August 8, 2007
The tragic collapse of the major highway bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis shows how fragile the transportation infrastructure is in this country as a result of decades of neglect.
The infrastructure in the Puget Sound region is likewise in poor shape, and we could also have a disaster due to natural (or man-made) causes that results in a loss of life and/or a crippling of a vital corridor. In fact, we are particularly vulnerable here because of our infrequent but inevitable earthquakes.
Our ordinary earthquakes can do considerable damage, particularly if they occur on a fault that lies directly beneath buildings, bridges, etc. But the geological record shows that we can also expect a much larger earthquake, one that could do massive damage throughout the region.
We all know about (but would rather not think about) the potential for collapse of the Seattle Waterfront Viaduct and the SR520 floating bridge. But a large earthquake could also shut down the Burlington Northern's vital rail line through downtown Seattle for a prolonged period. This route is vulnerable at several points, including the century-old tunnel under downtown, the aging bridge over the Ship Canal and the landslide-prone coastal section north of Seattle.
Thus, any good strategic planner would strongly advise that we have some redundancy both in our rail network and in our transportation system as a whole. The Eastside railroad could play an important role in transportation security for the entire region. It could serve as an emergency bypass for north-south rail freight in the event of blockage of the main line through Seattle, and this role would be enhanced through a program of gradually upgrading the tracks.
But the railroad could also play an important role in passenger mobility in the event of a disaster, such as a collapse of freeway bridges on I-405 or even on I-5. The important role of passenger railroads in times of disaster was clearly demonstrated following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area when BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) trains kept running after freeways collapsed and absorbed a large part of the passenger traffic that formerly used such freeways.
Regional security is just one more reason that it is so foolish to scrap the railroad rather than to retain and gradually upgrade it.
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