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.