Special Guest Post: Tunnel Digest

Head spinning from all the conflicting stories around the tunnel proposal and Surface/Transit/I-5 in this campaign season? Here’s a record-straightening summary of what has gone on in the recent nine months and where we are now. Some very big problems are emerging for Seattle in this deal. Whatever you thought in January, you should be paying attention now.

Recap: 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 street and seawall repairs, and other street improvements. Current status:

  • The State hasn’t yet followed through on the promise to help the City and County raise funds for their projects. The MVET authorization for transit ($190 million), and stimulus money for streets ($80 million), didn’t happen.
  • This leaves Metro with a huge shortfall since their revenue plummeted, indicating there will be no new transit service, and existing service will be cut.
  • Remember, the modeling done in 2008 to test possible replacement options showed a big shift toward new transit usage in any scenario; not adding this service could seriously degrade Seattle’s mobility.

The underground bypass tunnel: how’s it coming along?
Planning, design, and EIS analysis are underway now. The costs, overrun risks, construction challenges, and environmental impacts have not yet been determined nor explained to the public. Without this crucial information, there is no ‘decision’ yet, much less a done deal.

  • At 54 feet across, this would be the largest diameter bored tunnel ever attempted in the world.
  • No alternatives solutions are being considered in the EIS.
  • There will be no exits downtown, so travel to downtown Seattle won’t be served by this facility. (The unfunded transit and street improvements are necessary for downtown access.)
  • Early soil testing indicates that a cut and cover tunnel may be required instead of a bored tunnel on First Avenue south of King Street in Pioneer Square; construction impacts could be brutal. The urban fabric is shaping up to be quite bleak around this tunnel mouth.
  • Tolling is not included in the EIS or the current transportation modeling (even though tolling is still expected to provide $400 million in funding).  The new transit service agreed to in January is not included either. Nor are the widely supported I-5 improvements. By ignoring these excellent (and necessary) solutions to urban mobility, WSDOT’s traffic modeling will predict an inaccurately high ‘need’ for car capacity on Seattle’s waterfront. What a strange and tragic twist, where an overly narrow EIS may pressure leaders to overbuild the waterfront street.
  • While WSDOT is typically accountable for its own cost overruns, the legislature’s tunnel funding bill says otherwise: “Any costs in excess of two billion eight hundred million dollars shall be borne by property owners in the Seattle area who benefit from replacement of the existing viaduct with the deep bore tunnel.” Sending an invoice directly to citizens is an absurd threat, and indicative of how the legislature intends to treat local interests if problems emerge.


A non-highway solution: does it work?
At the end of the stakeholder process in December 2008, the three DOTs put forth two recommendations: Surface/Transit/I-5 or an Elevated. (The bored tunnel was not recommended.) The S/T/5 solution is a set of projects to improve through-put on I-5, better connect the street grid, add new transit and incentives to inspire non-car choices, improve options for freight, and build an urban street on the waterfront.

  • Even tested against the unlikely worst case, where the expected ‘need’ for trips jumps an absurd 20 percent in six years, the S/T/5 options worked great for mobility. In fact, all eight solutions examined worked well, only varying +/- 1% in the number of trips they serve.
  • Modeling results from the stakeholder process revealed that providing choice is key in urban systems. Viaduct trips are short and local urban trips—85 percent start and end within Seattle. If people have options—a variety of streets, transit options, I-5, biking, etc—and links are made between urban centers, we can all get where we’re going. Trucks or people. There is plenty of pavement already if we just use it more efficiently.
  • Modeling results also showed a regular 4-lane urban street on the waterfront (stakeholder options A or B) is sufficient, given other improvements to transit and I-5. All the local economic and civic benefits of removing the waterfront highway can be achieved with either this approach or a bypass tunnel.
  • As is oft-repeated, the Viaduct poses a major public safety threat to Seattle citizens: it was damaged in the 2001 Nisqually quake, is unsafe, and must come down soon to prevent tragedy in another possible quake. The S/T/5 solution would allow the Governor to keep her promise of a 2012 closure date; furthermore, doing these projects now is the critical path to getting by without the Viaduct if it should fail. The bored tunnel plan uses a finger-crossing strategy against earthquake risk, and delays closure to 2016—or longer if there are any planning/design/legal/construction hiccups.

The tunnel plan emerged in January as a fragile political compromise, balancing what the State’s elected leaders think is important (maintaining their state highways, providing capacity for car trips bypassing Seattle, giving Boeing what they want) and what Seattle and King County leaders think is important (providing local mobility and access, freeing the waterfront, supporting local economic growth).

There are bigger issues at stake for our city, though. What kind of transportation system fits future Seattle? What investments should we make now to transition to a future with 50 percent fewer vehicle-miles traveled by 2050 to reduce the emissions that cause climate change, as mandated by the State? Can we even afford a $4.2 billion megaproject?

Across the world, many leading cities are making big changes in their transportation systems to prepare for a different future—New York, London, Paris, Seoul, Copenhagen, San Francisco. Together, their successes show that it’s possible to relieve congestion, create beloved vibrant streets, grow the economy, AND cut greenhouse gas emissions through aggressively improving alternative choices, prioritizing freight, and decreasing car capacity. We should measure twice before we cut: building car capacity we may not need, at this high cost and risk, may turn out to be a terrible investment.

Many Seattleites (myself included) believe the tunnel plan is already a bad deal for Seattle. The situation could get worse, if this megaproject runs into trouble like 90 percent of them do. We better elect a Mayor—and City Council members—who have the intelligence to see what is happening and the courage to fight for Seattle’s best interests when things get rocky.

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