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California Takes Earthquakes Seriously. Why Don’t We?

Engineers told state legislatures in 1995 that the Alaskan Way Viaduct would crumble in a major quake. The project to replace the Viaduct is underway but still incomplete.
Flickr Photo/Washington State Department of Transportation CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Engineers told state legislatures in 1995 that the Alaskan Way Viaduct would crumble in a major quake. The project to replace the Viaduct is underway but still incomplete.

When a major quake hit San Francisco in 1989, the Cypress Street Viaduct collapsed, killing 42 people.

The next day, Washington state officials saw images of the viaduct. To their horror, it looked almost identical to the Alaskan Way Viaduct on Seattle’s waterfront.

That was the state’s first wakeup call. By 1995, engineers knew exactly how dangerous the Alaskan Way Viaduct was.

Read More: Hollow Columns Holding Up I-5, I-405 Bridges Could Implode In Major Quake

“We went to the state transportation commissions and we sat in front of them and gave our testimony about the results of our analysis,” said Steve Kramer, professor of civil engineering at the University of Washington.

“There were TV cameras all over the place. It was on the news. It was a big deal for about two days. And then everybody forgot about it.”

The Alaskan Way Viaduct isn’t the only bridge in danger of failing in a major quake. State officials have listed 474 bridges and overpasses that could crumble in a big quake. State officials know how to reinforce these bridges and overpasses, but they say they don’t have the money to do the work. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "No, that's not the Alaskan Way Viaduct. That's the Cypress Street Viaduct in Oakland that collapsed in the 1989 earthquake, killing 42 people. Engineers in Washington state immediately noticed the similarities between that bridge and the Alaskan Way Viaduct.", "fid": "125092", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201603/022srUSGSCyprusVia_0.jpg", "attribution": "Credit U.S. Geological Survey/H.G. Wilshire"}]]These bridges dot Interstate 5, Interstate 405 and Interstate 90 – the principal routes of our region. But the Washington State Department of Transportation says it must concentrate its limited funds on bridges that could fail any day from a lack of maintenance. 

Retrofitting the bridges and overpasses on I-5 alone could cost $1 billion, according to the state transportation office.

Read More: Who's That Neighbor In The Box House?

“Politicians have ignored the problems of the decaying infrastructure for so long that our risks with respect to earthquakes and just general wear and tear deterioration are enormous,” Kramer said. "It's important for people to realize that this is a threat.”

The second wakeup call for the Alaskan Way Viaduct came on Feb. 28, 2001, the day the Nisqually earthquake shook Seattle.

“That’s what it took to make the threat real,” Kramer said.

But the Alaskan Way tunnel is still not complete. 

“Here we are, 2016,” said Judy Clibborn, head of the House Transportation committee. “That’s 15 years later and we still don’t have that Viaduct replaced.”

Clibborn, a Democrat from Mercer Island, said money isn’t the problem – it’s our collective lack of urgency.

“It was mainly public process that kept (the tunnel) from going forward, not the money,” she said. “The money is sitting there waiting to pay for it since 2005.”

The Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement will reshape Seattle’s waterfront. But it's just one line on the state’s giant list of infrastructure needs, last tallied at $80 billion. 

“I don’t think people want to believe it,” Clibborn said. “They just don’t have the ability to have that much of a concept.”

The state transportation office does not tell the state legislature about all the highway system's needs. Instead it sends an edited list of priorities and waits for the legislature to decide what to fund. 

That is not true in California, where earthquakes are a fact of life. Every year state departments catalog their needs, then publicly make a case.

“Our needs for deferred maintenance alone on state facilities is somewhere in the neighborhood of $77 billion,” said H.D. Palmer, deputy director of California’s Department of Finance. Wear and tear is important to consider, he said, because the more maintenance is allowed to slide, the more expensive the eventual repair will be. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "The Interstate 5 bridge over Skagit River collapsed May 23, 2013 after an oversized load hit the frame while going across.", "fid": "125087", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201603/skagitvalleybridge__1_of_1_.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Derek Wang"}]]Washington state's annual financial report shows that the state has spent less than planned on bridge maintenance in past five years. Even the collapse of the Skagit River bridge in 2013 did not change this trend. 

In California, Palmer said publishing the government’s total infrastructure needs "gives you a more comprehensive understanding of what the state’s overall needs are.”

It also gives the governor, legislators and public the same information – which is then used to set priorities.

Without it, he said, “it would be kind of like driving without a road map.”

The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake was a big wake-up call for California. After the quake, the state found more than 2,000 bridges in need of retrofit. To date, it has fixed all but two.

Washington state has undertaken two mega-projects: the replacement of Highway 520, driven partly by seismic concerns, and the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The state has secured elevated highway slabs and fixed hundreds of bridges.

But 474 bridges, many needing to have their solid columns sheathed in metal, still need to be reinforced.

In Seattle, Kramer says more information wouldn’t hurt. 

"I would like to know myself, driving across any structure,” he said. “It can only help bring some pressure to bear on the people who make decisions about funding earthquake retrofitting."  

This story was produced in partnership with the Ravitch Fiscal Reporting Program at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Flickr photo by Washington State Department of Transportation.