Viaduct’s unmatched vistas on borrowed time

Seattle waterfront and viaductBertha is busting free as I write this. Seattle's injury-plagued monster boring machine has reached its South Lake Union terminus on the long underground trek from Sodo.

Once workers disassemble Bertha and ready the tunnel for auto traffic, the Alaskan Way Viaduct – heralded as a modern marvel when it opened in 1953 – will be torn down. Safety advocates will cheer, fretting no more about commuters tumbling into eternity if The Big One shakes the viaduct to the ground.

But others will mourn the passing of perhaps the most scenic urban approach to any city in America. Let's take a moment to appreciate it.

Visualize this: You're on Highway 99, driving north to Seattle for the first time. Passing our sports stadiums you rise above the waterfront. To your left lie the Olympics, Puget Sound, and Elliott Bay, dotted with ferries and freighters churning the water. Below is Seattle's colorful waterfront with its cargo terminals, piers, and shops. To your right, downtown skyscrapers, eight of them rising more than 700 feet above ground.

Ferries on Puget Sound, OlympicsThough it eventually drew the ire of critics, when it first opened the viaduct was heralded as a vital means to bypass downtown traffic. In those pre-freeway days – Interstate 5 didn't bisect Seattle until the mid-1960s – the viaduct offered the only speedy means to drive north-south, far preferable to city surface streets.

And oh, that view. Out-of-town visitors were awestruck by it, and locals took pride in it.

The only urban approach offering similar charm that I know of is Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, where U.S. 41 squeezes between towering buildings and Lake Michigan. I also appreciate the stunning views as you approach San Diego on the SR 75 Coronado Bridge, or skirting Boston's waterfront via I-90, and of course crossing the Golden Gate Bridge to enter San Francisco on Highway 101.

I even loved the former highway approach into Spokane, which until 1965 was via U.S. 10. Near Garden Springs, the Sunset Highway curved slightly to open a vista high above the valley, looking down on the Lilac City and the mountains beyond.

Lake Shore Drive in ChicagoBut for me, the panorama from the top deck of the viaduct tops them all.

Do you know of a scenic urban approach that warrants accolades? Share your thoughts with us.

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