“If no one wants to pay for it, why build it?”

[ Governor Gregoire speaking at the tunnel legislation signing ceremony today at the Seattle Aquarium ]

Mayoral candidate Michael McGinn said that yesterday, in reference to the plan to replace the Alaskan Way viaduct with a deep bore tunnel. Today Governor Gregoire is scheduled to sign the bill that authorizes the tunnel.

The conventional wisdom on this is that the tunnel is a done deal, we should all be grateful that a decision was finally made, and it’s time to move on. From this perspective, McGinn’s anti-tunnel position would seem to be a very risky, and perhaps even foolishly naive political move. But if you ask me, it demonstrates the kind of integrity and leadership we desperately need if we hope to successfully transform our society before it’s too late.

Conventional wisdom doesn’t cut it any more.

28 Responses to ““If no one wants to pay for it, why build it?””

  1. Zelbinian

    Dear gods I hope he wins. He probably won’t, but I hope I hope I hope I hope . . .

  2. Bill B

    from your previous post:

    Carry Moon and Mike Obrien’s recent PI op-ed goes a long way toward explaining why:

    “Reorienting priorities around transit, compact growth, street connectivity, and providing people real alternatives to driving works for urban mobility, freight mobility and economic development. Spending $2 billion or more on tailpipe capacity with deep-bore tunnel — the most expensive option — is not a step toward a better future.”

    Publicola now is reporting that Moon is in the Nickles camp. Maybe she’s into the tunnel too.

    A lot of buses and routes could be paid for with that money. Maybe even a green line.

  3. Ellery

    Note STB’s post today about the missing money for transit in the AWV deal. Infuriating.

  4. Kathryn

    Ask Mike about ANYTHING. He will respond with his opposition to the tunnel. There is more to running Seattle than opposing this stupid tunnel.

  5. BallardSting

    Why does it seem that our environmental “leaders” talk a good game, but when push come to shove they fail to “walk the walk.” The tunnel as the obvious example. Sad. Cheers to McGinn for calling a spade a spade.

  6. jake l

    Perhaps this has already been talked about here, but what are the options for transit needs that are not covered by the surface option, such as building trades, deliveries, trucking, and manufacturing. How will these larger and noisier vehicles adapt? I-5 or through downtown? Perhaps a promotion of positive changes that could help these types of businesses and individuals get behind the idea of a lack of a direct transit connection like the viaduct and the tunnel would help your cause. I believe that if we are really thinking around the box a bit we need to ensure that we still have local industrial manufacturing just as we have local foods. We need to be local-vores in all ways not just food.

  7. Beal

    jake I – I agree that we need to protect our local industry and manufacturing job base, and many folks supported the industrial lands downzone a couple years ago to that effect. But to say that the Duwamish and B/I MICs require a highway on the waterfront in order to survive is just simply not true. The operational improvements to I-5 together with the downtown surface street changes in the surface and transit option that came out of the AWV stakeholder’s group would have protected capacity for the MICs. The tunnel “win” is all about promoting downtown Seattle business interests…and those are the interests that struck this deal.

  8. Joe G

    @4 I would submit to you that McGinn has a very good point to be made with this tunnel decision. Its is the brilliant summary of the ineffectiveness and lack of leadership that our current mayor possess. I plan to campaign for McGinn, his ideas and future views of this amazing city are very much in line with my own. I hope that he does get the vote and he may be able to set this city on the right path.

    @1 If you believe and want it enough it CAN happen. You can’t just sit back and hope however.

  9. jake l

    I agree that a highway on the waterfront is not a good solution or promotion for a sustainable city, but I do wonder about diversity of transit options. I can’t help but feel that I-5 is way too bloated as it is. It makes me wonder if we might not tunnel all along aurora and make it’s entire length through king county a tunnel or capped road way, and then scale back I-5 a bit, or at least keep the enlargements strictly light-rail/mass transit based.

    Could the removal of the viaduct/tunnel highway be comapared with the removal of 520 or I-90 from the transit equation, switching the traffic to around lake washington or a ferry option?

  10. Beal

    jake I – well, are we just pretending that we have endless money? sure, then let’s stick all the cars underground and keep the surface for pedestrians, bikes and transit. reality is that dollars are limited, so let’s be strategic with our investments. what is more important, preserving vehicular capacity or promoting mobility, environmental sustainability and good urban form at the same time?

  11. JoshMahar

    Jake – As you say, I-5 is bloated and we need to give people alternatives to using it. Now, one solution could be, as you suggest, to increase capacity on other highways around the area. Now, this takes tons of resources for very little gain. I think the whole point of the viaduct argument is that it is time we stopped wasting our resources on these kinds of solutions. If we want fewer people using I-5 we need to pour money into public transit, cycle infrastructure, and making it easy for people to do their daily business (ie. work, school, shopping) closer to home.

    McGinn stands for a fundamental change in the way we conduct our daily lives and with his guidance I think we could start to build a sustainable lifestyle, economy, and transportation system that would more than pay off in years to come.

  12. Ben Schiendelman


    According to a 2006 study of the Viaduct options by CNU, a no-build scenario would result in 28% of the trips disappearing entirely. Some would remain as local trips, people would go down the street instead of across the city. That’s exactly what we want.

    The surface options presented move more than enough trips – even WSDOT agrees with that. They just do it a little bit slower than a bypass.

  13. Cale

    I’m sorry, but running an entire platfom on opposing a somewhat controversial tunnel that has already been agreed upon by most parties (and will most likely get built) without presenting any kind of viable alternative is hardly the bold leadership we need.

    Now if he thinks he has a solution for better mass transit, pedestrian corridors and bike infrastructure, I am listening with bated breath. Bonus if he figures out a way to pay for it.

  14. J

    taking a step back:
    what if we just talked about the viaduct for another several years–maybe a few decades even–in a manner similar to how it’s being discussed here on this blog. And then, after all of that, the whole thing just died, kind of like the monorail died. Then, after that, people griped about how Seattle is a do-nothing town for another few decades…

  15. jake l

    I think what I really wanted to express with my first comment may have been unclear. Will an argument be raised which convinces those that currently rely upon the viaduct for their livelihoods? And even those that think they do, for these groups are the ones that vote for and ‘pay’ for the tunnel. Convincing people to support and build local communities and celebrate community diversity seems more important than opposing something.
    Dan, great blog by the way!

  16. Andrew

    Amen! He’s running as if the postion were the mayor of the viaduct, except it’s the mayor of the city of seattle.

    I find it crazy that people think the man (Nickels) who got light rail on the ballot twice (1996 and 2008) somehow is not for transforming the way we get around. Insanity.

  17. Andrew

    28% is the amount that would disappear if we built surface/transit. I wonder how they came to that assumption, I bet it would be much higher, since auto-travel is decreasing anyway.

  18. Andrew

    I’ll stop posting, but the quote from McGinn is insipid. I don’t want to pay for lunch everyday, but I like eating it.

    In fact, I’d love to have magic rail from here to the moon, but don’t ask me to pay for it.

  19. dan bertolet

    Andrew, sounds like you and Ben need to duke it out over at STB.

    Some of us recognize that Nickels deserves huge credit for ST2, but also dislike the tunnel.

    As for the McGinn quote, the point is that if the tunnel is the best solution for the State of Washington, then why won’t the State take full financial responsibility for making it happen? The absurd cost overrun stipulation implies that the tunnel is actually an unjustified gift to Seattle, and so if it ends up costing too much then primadonna Seattle should have to pay for it. Is the State fully behind this solution or not? And is the City of Seattle fully behind this solution even if it ends up costing the City significantly more than the $900 million already committed?

  20. Nate Cormier

    stop the insanity! 70% of seattle voted NO TUNNEL. we have evolved beyond nickels’ highway-only solution. a broad coalition, including the people’s waterfront coalition, identified the streets and transit approach as a win-win for seattle. if the state wants to shove another carbon sucking highway under or over us, and nickels wants to be the cheeerleader, at least let the state pay for any overruns. i’d rather spend the billions on schools, streets, community policing, green infrastructure, and job creation. the nickels tunnel to nowhere has seattle citizens on the hook for billions of overruns and doesn’t help us build the city we need. mcginn has lots of other good ideas, but i think he is right to harp on nickels’ worst idea.

    cheers, nate

  21. Chris

    Despite 28% of trips disappearing, the surface option would have put tremendous strain on the downtown grid, with attendant problems for downtown quality of life. SDOT was planning on adding capacity to 2nd and 4th avenues, as well as Stewart-Olive and one or two other couplets. Logically, the trips would only disappear is the trip was so painful (eg gridlocked) that people decided not to take them. I can live with using gridlock as a means to limit freeway capacity and force people into other options, but when the gridlock is on the downtown streets that hurts the quality of life in the City core.

    The reality is that $$ would never be used for libraries, social services, or anything else but roads, and if we suck up $3 billion in funding that would otherwise have gone to sprawling “rural” roads or highway expansions elsewhere, all the better.

    If I were McGinn, I’d direct my energy other places

  22. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    No one depends on a highway “for their livelihoods” (except maybe some politicians and construction crews). Livelihoods depend on being able to get places and do business. For the last 50 years LA has tried to address this problem by building more and bigger roads so that in theory it’s fast and easy to get across town. In reality traffic compounds and is easily disrupted by accidents, construction, and just normal driving habits. No one in Paris or New York think it’s reasonable to get across town in a few minutes, and we need to stop thinking Seattle has 1970s traffic levels.

    It’s ridiculous to think the state’s $2.4b would all go to roads. Only a percentage is road-dedicated gas taxes (can’t seem to find exact numbers right now). There are a lot of worthy services being cut for lack of general fund revenue.

  23. andrew

    That overrun provision will end up being unenforceable, but it’ll generate an exciting lawsuit!

  24. Chris

    @22. I’d appreciate that breakdown of gas taxes/general funds if you have it.

  25. Tony

    You say that opposing the tunnel is not bold leadership, but that instead bold leadership would be figuring out a way to pay for transit and pedestrian improvements.

    You’ve missed the point. The $2 billion saved by not building the tunnel IS where you get the money for transit and pedestrian improvements. The ability to say ‘yes’ to the things we need requires the ability to say ‘no’ to other things that compete for scarce resources.

    You cannot say that these are unrelated, because the surface-transit option included hundreds of millions of dollars in pedestrian and transit improvements AND MORESO, it did not commit the city to $900 million for the project. That $900 billion can be spent on ANYTHING else, including transit if the city were to so choose.

    How excited do you think the citizens of Seattle are going to be to tax themselves to build more light rail after they watch their tax bills go up by $900 million to build a highway?

  26. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    @24: As far as state money goes, the WSDOT SR 99 project page interprets the numbers as $1.85b of gas tax out of the $2.4b total. (Actual appropriations were via the omnibus transportation bill, SB 5352 2009.) However, the gas tax money could go to other highways, including Seattle arterials like Lake City Way (SR 522) that desperately need HOV lanes. Right now we’re using parking tax money on those via SDOT Bridging the Gap–money that could directly go to sidewalks and bike lanes.

  27. The Deep-Bore Tunnel Is A Done Deal (Just Like The Monorail Was) | hugeasscity

    […] the record, here’s why whiners like me and McGinn won’t shut up, and aren’t ready to concede that the tunnel is a done […]

  28. Special Guest Post: Tunnel Digest | hugeasscity

    […] the January 2009 deal In January, Gregoire, Sims, and Nickels agreed to jointly fund and build a $4.2 billion package: a bored tunnel, new transit service, a waterfront […]

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