Joan Barker was one of the first people to drive over the viaduct's top tier. She was 17.

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On Easter morning in 1953, 17-year-old Joan Barker and her best friend Sue Sellars woke early. They put on pedal-pusher pants and hopped into a cola-colored 1952 Chevy to attend the opening of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, Washington state’s first double-decked bridge.

Little did they know that they’d be one of the first to drive over the viaduct’s top tier.

“We were very excited and hadn’t anticipated getting a spot at the very front of the line,” Barker says. “But we happened to be first people there.”

On that day, “dancing girls” from Barclay Studios did the can-can and Charleston in plumed hats and fishnet stockings for the opening ceremonies. Seafair queen Iris Adams arrived on a wheeled dogsled, bearing a four-foot pair of scissors for the ribbon-cutting.

Dignitaries crossed the viaduct first, including the governor and mayor, Barker says, followed by horseless carriages, or mechanically propelled cars. As the Seattle Daily Times described the auto procession on that day: “Some with wooden spokes and others with bright brass headlights.”

Then, it was Joan and Sue’s turn. The teens rolled down the Chevy’s windows and headed northward along the viaduct’s lanes. Barker could peek into building windows along First Avenue, and catch expansive views of Puget Sound and Elliot Bay, perhaps even spying the historic art deco-styled Kalakala ferry. (Barker says the Kalakala was pretty, but “kind of a clunker to ride,” due to noise.)

The autos first headed northbound, then turned around to traverse the reverse route southward.

At the time, the viaduct was described as a “ribbon of beauty” in the March 18, 1953 edition of the Seattle Daily Times. The paper said that the viaduct would be “siphoning traffic from queen city’s throat,” and could perhaps lead to “even greater things,” such as “one-way streets.”

“It was just really exciting, one of the biggest things that happened in town, in a long time,” Barker says of the viaduct’s opening.

Joan Barker was one of the first people to drive over the viaduct’s top tier. She was 17. (WSDOT)
Joan Barker was one of the first people to drive over the viaduct’s top tier. She was 17. (WSDOT)

Ramping up

Since that day, Barker has been over the viaduct hundreds of times, she says – she and her husband keep a boat at Seattle’s Shilshole Marina, although they now live in Des Moines. “I’m sad about losing the view, but it’s probably time for a change,” she says of the viaduct. “I became much more willing to give up the viaduct after the San Francisco earthquakes,” she says.

Specifically, after watching the top layer of the Cypress Street Viaduct “pancake” onto the second layer during the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, which killed 42 people. That viaduct opened in 1957.

The Alaskan Way viaduct was well-built for its time, says David Sowers, who oversees operations and engineering of the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Program, at the Washington State Department of Transportation.

“While the ground is not moving, the viaduct is fine. It served a useful life,” he says. “But innovation and our understanding of earthquakes changed over the years,” including the fact that Seattle could be hit by a “Big One,” similar to California.

“We were studying options to retrofit the bridge,” he says, even in the 1990s. “Our earthquake accelerated the interest in looking at solutions, including the tunnel solution.”

In an earlier era, the SR 99 corridor was the preferred route for most drivers in and through Seattle – I-5 wasn’t constructed until the 1960s. The elevated highway took drivers on a fast route past Seattle’s downtown core. But times were different, Sowers says, with much less traffic, a smaller population, in a more contained metro area.

In the 1950s, engineers didn’t understand ground motion and soil liquefaction; nor could they predict today’s safety standards in terms of traffic and size of cars. The Alaskan Way Viaduct was designed to carry 60,000 cars daily. But nearly twice that number of cars ended up using the viaduct in modern times – around 90,000 cars daily, according to WSDOT.

Tunnel vision

To replace the viaduct, a two-mile tunnel was proposed, with two southbound lanes on an upper deck, and two northbound lanes on a lower deck; all lanes are 11 feet wide. Work began in 2013, and the tunnel will open in February 2019.

Anyone who says the tunneling project took a long time might review the viaduct’s timeline, Sowers says. An elevated waterfront freeway was first discussed in the 1920s, the viaduct constructed in the 1950s, with downtown ramps added in the 1960s.

Sowers says the tunnel project’s technical innovations are notable. The tunnel solution is more stable, with the current design offering more seismic strength, better sightlines, safer onramps and shoulders – much of which is missing from the viaduct and the Battery Street Tunnel.

“There are better lane widths and sight distances,” Sowers says. “No blind curves, and engineered for today’s traffic flow and speed.”

The future of downtown traffic

“I wonder about what people who drive onto or off the viaduct to go downtown, what will they do?” Barker says.

It’s a fair question, Sowers says.

Drivers should map their new course to work after the viaduct shuts in January –  and after the tunnel opens in February –  so they’re not in for an unwelcome surprise regarding routing. “It’s going to be different, going to work on the Monday after the tunnel opens, regardless of where you live in city,” Sowers says.

The tunnel will require a shift in access points off of SR 99 both in and out of the Seattle downtown core, as the two entry and exit points will be near Seattle Center and the SoDo area. “Unlike the viaduct, there’s no midtown ramp,” he says. As the tunnel is 200 feet below ground, it was impractical to install a ramp in midtown, he notes.

“Plan ahead and check out our website,” Sowers says. The WSDOT page should be able to assist in that planning.

The mainline viaduct closure was postponed until early January, in order to avoid the Thanksgiving to Christmas rush.

The state says it will organize a farewell celebration for the viaduct and a deep-tunnel public preview, which will include a fun run and a bike ride in the tunnel.

Removing the viaduct will start the weekend after the tunnel opens, and will continue into the summer. It’s not a quick demo job. The aging double-decked bridge is within feet of new, expensive waterfront buildings and historic structures. Like surgeons, engineers will slowly extract pieces of the viaduct, using precise cuts and cranes.

After the last rubble is hauled away, the City will begin re-establishing Alaskan Way with bike lanes, parks, amenities, parking and a new roadway.

“It’s been a fun and fulfilling project,” Sowers says. “In the end people, will use the tunnel for the next hundred-plus years, and to be part of it was an honor and a real pleasure.”

Before the tunnel opens to drivers, WSDOT and the City of Seattle will host a grand opening celebration Feb. 2 – 3, 2019 to mark the completion of the new tunnel, the final days of the viaduct, and an improved waterfront.