intended to loop from O’Hare to Hoffman Estates to Joliet along tracks formerly owned by the EJ & E railroad, providing an alternative to the suburb-to-city commuter lines.

But Canadian National Railroad bought the EJ & E in 2008 and moved freight traffic onto those tracks, effectively putting the STAR Line on ice. In 2011 Schaumburg pulled the plug on a special taxing district meant to spur development around the convention center, which had been envisioned as a STAR Line hub.

Prairie Parkway

The Prairie Parkway would have circled Chicago’s outer suburbs, linking I-88 near Elburn to I-80 near Minooka. The Illinois Department of Transportation began studies in 2003, and in 2005 President George W. Bush came to Montgomery to sign a highway funding bill and call the Prairie Parkway “crucial for economic progress for Kane and Kendall counties.”

Opponents organized and sued. The highway’s patron, former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Plano, was accused of profiting from land buys near the proposed highway. And in 2012, the Federal Highway Administration rescinded its approval of the right of way. It was only in March that IDOT canceled the corridor.

I have always thought the STAR Line was a clever idea in multiple ways:

  1. It would provide needed railroad links throughout the region so that not all riders have to go into Chicago before making transfers. The spoke model in the Chicago region is good for getting to downtown but the biggest number of trips these days are suburb to suburb.
  2. It made use of existing tracks. Although they likely needed more capacity to run regular passenger service and new tracks would be needed along I-90, some of the infrastructure was already there. This is not something to look past in an era when acquiring land can be expensive and time-consuming.
  3. It had the potential to spur transit-oriented suburban development in a number of communities. This is a hot topic in many suburban downtowns and it could have opened up new commuting, residential, and business opportunities.

Yet, the plan was scuttled by several factors:

  1. A lack of money. This project has been around since the 1990s but it was unclear who would fund it.
  2. Control of the EJ&E tracks.
  3. Likely concerns from neighbors to these tracks. When CN purchased these tracks and added freight trains, multiple communities pushed back.

The Prairie Parkway may have not offered as much opportunity to remove cars from roads but could have spurred development on some of the edges of the Chicago region and offered a shorter drive time in these areas. Building belt-line highways like this require some foresight: if they are constructed after too much development has occurred, they can be much more expensive to build. Also, neighbors can object to the plans, such as with the Illiana Expressway which also has not gotten off the ground.

Arguing that $40 congestion charges are good for drivers

The new express lanes on I-66 outside Washington D.C. may just be what driving looks like in the future:

The express lanes on Interstate 66 near DC, previously reserved for vehicles carrying two or more people, opened up to solo travelers. Except those single-occupancy vehicles have to pay a toll, one that fluctuates according to demand. The world watched, aghast, as tolling prices hit $40 for folks headed into the capital on Tuesday morning…

“Transportation pricing usually takes several months or even years to achieve its full effects, so the current maximum prices are probably two or three times what will occur once everybody becomes familiar with the system,” says Todd Litman, executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in British Columbia. “Over the next few months, many travelers will probably change when and how they travel, so the maximum price will probably decline to a few dollars per trip.”

One of congestion pricing’s greatest strengths is convincing drivers to skip trips they don’t really need to take, or convince them to go at another time. Though the express lane scheme targets commuters, not everyone who travels during those periods is going to work. In fact, some might be taking totally optional trips—grabbing milk, meeting a friend for coffee. “The percentages vary by metro area and travel corridor (as do the timing and duration of peak periods) but the data show that about half of peak period trips are for other purposes,” says Elizabeth Deakin, who studies regional planning at UC Berkeley and has evaluated congestion tolling in the Bay Area.

Eventually—and you’ll have to wait a while to see this—congestion pricing can influence where people choose to live. If you don’t have to pay for tolls, the big house out in the suburbs with the huge backyard looks like a great option. When it costs $20 in tolls to get to work every day, not so much. If every one of those McMasion abandoners drives to work, well, that can make a dent in a traffic jam. Remember: You’re not in traffic. You are traffic.

The main purpose of such charges is to get drivers to think twice about traveling to that location via car or using that route. Not everyone will take the alternative – and Americans do like their driving and the freedom they think it offers even as they regularly complain about all the traffic in urban areas – but enough will do so to at least stop the increase in congestion.

As these options expand, it will be interesting to see how residents of each area respond. Will they protest by not taking those roads? (I remember such claims here in the Chicago region a few years back when tolls were raised.) Will they pursue public referendums? Will they refuse to pay? Would they vote out those who enabled these traffic changes? Even though there is likely to be a lot of complaining, it is also difficult to mount a serious political response to congestion pricing.

Adding a “highway cap” to make highway expansion more palatable

Several recent urban highway expansion projects include a new twist: putting some green space around and over the new highway.

Wheeler didn’t hesitate to acknowledge that adding lanes never helps congestion, thanks to the principle of induced demand. Instead, what he emphasized about the project is its progressive window-dressing: its cap. A few blocks of the highway would be lowered below grade and planted with a bit of Chia fuzz, with a new bike-ped crossing on one of the sides. This is the grid “restoration” of which the mayor speaks—essentially, a minor diminishment of a roaring, stinking concrete channel that will roar and stink all the more with this added capacity.

Highway caps are an ever-more common feature of 21st century urban highway projects, and this project sounds a lot like some others we’ve heard of recently—namely, the Colorado DOT project that promises to triple I-70’s footprint through two of Denver’s last working-class neighborhoods and cover a small section with a park. The project has been mired in controversy for years, with lawsuits and pleas to the governor to halt it on environmental and social justice grounds.

Ironically, the 800 square-foot “cap park” proposed for the Denver boondoggle stemmed from early community advocates who pushed back against CDOT’s original plans to simply widen the existing elevated structure. The introduction of the cap a few years ago was heralded as a victory by some residents of the neighborhoods, which have been passed over for local investments for years. But the I-70 project, with its attractive grassy mask, has since been corralled into a suite of plans to redevelop huge swaths of the affected neighborhoods.

Now, the fear of displacement, underscored by the property-value increases that highway cap parks can bring, has driven many longtime Denverites to bitterly oppose the construction. “I just hope my kids will get to play there,” said one local mom who regretted ever advocating for the project, which a Denver public policy expert compared to “old-fashioned 1950s slum-clearance.”

Parks can only do so much to cover up that highways take up a lot of space, bring noise and traffic, and can either help contribute to disinvestment or gentrification.

This sounds like greenwashing. It can take many forms in trying to beautify or distract from uglier elements of the built environment. Does a few bushes in planters in the parking lot really transform the setting and allow a visitor to escape into nature? This is the subject of part of James Kunstler’s TED talk “The Tragedy of the Suburbs” – with roughly 8:00 minutes remaining – where he dissects such parking lot plantings. Even expanding the size of the nature area, such as park in these examples, may not be enough if the surrounding land use is even more sizable.