SEATTLE -- The Alaskan Way Viaduct, emblem of the age of happy motoring, closed forever Friday night.
Drivers took to the 66-year-old highway during its final hours to savor a final roadside glimpse at Elliott Bay, and crowds filled Victor Steinbrueck Park to photograph the bulwark below.
As the expected 10 p.m. closing time passed, drivers and their cars filled the north- and southbound decks in a boisterous celebration people compared to New Year's Eve or Mardi Gras. Hundreds of drivers stopped on the roadway to take pictures or burn rubber, while a few danced between the cars.
From an overlook at Pike Place Market, cheers arose for fireworks, convertibles, a wayward Metro bus and loud trucks. Authorities began clearing the roadway around 11 p.m., and most of the viaduct was empty by about 11:35 p.m.
With the closure, no longer will we drive our in-laws home from the airport and wave like a boss toward the Olympic Mountain sunset. Runoff from the top deck won't splatter our windshield in the right lane, when cruising south past the illuminated Great Wheel. Only memories remain of staring from a slow bus to find "Go Hawks" written in gray epoxy on the center lane approaching Seneca Street.
The viaduct will be replaced by a 57-foot-wide, four-lane tunnel from Sodo to South Lake Union, following three weeks of severe traffic jams, without any Highway 99 to bypass downtown. State officials aim to open the tunnel early Monday, Feb. 4.
The so-called Seattle Squeeze will persist another four years as viaduct demolition, downtown street repaving, convention center expansion and private tower builders encroach on street lanes. Maybe a downtown streetcar and bike lanes will be added, maybe not.
The squeeze unofficially ends in 2023 when light-rail trains begin running between Seattle and Bellevue.
Friday night’s viaduct closure started at the corner of Columbia Street and First Avenue at 9:45 p.m., then moved to the Elliott Avenue onramp and the West Seattle Bridge and Duwamish-area entrances.
As if to make the viaduct's demise more real, demolition contractors will destroy a one-block segment Saturday morning, above diagonal Railroad Avenue South in Pioneer Square, so other workers can build an intersection there next to the south tunnel portal.
"It's the end of the world as we know it. I feel fine," said state transportation secretary Roger Millar, quoting the REM song.
Millar said he'll sleep better knowing the six-story-tall structure, which cracked and settled since the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, will be gone by midyear. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan says people will gasp when they visit the quieter waterfront. Viaduct traffic generated 80 decibels, similar to a kitchen garbage disposal, alongside Pike Place Market.
Others brace for a less-pleasant kind of outcome, when trips from Interbay take longer, because drivers lost direct highway access that the viaduct's Elliott Avenue onramp provided. More cars will congregate near Mercer Street when they leave the north tunnel portal, and thousands of drivers will switch to waterfront Alaskan Way.
Variable tolls from $1 to $2.25 will be charged in the tunnel but not until summer. Though public buses won't use the tunnel, it is likely to attract employer-sponsored buses, carpools and airport shuttles, along with solo drivers.
Viaduct drives have ended, but as many as 100,000 people will return Feb. 2-3 for a celebration to say farewell to the viaduct and preview the tunnel. That would exceed crowds who walked the new Highway 520 floating bridge, and welcomed the new University Link Light Rail, three years ago.
Already about 71,000 people have signed up for free walking access, or the paid 5-mile run or 12.5-mile bicycle ride that weekend. Visitors are urged to register through the state website www.99stepforward.com for free entry times to walk the afternoon of Feb. 2.
Durkan hired a retired Air Force general, Mike Worden, to coordinate multiagency work to reduce traffic jams during the Highway 99 conversion and beyond. Worden's Seattle-area relatives have talked for years about traffic hassles, he said, so he's eager to "work the problem that I've heard from them about, from afar."
Worden said that Seattle, as "a model city that all of America looks towards, it's going to have to negotiate these necessary obstacles that are due to infrastructure transformation, construction and everything else that a dynamic city has."
Seattle will be the 20th city worldwide to remove an elevated highway, following Madrid, Paris, Milwaukee, Toronto and Portland, according to the Congress for a New Urbanism, which long ago endorsed a viaduct teardown. The group now says in light of global warming, and the need for walkable cities, Washington state should also have rejected a vehicle tunnel.
"Because growth was coming so fast, this was a great opportunity to ask, 'Can we do this better than the same solutions that were done in the 20th century?' " said Lynn Richards, the group's CEO.
Since the 2001 quake, public agencies and citizens waded through eight years of process, an advisory ballot and $325 million in tax money to study and review as many as 75 variations before Gov. Christine Gregoire chose a deep-bore tunnel in January 2009 as the biggest piece of a $3.3 billion viaduct replacement.
Seattle residents favored the tunnel in a second advisory vote in 2011, but only after the construction contract was signed.
There's never been a clear public consensus around which path was wisest -- a tunnel, elevated replacement, street-level highway, surface road plus transit, or retrofitting the old viaduct. That debate might echo long after the concrete decks disappear.
Seattle Times staff reporter Michelle Baruchman contributed to this story.