Innovation Benefits Transportation Reconstruction

After the Seattle Fault Earthquake of 2015, local, state and federal stakeholders embarked upon a multitude of ambitious transportation projects to not just recover, but improve the county’s vitality and safety for future generations. A diversity of innovators stepped up during this time to promote and implement these projects. This has resulted in better connectivity and resiliency for the County than before the earthquake.

This story is a work of fiction, including all names and quotes, written by WWU DRR students for public education purposes. Site design by Dr. Scott Miles.

Now ten years after the infamous “Seattle Shake,” life seems back to normal for most residents of King County. However, for the region’s decision-makers, engineers, and construction workers, the ambitious transportation revitalization effort has only now begun to wind down.

When the quake occurred, there was extensive damage to many segments of highways and bridges in the Seattle area. The Lacey V. Murrow Memorial Bridge famously sank for the second time in its history and dozens of overpasses, surface streets and piers were damaged beyond repair. It became obvious very quickly that state and local responders did not have the sufficient resources to cope with such an event.

“That was a very tragic event for all of us”, said former mayor of Seattle. “But we’d built up this city upon its ashes before, so we knew we could bounce back.”

Quickly after the quake, President Obama issued a Major Disaster Declaration, which kick started recovery. Around the same time, local and state government officials met up with prominent private sector leaders to create a transportation recovery plan based on a vision developed by these stakeholders before the disaster.

“Many stakeholders wanted to repair what had been there before, quickly with no changes”, said a King County council member at the time. “But others such as myself thought that the circumstances gave us a great opportunity to build back better.”

gossetUltimately the stakeholders realized that future hazard events were certain to occur in the area. The county decided on a 10-year multi-project program to improve the strength and resiliency of transportation systems while also committing to renewable energy options and sustainable development.

The first step in the process however, was acquiring the necessary tools, personnel and materials for rebuilding. Funding for this was initially an obstacle. Initially the priority for federal funds was for building things back to how they had been before the shaking. King County’s priority was improving the area’s infrastructure. Funding from a public-private coalition helped to sway congressional leaders to authorize use of federal funds in support of the ambitious transportation improvement plan.

The question that remained at that point was how the materials would arrive given that transportation infrastructure was compromised. For example, the airport had been closed to repair the runway and the damaged air traffic control tower. Luckily, Jeff Bezos, Chairman, President, and CEO of the local business, saw an opportunity to help by enlisting his new drone technology to transport materials.

Today, Amazon Prime Air has become one of the most integral parts of the company’s continued marketplace dominance. In 2015 however, it was an untested idea on a major scale. Bezos knew he was on to something though and offered his help. Federal clearance was given to Amazon to utilize their drones to carry out post-disaster transportation missions. With Amazon’s help in procuring materials, the recovery projects were able to start.

“This idea was the real deal before the earthquake but nobody thought it would work because of the Federal air traffic regulations”, said Bezos. “In the aftermath, the environment was right to realize our vision.”

The start of recovery also meant that pre-existing projects had access to more funds and in some cases a chance to implement more ambitious ideas. Contractors for the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel project were in the process of using Bertha—an 80 million dollar tunnel boring machine–to drill a 2-mile hole from south Lake Union to south downtown near CenturyLink Field to provide 4 lanes for traffic. Once the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) had inspectors alleviate initial concerns about the integrity of the tunnel’s structure, attention quickly turned to deciding how to complete the project.


Citizen groups and local policy makers stressed the importance of taking time to modify the project to reflect more sustainable practices. Frustrated members of the public opposed this because they wanted to see the project completed quickly as it was already years behind schedule. On top of this, political self-interest and private investors wanted to see the project through as planned. Despite these obstacles, the County decided to repurpose the viaduct for multimodal transportation.

The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) began petitioning for an added lane in the viaduct that would accommodate bus rapid transit (BRT) that was divided from the rest of the traffic. Their hope was that this new area for transit would modify existing bus lines to be more efficient and hopefully spur the growth of more BRT development.

“We saw the disaster as a way to increase awareness about the unsustainable practices that were going on with the viaduct project. We hoped that adding our input would make for a greener city”, said former PSRC President Pat McCarthy.

Many stakeholders involved remained unconvinced about the idea, citing time and cost issues, as well as the overload of other projects that still needed to be done to get back to normal. However, the idea caught hold with County council members and the project was modified for buses.

Four different transportation agencies agreed to help with the transportation improvements county-wide. The Port of Seattle added to the aid by committing to development of surface streets near the south downtown portal of the viaduct. Washington State Department of Transportation pledged an additional 200 million dollars to the tunnel project by utilizing their toll fees. This along with matching funds from FEMA pushed the project forward quickly under the leadership of WSDOT. The completion of the viaduct-replacement project 5 years later signified an innovative approach that benefited the overall resiliency of the County.

“They were able to rethink the design in a way that got people moving again but didn’t compromise the future vision for the county”, said Bernie Aldrich, Current Agency Director of WSDOT.

In assessing what other innovative approaches the county could take, King County leaders looked no further than an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) led project in Iowa City, Iowa. This project facilitated the redevelopment of several brownfields sites along the Iowa River waterfront, as well as a former wastewater treatment plant. The sites were redeveloped into an eclectic mix of affordable housing, as well as a proposed Amtrak station and a possible light rail line.

Their redevelopment project created a mixed-used, high-density, pedestrian friendly and inclusive transit-orientated neighborhood. In the aftermath of the Seattle Shake, King County assessed the Iowa City redevelopment project as a shining example of what to do with contaminated brownfields and other toxic sites.

The Iowa City project eventually inspired the Sustainable Zone concept. The idea for this was proposed by Greenpeace Seattle and was influenced by the eco-district concept. They cited the opportunity for local production of materials and dense development practices that would reduce travel times within the area. They thought that the most heavily damaged parts of the county could be extensively rebuilt in a way that didn’t rely on automobile transportation. Initial reactions to the plan however, were mixed.

“There was definitely an entrenched view to do what was already planned in order to have an efficient rebuilding process”, said the council member.

The Sustainable Zone idea eventually took hold with stakeholders. With the help of local planners, the lengthy process of eminent domain acquisition began. Private investors, federal aid money, and bonds helped pay for this process and ultimately helped get the plan off the ground. A year later, construction began on the three sustainably zones in the county which strove for zero net energy consumption. Today, it stands as a reminder of the resilience and innovation for King County.

Many of the buildings in the Zone received platinum LEED certification. Their compact arrangement also helped improve environmental quality in the area by making the area more walk able resulting in far less automobile trips. Some even think the buildings went above and beyond the standards for what a sustainable building could be.

“The LEED certification doesn’t include sections about building to mitigate hazards, but we wanted to ensure that this innovative part of town would be able to stand for generations to come”, said Mei Lin an emergency manager involved with the plan.

In designing this project, Mei Lin used a sustainable redevelopment project in Greensburg, Kansas as a model for Seattle’s Sustainable Zone LEED projects. The May 4, 2007 tornado that destroyed Greensburg provided the catalyst for local community members to build back as a prime model of a sustainable community.

In December of 2007, the Greensburg City Council passed an ordinance to make new construction of all city-owned buildings (more than 4,000 sq.ft.) LEED certified. This mandatory approach to new construction of city-owned buildings exemplified Greensburg leaders as being committed to the principles of sustainability in the aftermath of a disaster. Mei Lin recognized the opportunity that the 2007 earthquake paradoxically created for Greensburg and used that as a model for her efforts in King County.

“Even though Greensburg was affected by a totally different natural hazard, I could still look towards their post-disaster mechanisms as a guiding light for King County’s LEED and sustainability efforts”, said Lin.

Critics of the Sustainable Zone approach said that the time and cost of putting together the idea took away from the priority of other needs at the time. Recently, there have also been complaints that areas of the Sustainable Zone have become gentrified. Many past occupants of the area claim they were not able to afford the high costs of living and were forced to move.

“When the disaster happened, all we wanted was for things to get back to normal. Now we’re still struggling to find a long term place to live. I don’t think that’s fair to people trying to recover their lives”, said one former resident.

Despite these problems, local policy makers are sure there is still time to find new opportunities for people displaced by the earthquake. They feel like the innovations that resulted were worth the risk.

“All the plans that we worked on have made Seattle into a safer place, a healthier place, and a more connected place”, said former mayor of Seattle. “I’m proud of all those involved for putting Seattle back on the map in such a short time and showing what true innovation can be.”