Why Alaskan Way will get bigger before it gets smaller

Exciting things are happening on the waterfront. The viaduct is gone, and an iconic part of our beautiful city is about to get a massive makeover

But when we turned to readers to ask what you all wanted to know about this rapidly changing part of town, it wasn’t too surprising that the most popular question addressed a practical concern: How are we all going to get around down there?

The winning question in this round of neighborhood spotlight voting came from Maria DiGiovanni, who asked, “I’ve heard there’s a proposal for an eight-lane road between the market and waterfront. Is that true?”

The short answer: Sorta true, sorta not true.

Here’s the longer answer:

As part of the waterfront project, Alaskan Way is being rebuilt all the way from Belltown down to the stadiums, a stretch that totals around 14 city blocks. The southernmost five blocks — starting around Yesler Way in Pioneer Square — have been a source of debate for years now. 

In 2016, the city released plans that showed an eight-lane roadway in this southern portion (which, to be clear, is quite a distance from Pike Place Market).

Many people were unhappy, but traffic engineers faced a dilemma: With the viaduct coming down and the replacement tunnel not including any downtown exits, how would they make room for all the buses, freight trucks, and ferry traffic that access this area?

All of those competing uses added up to one very wide road, which many people felt would serve as a barrier to pedestrians who wanted to access the waterfront from areas like Pioneer Square.

“When you added them all up, no one liked the width of the street — including us,” said Marshall Foster, director of the city’s office of the waterfront and civic projects. (You might remember Marshall from our earlier video detailing the city’s vision for the waterfront.) 

The Pioneer Square Alliance filed a legal challenge against the city, and an interesting compromise was reached: When light rail to West Seattle opens in 2030, the bus-only lanes on Alaskan Way will be removed and converted to pedestrian-only green space. That will reduce the number of lanes in this stretch of roadway to six (or seven, if you count a 10-foot parking lane).

“It was tense for a number of years, (but) I think at this point people are happy with where we landed,” Marshall says. 

Want to know more about how Alaskan Way is being rebuilt — and how the construction will affect your commute? The city’s waterfront construction website has a year-by-year guide to the roadway changes that are coming our way. 

By Caitlin Moran
Caitlin writes newsletters and stories for The Evergrey. She's worked as a journalist in and around Seattle since 2010 and is a proud resident of Capitol Hill's Summit Slope neighborhood.