The Deep-Bore Tunnel Is A Done Deal (Just Like The Monorail Was)

Is the deep-bore tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way viaduct a done deal?  Game over?  Should all those petulant whiners who don’t like it just suck it up and get over it, grow up and move on?

Seattle mayoral candidate Mike McGinn has a pithy response to that question:  if he is elected, the tunnel won’t happen.  For 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 deal:

The environmental and economic realities of climate change and peak oil, combined with the social realities of equity and livability, dictate that the future prosperity of cities like Seattle will be dependent on reducing reliance  on the single-occupant vehicle. Meanwhile, we are proposing to spend a gigantic pile of money on an underground freeway bypass for cars.  And not only that, it is configured in a way that renders it nearly useless for transit because it provides no access to downtown Seattle, the largest employment center in the Pacific Northwest; not to mention that it’s too small to fit a train.

At this point in history, making huge investments in infrastructure for cars is not what progressive societies do.  It’s stupid.  Borderline  suicidal.

The “surface/transit” option for replacing the viaduct was fully vetted and signed off on by both the City and State transportation agencies.  Nevertheless, critics claim it wouldn’t work.  They just know it wouldn’t.   Or maybe God told them so.  Yes, it would take a few minutes longer to get from Ballard to West Seattle.  But that criterion is nowhere near the top of the priority list for creating a more sustainable region.

Whenever there is talk of cutting back on the flow of money pouring down the rat hole of car infrastructure, there are those who retort that car capacity is untouchable until we have a perfect alternative in place. Well, I hate to break it to you friends, but the transformation that our civilization faces will not be painless, and the longer we put off major structural changes, the more pain we’ll feel in the long run.  We happen to be up against the biggest environmental threat in human history, in parallel with a forced weaning from the cheap energy source that has literally made our way of life possible.  The clock is ticking.  The time to NOT build the tunnel is NOW.

The deep-bore tunnel has a price tag in the range of two to three billion dollars more than a surface/transit solution.  That cash would buy a lot of transit, in addition to the transit upgrades that are already part of the proposed surface/transit packages.  Cue up the scornful howling over how we can’t just switch roadway funds to transit or anything else.  Bunk.  Real leadership would change those idiotic, counterproductive laws.

But back to the point:  is the tunnel a done deal?

  • The $2.4 billion in allocated State funds is already $400 million short of a highly preliminary cost estimate.   Maybe that $400 million will come from tolls, but no one’s really sure.
  • State law puts Seattle is on the hook for any tunnel cost overruns, but the Mayor says that law is unenforceable.   Things should get interesting fast if a new cost estimate comes in above that original $2.8 billion figure.
  • The tunnel plan includes transit improvements, for which King County was to provide $190 million.  But the County has so far failed to establish a new motor vehicle excise tax that would generate those funds.  King County Metro is currently facing a budget hole of about $100 million.
  • The City of Seattle must come up with $930 million for surface improvements and  a new seawall.   To put that amount in perspective, $930 million is one quarter of the entire 2009 City of  Seattle budget of $3.6 billion.  Currently the City is struggling to find $200 million to fix the Mercer mess.
  • The Port of Seattle was to foot the bill for $300 million, but a May 2009  SDOT budget document notes that that sum is “source to be determined.”

There’s your done deal funding plan.  Good luck with that.

Ironically, another potential threat to the tunnel is the legislation championed by Governor Gregoire that mandates a 50 percent reduction in vehicle miles traveled (VMTs) in the State of Washington by the year 2050.  Might it be that spending billions in State funds on a mile-long VMT generator runs counter to the intent of this legislation?  And might there be a smart environmental lawyer or two out there who will take an interest?

In a 2007 non-binding referendum 70 percent of Seattle voters rejected a tunnel to replace the viaduct.  Unfortunately a surface/transit option was not part of the referendum so we don’t know what kind of support it may have garnered.   But surely that 70 percent must mean something.  Surely that 70 percent represents a latent potential challenge to the done deal tunnel.

23 Responses to “The Deep-Bore Tunnel Is A Done Deal (Just Like The Monorail Was)”

  1. Clark

    Rock on, HAC! This seems exactly right to me: this one is far from over.

  2. Clyde Tressler

    While I am not completely conversant in Seattle transportation issues, I couldn’t agree more with your premise, Dan, that cities will need to reduce their dependence on the ’single-occupant vehicle’ to survive. That’s why I supported electrification of the Northeast Corridor in the 1990s, paving the way for Amtrak’s Acela ‘high-speed’ service, which has proved to be hugely popular. I sound like I am running for office, but I am only trying to polish some tarnish from Mike Dukakis’ reputation.

    In 1956, as the beginning of the Eisenhower Highway Project loomed, and Congress appropriated $26 billion to pay for it, to Lewis Mumford it was already earmarked for failure:

    ‘Perhaps the only thing that could bring Americans to their senses would be a clear demonstration of the fact that their highway program will, eventually, wipe out the very area of freedom that the private motorcar promised to retain for them…

    In using the car to flee from the metropolis the motorist finds that he has merely transferred congestion to the highway; and when he reaches his destination, in a distant suburb, he finds that the countryside he sought has disappeared: beyond him, thanks to the motorway, lies only another suburb, just as dull as his own…

    The result is that we have actually crippled the motorcar, by placing on this single means of transportation the burden for every kind of travel. Neither our cars nor our highways can take such a load. This over-concentration, moreover, is rapidly destroying our cities, without leaving anything half as good in their place.”

    I include this lengthy quote, because in 2009, everyone everywhere who is forced to commute by car faces a similar burden of time lost to traffic. Los Angeles, long the brunt of jokes about ‘road-rage’ owing to the parking-lot-like features of its ‘Freeways,’ has now been joined by virtually every American city. Why, just a few years ago there was a cross-bow murder in Rhode Island, attributed to an abrupt lane-change incident.

    Perhaps the collapse of the auto-building industry in the US will herald an era of more balanced transportation planning, as people acknowledge the realities of traveling by car and try, for once, to imagine that there could be something better.

  3. Jeff

    While I totally agree with everything here, I do not exactly like how so many people in Seattle feel destined to remove every good American reason for having a single occupancy vehicle.

    No need to invest in a billion dollar hole – but we continue to invest in ways to piss off the drivers that we have. The social engineering part hurts.

    Let the beauty and convienience of transit sell the plan instead.

    Happy 4th!

  4. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    Welcome back, Dan. I’ll admit it: you’re right.

    I also realized recently that the north portal of the tunnel (Aurora just north of Denny Way) would pretty much ruin any hope of connecting Uptown and SLU. I know it’s not pretty now either, but dedicating even more city real estate to roads is another reason the tunnel is wrong.

    Oh, and before someone says the $2.4b in state highway funds can’t be used on transit, here are a few state highways that need HOV lanes and ideally physically separated bike lanes too: Lake City Way (SR-522), Aurora Ave (SR-99), Montlake Boulevard (SR-513), N 145th (SR-523), Rainer Ave S (SR-167). Many of these are on the Bridging the Gap project list for HOV lanes… where did that “gap” come from again? Would $2,400,000,000.00 help bridge it?

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  6. JoshMahar

    JDF: Totally agree that the tunnel will effectively ruin the SLU/Uptown future connection. On the Other hand, the surface option would effectively end Aurora as a highway in Seattle and hopefully we could more easily reconnect the grid up north as well as slowing speed limits and adding more ped. crossings. Oh, and a bike lane PLEEEEAAAASSSE!

    @3: What exactly does Seattle do that “pisses drivers off”? You mean, adding pedestrian crossings or giving bikers half a lane? Perhaps you mean limiting parking or increasing parking fees? Well, all of these things benefit others who aren’t using their car on a daily basis. We have been creating easy ways for drivers to get around for far too long at the expense of all other users. Not only is it about time we swung the other way, but its crucial to survival as a city.

  7. Jeff

    @6: When you visit world class cities, you see that they take care of everything: the street parking is dirt cheap in any big city. Visit Munich / Chicago / London / you name your fav, there are so many affordable rail, streetcar, train, and bus options that you honestly have so little need to drive.

    But here in Seattle, the multiple “transit districts,” the incompetant folks running these billion-dollar agencies, just can’t deliver for the life of them. I lost track of how many times we’ve voted “Yes” on the same darn thing – or similarly worded plans for transit.

    It takes hours to move through the region (or an hour to cross a bridge via a bus in traffic), and we aren’t investing on transit off the traffic grid enough. Raise or lower the public transit and get it out of the car traffic.

    So we’re happy to add expensive HOV bus terminals, limit parking, charge $2.50/hour for city parking, encourage militant bikers who break all the laws, invest in the light rail we were promised a decade ago, charge Zip car folks rental car taxes, and plan to toll the bridges – yet we aren’t willing to make the real investments to make the region cohere.

    Let’s not outlaw cars yet. But let’s not keep blowing billions of dollars on countless projects. Even more off topic: Worse than billions on a tunnel, almost half a billion dollars for a rental car terminal? Huh?

  8. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    Jeff, I agree that we could use some coherence in our goals, but I’m afraid you’re quite mistaken about the cost of parking in world-class cities: you’ll pay much more than $2.50/hr in Chicago or London. And, as someone remarked to me recently, comparing Seattle to one of those cities is like comparing us to Bend, OR. At this point Seattle is in a different class. “Bye and bye” hasn’t come yet.

  9. Becky

    Thank you Dan for speaking the truth. The tunnel pays no attention to the state and city’s mandate to reduce vehicle emissions. Even if folks want to ignore the need to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, people should care that the American Lung Association gave King County an F for air quality last year.

    We need to invest in ways to move people, not cars. That is the future. The tunnel is a regressive plan that will have us trapped in gridlock, pollution and debt.

  10. Michael

    Yeah, thanks Seattle for killing the Monorail – it sire would have been nice to get around town in the snow last winter (saving millions in revenue and incomes).

    The sad elephant in the room is that we never built mass transit. What we’re getting now is called “living with our mistakes.” The only way to change that is not to NOT build something, it’s to BUILD something.

    “Surface/transit” is the cheap-out (and unintentionally resource-heavy method). I’d rather spend a little money to do something RIGHT in this city for a change.

    And right on Becky, we should support a method that won’t force more cars to idle and bus transit to be even less convenient than it is now. Ironic that a car transit method will actually REDUCE greenhouse gases, but again, living with our mistakes…

  11. Elliott

    @10: “we should support a method that won’t force more cars to idle and bus transit to be even less convenient than it is now.”

    If you believe the tunnel is that method, I would love to hear your plans for transit funding….

  12. dan bertolet

    Michael @10 said: “Ironic that a car transit method will actually REDUCE greenhouse gases.”

    Well, I suppose it might be ironic if it wasn’t an urban legend. I’ll let Clark at Sightline take this one:

    http://daily.sightline.org/daily_score/archive/2008/01/31/wider-roads-don-t-protect-the-climate-duh

    “I think it’s a form of selective reasoning: people hate traffic congestion so much that they’re willing to believe anything good about congestion relief. But, unfortunately, it’s the rare instance that widening a road brings both congestion relief AND climate relief. More typically, wider, faster roads leads to extra driving. And the climate impacts of extra driving, combined with the impacts of construction itself, absolutely dwarf the modest fuel savings from congestion relief.”

    Micheal, if you have some evidence that the tunnel will reduce GHG emissions, let’s have it. Otherwise, we’ll have to assume you’re just making stuff up.

  13. Chris

    “In a 2007 non-binding referendum 70 percent of Seattle voters rejected a tunnel to replace the viaduct”

    That’s not exactly fair reporting, seeing as that was an entirely different tunnel alignment and methodology than the one proposed now. This new plan would eliminate the 7 year construction project on the waterfront and up to 3 year complete closure of 99 that was planned for the cut-and-cover version. That said, I hope the technology is to be trusted for such a large diameter tunnel.

  14. Joe G

    Dan you are my personal hero of the day. The way you have spelled out your argument is just the manner i have been searching for in my own argument. Somehow I have not been able to put this all together. But it is a simple as “we need to come up with ways to move people not single occupancy vehicles”. I really hope that McGinn wins this one and maybe Seattle will be positioned to be one of the greatest cities of the 21st century.

  15. mahanoy

    Y’know, Greg Nickels is a pretty sophisticated politician, and just because he’s for something doesn’t necessarily mean he’s really FOR something. I don’t have any inside information (especially inside his brain), but I can’t help but wonder just how committed he is to making the tunnel happen, considering just how little bang for the buck Seattle is going to get out of it.

    I find it telling that the People’s Waterfront Coalition, the group synonymous with the surface+transit option, hasn’t been exactly up in arms over the city/county/state agreement to build the tunnel.

    But this may just be getting back to Dan’s point. Fiscal reality is what it is, and pro-tunnel rhetoric isn’t going to pay for a tunnel.

  16. Chrispy

    I’m sorry, but I’ve never fully understood the hatred of the vehicle that everyone on this site fully embraces. Unfortunately, you all seem to assume “vehicle” means a wasteful SUV with an earth-hating, lazy single occupant inside. No one seems to realize that we need roads and infrastructure for trucks, semis, deliveries, and movement of goods. Stop this hatred of vehicles – it’s ignorant and typical liberal reactionary behavior (and I’m a liberal).

    A tunnel, with extensive surface street realignments through downtown for local traffic, is the best option for allowing through traffic to bypass downtown. This is especially important for trucks moving goods from the Port. Everyone seems to forget that this is what roads are used for and what keeps our economy humming and creates jobs. Sorry, but we can’t pull containers from China with our bikes or Prii.

    Finally, the tunnel option is most ideal because the Viaduct stays open during its construction. This means little to no disruption to traffic patterns and flow for the years it will take to complete. I’m not sure what you all think will happen when the Viaduct is removed and there is no other traffic option. Again, not everyone is going to jump on a bike or the street car – that only makes sense for commuters. What about delivery trucks? Semis? All the vehicles that supply your precious coffee shops and independent book stores?

    How much will it cost businesses when disruptions from viaduct dismantling and surface street realignment create havoc downtown? How long will that last? Time is money people. Either “we” pay for a tunnel with a staggering price tag (what infrastructure project nowadays *doesn’t* have that?), or pay more over time with lost tax revenue from business disruptions and wasted time spent sitting in nightmarish construction traffic along our ENTIRE downtown core. Again, commuters will be fine, but re-read the above paragraph for why this is frightening.

    Seriously, this site used to fascinate me but now it’s just insanity. The lack of empathy is staggering.

  17. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    Chrispy, the 2006 Duwamish/Ballard survey found that the “[industrial] businesses surveyed recognize commuter solutions to driving alone have the best chance of reducing congestion.” Maybe they’re wrong too, but we should not spend so much money on a bypass with such limited benefits. We have a lot of very useful roads other than the Viaduct, which already has weight restrictions for large freight vehicles anyway. I don’t hate delivery trucks, but they are a small percentage of traffic and predominantly use local roads.

  18. John

    JDF, it’s also true that the majority of freight DOES NOT USE the Viaduct. Hasn’t for decades. The vast majority of freight entering Seattle heads to I-5 or I-90, which is part of the reason for the State’s continued investments in elevating roads over the railroad tracks in SODO.

    If the only objection that is left to surface + transit is freight, we can give a dedicated freight-only lane on the Alaskan Way ROW for a hell of a lot less than billions of dollars to build a tunnel.

    Chrispy, those of us who lived through the tunnel construction under 3rd Avenue would say that any major change like this is going to have impacts, and that the end result will be worth the effort. I’ll add that the “less disruption” argument appeals primarily to people who drive themselves downtown every day, and it seems crazy, for the very reasons Dan outlined so eloquently in his post, to spend scarce resources to take care of them.

  19. Derek

    Michael @10

    “… a little money…”

    It’s not a little money, it’s $4.2 Billion. A quick check of census.gov tells me that it works out to about $2500 per adult in Seattle, and $500 per adult in the rest of the State. That’s a fair chunk of money to be spending on something that won’t accomplish it’s stated intent and will likely be obsolete by the time it is finished (if it isn’t already).

    It’s so much money, in fact, that Seattle’s share of $930 Million (plus all cost overruns, apparently) will basically eat up our taxing authority for the next ten years, meaning that all those other neat things like the Bike Master Plan, additional police, support for food banks and community centers, all of that is made impossible by the tunnel. We need to say no to the tunnel so that we can say yes to everything else.

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