The Elephant In The Room

(Editor’s note:  The following was excerpted from Jabe Blumenthal’s voter recommendation email, which came my way via facebook, and is republished here with permission.  Much of this will be familiar territory for HAC readers, but nonetheless, it’s good reinforcement from yet another thoughtful voice, and more fodder for the intentionally redundant HAC tunnel blitz.)

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The elephant in the room:  thoughts on the tunnel.

This is another issue I’d love to dodge.  But it’s an important issue in the mayor’s race at least and there’s much misinformation out there that people have come to accept as truth.  So I’m going to explain why I support some candidates who think that:  A) the tunnel decision process was a deeply flawed one,  B) the tunnel probably isn’t the best solution to our multiple societal goals, and C) it’s worth taking the few months and few $M to get it right on what will be a multi-$B project with a 50-100 year lifespan.  And I feel the same way, as do many people more thoughtful and informed than myself – Denis Hayes, KC Golden, and Alan Durning to name just a few.

I’m not against the tunnel per se.  I’m in favor of whatever solution meets the three goals of:

1) a vibrant/sustainable/livable city

2) adequately meeting our mobility needs

3) complying with our state emission and vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) reduction goals all within a price that is realistic and leaves some funding capacity for waterfront parks and improvements.

The stake-holder process, which included the city, county and state departments of transportation, began by taking #3 off the table as a goal (rather ironic given that it was immediately after the Governor and legislature had passed emission and VMT reduction goals).  In December of 2008, the three department of transportation heads announced the two final hybrid recommendations, and carefully explained why those two and not others.  One reportedly said “I cannot imagine any situation in which the bored tunnel would be a good use of WSDOT’s money.”  In particular, their modeling showed that the combination of surface streets, transit, and I-5 improvements (S/T/5) would meet our traffic needs.  Then the backroom meetings and deals began, with pressure on the Governor from Boeing, Tayloe Washburn (Chamber of Commerce), the Discovery Institute and others.  Thrown into the mix was the desire to thwart Chopp’s viaduct replacement idea.  And voila, an answer emerged, one not recommended by the DOTs and not supported by technical analysis.

Somehow people have come to think that the process favored the tunnel and that the surface street option was shown to not work.  Whatever one thinks of the tunnel, this version of events is simply wrong.

Now, back to that #3 above.  Had climate impacts actually been considered, the case for S/T/5 and against a tunnel becomes *stronger*, as the tunnel certainly has the highest embedded *and* operational carbon impact.  No one seems to talk about this much even in the environmental community.  Here’s where I pause and ask of whatever subset of us really believe that we care about climate change:  Do we really think that we have any hope of reducing our societal emission by the necessary 80-90% and our VMT by 50% in 40 years if we remove climate from consideration and optimize for single-occupancy vehicles when making 50-100 year infrastructural decisions?  I mean, get real!!  “But won’t the cars all be electric soon?”  By 2020?  No way.  By 2030?  No chance.  By 2040, some but not a majority. By 2050?  Many, not all.  And will the electrons all be zer0-carbon?  Not a chance.  And will it amount to anything like a 90% reduction?  Dream on.  That’s *why* the Governor and legislature realized that we *had to reduce VMT by 50%*.

Sadly, at some level, most of even us supposed climate change warriors are climate change deniers; even we don’t admit that, yes, we have to make our major societal decisions *differently* to have any hope of addressing climate change.  If I were designing a city to maximize VMT and if I assumed that money will someday grow on trees once the current recession is over, a tunnel sounds pretty good to me.  But otherwise it is a highly questionable conclusion. Given that, and the expense, and the near certainty of cost overruns, and the potential for lawsuits (one with a lot of merit was just filed last week over the failure to complete the required environmental impact statement), and the climate implications, and the 50-100 lifetime of whatever decision we make, and the flawed process… it’s not just reasonable but responsible to question and revisit this “decision”. You don’t have to agree with this statement but the more I learn about the issue and the process, the more reasonable a point of view it seems to me and I’m grateful that we have at least a few candidates questioning things.

Jabe Blumenthal

6 Responses to “The Elephant In The Room”

  1. Bill B

    Jabe, you are correct on many counts here. That is why many of us resent the faux environmental benefits of the current light rail system. John Nile et al did a good job of exposing the embedded carbon in that regional, linear system (which only reinforces our sprawling footprint). Now the only way to “fix” that debacle is to overlay/wipe out many existing neighborhoods with added density – in order to make the system pay off (or to rationalize more of the same if you are a cynic).

    The tunnel is a red herring issue. Even McGinn admits that the tunnel could be built by his administration or not built in a Mallahan administration.

    If we really believe that we have a MAJOR problem, in order to “fix” Seattle or even WA state, we should be looking at dramatic and replicatable actions in short order. I say ‘replicatable’ because we alone can’t solve this global problem – the best we could do is show the world a way to do it.

    Recycling percentages, reduced VMT, etc are only feelgood actions that merely nip at the apple.

    Look at some the types of issues we face and how delusional we are about really dealing with carbon and and other sustainability realities:

    - our regional economy is heavily based on unsustainable industries, such as Boeing and air travel (duh, we built light rail to the airport).

    - we “plan” transit oriented light rail hubs, but has anyone suggested that we not allow any parking for the housing in these zones (save for car sharing). We will disallow park and ride that would serve the extant population though. The net affect – fancy urban centers for the wealthy downtown working class.

    - has anyone suggested removing downtown parking as our idols in Copenhagen have?

    - why aren’t we more aggressively creating the conditions for forcing our existing population reduce their footprint. We ban bags, yet Costco and Trader Joes package sell produce in plastic. Where’s the bottled water ban?

    - why not spend the $290M Mercer money on a light rail along a corridor line Rainier Ave instead of good money on more roads…

    - why aren’t we aggressively changing our building codes to be more sustainable (eg grey water). Green walls and roofs are a joke.

    - Sharrows are another embarrassing joke – even bike lanes are inadequate. We should be closing whole streets to traffic and creating bike only corridors. Mike may bike (sometimes) but most people are afraid to.

    - We should remove our zoning constructs which have created a city based on single use zones to truly create complete urban villages – throughout the city.

    - the real Puget Sound infrastructure sin is I-5 and the cross-lake freeways. Where are the demands for rapid transit along those corridors, or even stronger taxing of out of commuting workers to discourage these locational failings.

    Jabe, if your post was to be some implied endorsement of McGinn, I refuse to believe that Mike is the truly ‘green progressive’ candidate — or we would hear about these REAL issues.

    Instead, McGinn has pushed a green-washed “density=sustainability” pablum that really only favors a particular class of developer and property owner. And solve a crisis for a population that hasn’t even arrived yet to Seattle.

  2. Joshua

    Bill B – I’m amazed at the free time you employ to rant on this (and other) blogs. While I don’t disagree with most of what you put on there, I’m baffled by your assertion that density = greenwashed pablum. Density does not favor just one class of developer – there are a lot of low-income and affordable housing developers/providers that strongly support density because they understand that it’s a key strategy for creating housing that meets the needs of all populations. We need more affordable housing, and building by transit centers (where lower income residents can take advantage of transit opportunities and thus save on transportation costs) is the best strategy. Anyhow, you seem to be implying that you have a better solution tucked up your sleeve. I’d love to hear it.

  3. Wells

    I was caught off-guard Saturday when the Seattle Times at long last boldly mentioned the 4-lane Cut-n-cover tunnel option, but not in a favorable light.http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/politics/2010081563_tunnelclaims17m.html “voters rejected both an elevated highway and a 4-lane cut-n-cover tunnel.”

    A little digging revealed the 4-lane cut-n-cover ‘tunnel-lite’ had shoulders wide enough to act as an extra lane during rush hours, which essentially made it a 6-lane cut-n-cover tunnel.

    A favorable analysis of the 4-lane cut-n-cover reveals how it maintains the Western/Elliott access ramps which accommodate the roughly 40,000 vehicles daily that will be dumped onto the new Alaskan Way (through 15+ stoplights) with the Deep-bore. Not good.

    Not to worry, the proposed Mercer East Project will take ’some’ of the traffic load off Alaskan Way by turning Mercer into a freight and major thru-corridor between Elliott and the Deep-bore portal on Aurora. What!!

    If the AWV replacement is to be a tunnel, the 4-lane Cut-n-cover is the better option. WsDOT may have finished their studies of this ‘tunnel-lite’ a year later with Scenario ‘G’ 4-lane Cut-n-cover. It may not have been ready to go to a public vote in March 2007. They were mostly talking “6-lane Cut-n-cover” complete with drastic looking construction scheduling, leading up to that vote.

    Seattle Times pulled out its punditry pop-guns to shoot down the 4-lane cut-n-cover, pew pew!! But the article’s title “AWV tunnel claims: Who’s right?” is another case of smite makes right.

  4. Bill B

    @2 Joshua – regarding time to “rant”, you set the bar pretty high, and I can only aspire to your prolific and ubiquitous output. And I don’t feel I’m ranting, but the Sisyphean task of countering the rhetoric on HCA can be exasperating at times. I try to keep the spittle off me lips…

    As to your content point – I too agree that we need density around transit centers though I have “ranted” about differentiating between transit adjacent density and TOD. And if you have followed me over the years, affordable housing is something I have pushed for even greater outcomes that what is considered successful today.

    But please don’t conflate, as it seems that many folks here and other places do, ‘density’ with successful urban growth, i.e. density for density’s sake. And that taller is the only way to go.

    What I have suggested in the last few weeks is that GCI has been selling the “density=sustainability” as the mantelpiece over an agenda of relaxed development constraints, reduced burdens on developer contributions to the community, expedited development review processes and other mechanisms to stimulate more profitable development. The bait and switch is that the citizenry pays the amenities, not the developer – even with the added value of upzoning.

    Better solution? off the top of my head:

    - Regional public transit needs to be high speed rail along the I-5 and other prime corridors
    - Seattle public transit should, in these austere times, focus on cost effective solutions (bus, van/jitney services, etc)
    - We need to break the hub and spoke primacy of the downtown core and transit by distributing job centers to other secondary town centers – perhaps the urban villages
    - we need to relax our use based zoning constraints and encourage small, local business development – including light manufacturing in all zones (neighborhood approved)
    - look to more sustainable urban infill through cottage and accessory housing – it is also the most affordable and respectful of the streetscape
    - recognize that nodes are not the only solution, we have linear constructs that need to addressed as well

    To be continued for sure…

  5. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    For what it’s worth, I’m a different Joshua who thinks your ideas are spot-on, Bill. However, as I said in Alex Steffen’s guest post I don’t think a mayor is capable of creating that kind of change alone. We need the people on board.

  6. Bill B

    @ Joshua DF

    very confusing with da Joshes…

    I agree that the Mayor can not singularly create massive change that we need. It has to be based in a desire of the people. And in a town that endorses the Discovery Institute candidate, we have some challenges…

    And this is why I believe McGinn has not been the agent of change that he has led many to believe he is. The vision of bike filled streets and street cars and light rail everywhere is still a pipe dream too. Why?

    Because McG isn’t really talking to the truth of the significant structural changes that Seattle would have to make nor describing how they could be achieved and how he would take us there.

    Where is the frank discussion about removing parking downtown (as our idolized Copenhagen has), or stopping parking to be built for ANY housing in the urban village centers and hubs, or taxing the hell outa parking, or making everyone (that includes developers) ponying up to pay for massive local Seattle transit infrastructure (and ignoring lightrail which is a regional system), etc etc. Where is the discussion of what it would take to do these things, how to time them, how to transition our people and commerce, etc.

    There’s a big gap between the truth and the fantasy, and we ain’t hearing about it from Mike.

    And if he rolls over on the tunnel issue – his bellwether – how will address any of these other significant challenges.

    Now if I really believed that once in power McG would take on that leadership, I would support him – as ardently as many on this blog have.

    But his past track record with the green-washed GCI, his refusal to acknowledge that massive urban projects like Dearborn were BS, his role in SLU, and the reaction of his peers in Greenwood or colleagues on the parks levy lead me to conclude he is not all that he’s portrayed as.

    He rolled over and it shows that he’s been blowing smoke all along.

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