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Originally published Wednesday, February 21, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Floyd J. McKay / Guest columnist

How Portland handled (much better) its own "viaduct" moment

As you drive north on Interstate 5 through Portland and cross the Willamette River, a glance to your right and left reveals the keys to...

As you drive north on Interstate 5 through Portland and cross the Willamette River, a glance to your right and left reveals the keys to the remarkable renaissance of the Northwest's other premier city.

To your right is a stubbed-off exit ramp into southeast Portland. The aborted "Mount Hood" Freeway would have uprooted a huge swath of the city's working-class neighborhoods, only to end on the outskirts of Portland, far short of Mount Hood.

To your left, on the river's west bank, is the green stretch of Tom McCall Park, built on what had been a six-lane highway between downtown and its river. Harbor Drive expansion (to 10 lanes) was killed in 1971 by the City Council, and in 1974 the highway was bulldozed for a park bordering downtown.

The so-called Mount Hood Freeway was killed in 1974, also by the City Council. The federal government allowed Portland to divert freeway millions to mass transit. Taken together, these actions were a signal moment for Portland, committing the city to mass transit and downtown preservation.

From these actions emerged MAX, the light-rail system that now has lines to the east, north and west of downtown, making Portland a national model. From these actions Portland completed a downtown plan begun in the late '60s, with an eclectic mix of commercial and residential development.

It was not just the Portland leadership that made this happen — citizens rose up to oppose widening Harbor Drive and building the southeast freeway, often in the face of well-funded opposition.

Seattle, it seems to me, is at a signal moment as well, as voters ponder the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

The challenge for Seattle is to take a giant leap of faith — as Portland did when it reversed those two huge highway projects — and commit to a future that is not asphalt-driven.

Although I now live 90 miles from Seattle, in the '70s I was a journalist covering Portland's renaissance.

There are differences, of course. Local officials were better able to reach consensus in Portland in 1974, and federal policies were more flexible. But Seattle also has advantages. Seattle is a huge investment draw, unlike Portland in 1974. Suburban cities are prospering, making regional investments attractive. And no one doubts, as people did 35 years ago, that mass transit is vital.

There are several things we don't know about viaduct replacement, but only one thing we know for certain.

We can only guess at the actual cost of any replacement, at the time it will take to complete, and the transportation and economic climate when it's finished. It's a good guess that it will cost more, take longer and disrupt life more than anyone can predict today.

What we certainly know is this: Any viaduct replacement, whether an elevated highway or the unlikely prospect of a tunnel, will be around far longer than any of us will live.

This is a big-time, very expensive decision. Get it right.

Seattle needs to connect with its waterfront — what a waste to run a freeway between a city and its water! Years of noisy, smelly, disruptive rebuilding of the viaduct, followed by the roar and fumes of its traffic, will stagnate the emergence of one of America's truly exciting urban areas.

Seattle should declare timeout to think, as former Gov. Gary Locke has suggested. There is too much pressure to decide immediately. The governor and the Legislature want to move on to other priorities. Let's turn them loose to do that.

Rejecting both questions on March 13 would focus attention on various suggestions that the viaduct be razed in favor of surface solutions. County Executive Ron Sims has "49 Ways" to improve traffic flow; innovative uses of underutilized HOV lanes should be explored; transit connections are still primitive.

If a replacement is selected, the moment we begin demolishing the viaduct, its traffic will be forced elsewhere, as it was in 2001. Why not begin some of the alternatives immediately, and set a deadline to remove the viaduct? Give drivers a chance to find alternative routes and help them do so. Give the visionaries a voice.

The viaduct is not Seattle's major transportation worry. It is far less important than linking the city with suburban hubs east of Lake Washington. Employment and commuting patterns are dynamic, constantly changing — but a freeway is forever.

Flexibility as the region grows and changes is the challenge.

The Elliott Bay waterfront is the opportunity.

Slow down, breathe, and think about the future. This could be Seattle's signal moment.

Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at floydmckay@yahoo.com

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