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A Repsonse To The Viaduct Earthquake Video

Five former members of the Viaduct Stakeholder Advisory Committee just issued the following press release in response the viaduct earthquake scenario video that was made public yesterday by the Washington State Department of Transportation.



SEATTLE, WA — Oct. 26, 2009

Yesterday the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) released a dramatization showing the potential damage to the viaduct in the case of an earthquake.  The probability of an earthquake strong enough to close the viaduct happening was stated as a 10% chance in the next ten years.

As citizens who served for a year in 2008 on the Viaduct Stakeholder Advisory Committee, we are disturbed that WSDOT did not share this video with us during the stakeholder process, even though it appears that they had paid Parsons Brinkerhoff to prepare it in 2007.

“From the beginning of the process, we had always operated under the assumption that the Governor meant what she said when she insisted that the Viaduct was coming down in 2012,” said Mike O’Brien. 

“The deep bore tunnel was the only scenario that did not meet this strict deadline of removal of the viaduct by 2012,” commented Chuck Ayres.  “All of the other scenarios we studied, including the two recommendations made by WSDOT, would have allowed for removal by 2012.”

“After watching the video, we are even more convinced that taking down the viaduct by 2012 should be a non-negotiable public safety priority of all parties involved,” said Mary McCumber.

“Would you sign a ten year lease on a building if you knew there was a 10% chance of it collapsing on you in those ten years?” asked Cary Moon. “By delaying the closure of the viaduct, that is in essence what we are asking the citizens of Seattle to do.”

Viaduct Stakeholder Advisory Committee members:

Chuck Ayres  206.851.4312
Rob Johnson  206.920.9578
Mary McCumber  206.284.0605
Cary Moon  206.624.1061 
Mike O’Brien   206.200.2980


Here’s the video:

Save the Viaduct! (Or At Least a Piece of It)


A DJC article published on July 1 considered the design of Seattle’s waterfront post-Viaduct. Its central premise is that the design of the public space should happen before the alignment of the surface road is determined. Makes sense. This is a rare opportunity to create a space that can take advantage of all the waterfront has to offer in creating a vibrant and interesting public space rather than just trying to fit something in the space that is leftover from road construction, as is often the case. It’s worth a read…

One thing mentioned in the article, and something that I’ve been thinking about lately, is retaining a portion of the to-be-demolished Viaduct as a historical reference and interesting sculptural feature. The article mentions that Buster Simpson, a public artist, and Jack Mackie, an architect, have proposed saving some columns and partial beams as an “urban ruin”. I would take this further and suggest preserving a section large enough to function as an elevated open space and viewing platform (think the NYC High Line, see below). Certainly tearing down the Viaduct has the potential to create an amazing waterfront public space, but the opportunities for increasing open views of the Sound and the mountains beyond are limited by the numerous privately held properties lining the waterfront. Having more elevated viewing opportunities mayhelp address this fact. Victor Steinbrueck Park, and a couple spots in the Market, are among the few elevated public areas where people can take in views of the Sound. As we all know from driving north on the Viaduct, it is high enough to provide some stunning views (I have to admit I will miss that).

Dan’s image of the Viaduct actually provides a good illustration of an ideal location to preserve a section of the Viaduct (doubtless there are others). Thus, I stole it and unsophisticatedly overlaid a green oval to indicate a section of Viaduct that could be retained – adjacent to a non-descript Public Storage building, which will undoubtedly go away as significant (re)development occurs along the waterfront. In addition to providing views out towards the Sound and Olympic Mountains, this location also would afford views north along what will hopefully be an inspiringly designed public space. There may also be opportunities to integrate a new building with the structure that would help provide access to the space, and maybe have uses that can take advantage of the views.  At street level any number of activities could occur that could complement the waterfront public space and take advantage of the shelter offered by the old vestige such as café seating, vendor spaces, and maybe a stage for performances. Abundant vegetation growing up the columns and draping from above could be juxtaposed with a jagged edge of rebar and concrete left by the wrecking ball to give the effect of an “urban ruin” being overtaken by nature.

Could be good. Any other imaginative ideas?


The High Line in NYC (Image by AMNP)

Listen: The Final Word On The Viaduct

Like I said before, the one-way couplet is a lame compromise. And this Seattle Times opinion piece by Jeffrey Karl Ochsner totally nails it:

“Putting three lanes of heavy northbound traffic on Western Avenue will devastate the blocks between Western and Alaskan Way. The streets will become completely unfriendly to pedestrians. Street-level retail will wither and a block-wide dead zone between Western and Alaskan will face the waterfront…

“The solution to the future of Alaskan Way needs to be an urban solution. There are many cities worldwide with successful urban waterfront boulevards. A study of such spaces will show that a six-lane boulevard can be accommodated along Alaskan Way.”

The best solution for the viaduct is a two-way boulevard. End of story.

And there are many, many ways to design an urban boulevard:

[ Grand Boulevard, Barcelona ]

[ Champs Elysees, Paris. Five lanes in each direction, but that doesn’t keep the pedestrians away. ]

“Frank Chopp is a Complete Jackass” and Other Less Obvious Viaduct News

Disclaimer:  Mind the quotation marks in the post title — I’m just reporting what one anonymous source said. Hugeasscity has no official position one way or the other on jackasses, complete or otherwise, and their alleged resemblance, real or imagined, to the honorable public servant Frank Chopp, a.k.a. the most powerful politician in Washington State.

But this I will say: the Choppway is an urban design fiasco. Much has already been written, and since at the moment I’m feeling like my time on this earth is too valuable to throw away on typing another word about it, I’m cutting and pasting the following little riff a friend sent me:

“FORGET that Frank Chopp supersized the New York City High Line project, plugged it full of program spaces from Paris’ Viaduc des Arts, and called it a solution for the Viaduct.

  • Forget that neither the High Line nor the Viaduc des Arts occupy prime waterfront real estate.
  • Forget that the High Line is only 30 feet wide in parts and often no more than 18 feet off the ground and that the Viaduc des Arts is embraced by apartments and balconies that look onto its parkway (providing security) and interwoven with broad step sequences and ramps that provide easy access to the ground.
  • Forget that neither the High Line nor the Viaduc des Arts block distant vistas.
  • Forget that neither the High Line nor the Viaduc des Arts include third party program space AND an active, limited-access freeway. THEY ARE BOTH DEFUNCT RAIL LINES, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!!!

BUT REMEMBER, from the renderings, it seems that Mr. Chopp’s rooftop park gives all those dressed like a footless Mary Poppins mysterious powers of levitation. Now that’s barrier free design! BUILD THE MEGADUCT FOR ALL!”

In other viaduct news:

A new study by Eco Northwest found that each of the eight viaduct replacement options would have similar economic impacts. According to the study, the surface options would result in slower travel times, but because this would only affect a small fraction of total regional trips, the economic consequences are minimal. Can you feel the legs under the expensive (i.e. non-surface) options buckling?

Meanwhile Gehl Architects of Copenhagen just released a study concluding that none of the eight options does much for the pedestrian. Their criticism of the surface options sounds familiar: “The space along the water is out-of-scale, too wide and lacking definition.” And, needless to say, the report also states that the Choppway “is the least desirable option from an urban-design and open-space standpoint.”

The Gehl study offers no design solutions, but that’s not surprising given that their fee was only $15,000. This whole viaduct replacement effort would be seriously energized by an inspiring urban design vision, and that means spending hundreds of thousands — still a relatively small portion of the overall budget.

Lastly, some still dream (last paragraph) of a tunnel, and a recent report by the Cascadia Center and Arup suggesting that the $3.5 million estimate for the bored tunnel is inflated may keep their hopes alive. The report surveyed bored tunnels worldwide and found costs ranging from $200 to $700 million per mile.

A tunnel would solve a lot of problems, though in my opinion it’s still hard to justify spending a significant amount more than the surface options to facilitate vehicle miles traveled. But oh man, you just know that the machine in the picture below would cut through all that fill on the waterfront like butter.

The Viaduct Conspiracy

[ Seattle in 1925 ]

As the stakeholder committee gets into it, viaduct buzz is noticeably notching up. Local urban designer David Sucher, who has been relentlessly predicting a retrofit for years, recently reiterated his view here, but what caught my attention was his assertion that the government has been intentionally misleading the public — our local version of the Iraq War, as he put it.

A few months ago over at Crosscut, C.R. Douglas evoked similar suspicions in a blog post about the “myth” of unstable soil under the viaduct columns, questioning why he was only just learning that the viaduct “is on fairly stable footing.” The answer, of course, is that he hadn’t done his research. No such myth ever entered into any legitimate engineering analysis of the viaduct. Still, Sucher chimed in with a comment about the “conspiracy of silence.”

To paraphrase the conspiracy theory, if I may: Safety concerns and the cost of retrofitting were both dishonestly overstated by government officials in order to garner support for the tunnel option, which was then believed to be a big political winner. Now that the tunnel is off the table, these same officials have no choice but to pretend to entertain the possibility of the surface option, since they can’t reneg on their prior safety and cost claims. The surface option supporters play right into it because they’re such ideologues that they refuse to listen to even a word about a retrofit. But in the end, all that’s irrelevant anyway because the conspirators have perfect confidence that no consensus will be reached and the retrofit will become the inevitable fall back option. Capiche?

Meanwhile, Popular Mechanics just put the Alaskan Way Viaduct on its top ten list of “pieces of U.S. infrastructure we must fix now.”

Though it may sound like I’m being totally dismissive, I’m actually not. I’m not so naive as to believe such a thing could never happen. But this Sightline comment thread from two years ago all but puts it to bed for me. One study (Twelker/Gray) supports a relatively cheap retrofit, while multiple studies — including some that were conducted in Universities and have been peer reviewed — are in agreement about the high cost of retrofitting. Also, the first engineering study showing the high cost of a retrofit was done in 1995 “before the tunnel idea was even on the drawing board,” pre-Nickels, pre-Gregoire. I suppose the new administrations might be compelled to carry on the conspiracy to preserve the Party, but how far can you stretch this thing?

But still, I’m keeping on open mind on this. If any of you readers out there can point to concrete evidence on viaducty shenanigans, let’s have it.

Viaduct: Reality Creep?

Assuming any sort of grip on reality, the debate is over: Take it out, don’t replace it. This week brings news suggesting that reality may finally be sinking in: The City, County, and State DOTs have all agreed to evaluate the Surface/Transit Option (though they’re not calling it that).

Meanwhile, a 29 member stakeholder committee has been formed to evaluate solutions based on six guiding principles:

1. Improve public safety. Any solution to the Alaskan Way Viaduct must improve
public safety for current Viaduct users and along the central waterfront.
2. Provide efficient movement of people and goods. Any solution to the Alaskan Way Viaduct must optimize the ability to move people and goods in and through Seattle in an efficient manner, including access to port and rail facilities.
3. Maintain or improve downtown Seattle, regional, the port and state economies. Any solution to the Alaskan Way Viaduct must sustain the city, region, port and state’s economic vitality.
4. Enhance Seattle’s waterfront as a place for people. Any solution to the Alaskan Way Viaduct must augment the Seattle waterfront’s reputation as a world-class destination and welcoming front door to the city.
5. Create solutions that are fiscally responsible. Any solution to the Alaskan Way
Viaduct must make wise and efficient use of taxpayer dollars. The state’s contribution to the project is not to exceed $2.8 billion in 2012 dollars.
6. Foster environmentally sound approaches. Any solution to the Alaskan Way
Viaduct must demonstrate environmental leadership, with a particular emphasis on
supporting local, regional, and state climate change initiatives.

Reality: The only solution that has the potential to adhere to all of these principles is the Surface/Transit Option. But it remains to be seen whether or not the powers-that-be are ready to get real.

Don’t Worry, It’s Probably Nothing

[ Excavation at 505 1st Ave; photo: Scott Durham ]

What fun it must have been excavating the 4-story underground parking garage for the new Starbucks building at 505 1st Ave S, as shown in the photos (thank you Scott at CD News). The spectacular mess they encountered—reportedly extending down as far as 40 to 50 feet—is typical of the fill that is found along the south waterfront, west of 1st Ave. It consists of leftover debris from the historic sawmills, along with the remains of the piles that once supported the piers and overwater railroad tracks that were built when the area was still a tidal flat.

The latest plan for the deep-bore tunnel moves the alignment from 1st Ave to Alaskan Way for the section south of Yesler Way. Which means the tunnel now has to traverse a massive underground heap of that unruly fill for about five city blocks.

Worth worrying about? Dunno. Perhaps deep-bore tunnel machines eat that kind of fill for breakfast. Perhaps the tunnel will be deep enough to go under it, and perhaps chewing a 54-foot diameter hole can be done without disturbing unstable fill above. Any experts out there care to weigh in?

If nothing else this a good example of the unanticipated complexities that inevitably arise when a mega-project starts to get real. For a good reality check on the potential challenges facing the deep-bore tunnel project, see Cary Moon’s recent Crosscut piece.* And this is why megaprojects so often go over budget. And this is why being on the hook for cost overruns matters.

But the bigger question this all circles back to is this: Why are we taking on the huge risk and expense of a piece of mega-infrastructure we don’t need?

[ Excavation at 505 1st Ave; photo: Scott Durham ]


*Annoyingly, though alas, not surprisingly, the Crosscut editors headlined Moon’s piece “Tunnel Worries,” thereby framing it as the emotional ramblings of an amateur rather than what it actually is—that being serious analysis by one the City’s most knowledgable experts on the viaduct replacement issue.

Tunnel Resurfacing

Yonah Freemark recently wrote on The Infrastructurist that Seattle’s proposed deep-bore tunnel is one of “The 4 Highway Projects that Would Be the Biggest Waste of Money.”

Meanwhile Mayor-elect McGinn is still questioning the cost overrun provision,  House Speaker Frank Chopp might want to play, but head of the House Transportation Committee Judy Clibborn definitely doesn’t. 

And the reality that the tunnel portals will have major impacts is also starting to get more attention, at the north portal, but more importantly, at the south portal right next door to Pioneer Square and the stadiums.

The idea that the tunnel is a waste of money is not new, and as the debate is not over, this 2006 study on the “No-replacement Option” is good refresher course.  Lots juicy info, like how conservative modeling done by Parsons Brinckerhoff estimated that 28 percent of trips would disappear as people adapt their routines.  And choice myth busting: 

Myth #1 – Most Alaskan Way Viaduct trips are long distance trips through the city
Myth #2 – AWV is critical for freight movements
Myth #3 – The downtown street grid lacks capacity to move additional traffic
Myth #4 – There is a traffic “demand” that is independent of roadway supply

Responding to concerns over compromised connectivity between north and south Seattle neighborhoods, the authors write:

Here is an alternative view. If people shop and use services closer to where they live, this is a positive contribution towards Seattle’s goals for vibrant neighborhoods and sustainability.

Exactly.  We know that cars are our region’s single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and we know that reducing vehicle miles traveled—as mandated by State law—is a huge challenge.  What’s not as evident to many is that this does not have to be a sacrifice:  reducing car-dependence and localizing communities can actully make life better for people.

UPDATE:  New plans for the south portal have just been posted here.

Don’t Lose Your Head Tax

The story of the so called “head tax” must wind up being about accountability.  How will the Seattle City Council be held accountable for repealing the tax in the face of so many rational reasons to keep it?  First, let’s go back to the beginning.

Over the summer some of us learned that the “head tax” was on the chopping block, mainly because promises had been made to the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Seattle Association. People running for Council had promised to remove the dreaded tax.

Supporters of the tax rallied. Calls were made, research done and opinion pieces submitted to the Seattle Times.  The Times wouldn’t publish the piece because they supported repeal.  Visits were had with members of the City Council and the case was presented. Here it is:

Our request to you is pretty straightforward. Please do not vote to repeal the so called “Head Tax” this year.

This repeal won’t help business and will create more budget challenges at a time when revenues are down and financial challenges for the city are increasing. Consider the following:

  • Is now the time to give away more than $4.5 million in revenue? That is more than $20 million dollars over the next 5 years. The budget short fall this year exceeds $70 million dollars. If you repeal this tax you simply add more to that gap.
  • The tax won’t create any relief for businesses in Seattle. Businesses paid, on average, $92 per year for this tax, and remember businesses earning less than $80,000 in revenue pay nothing toward this tax.
  • People voted in favor of the Bridging the Gap (BTG) ballot measure based on the inclusion of the revenues from this tax. Repealing the tax now is not keeping faith with the voters who supported the BTG package which included revenue from this tax.
  • This tax can create real, living wage jobs for construction workers and local contractors. The funds from this tax add to pedestrian and bike infrastructure projects. At a time when our state’s unemployment rate has increased to 9.2 percent why would we forgo the opportunity to support more work for these local people.
  • The tax incentivizes alternative transportation. Some say that this does nothing to discourage driving because the tax is so small. That isn’t a reason to repeal the tax but a reason to increase it. Please don’t allow the false logic of it being too small of a tax to encourage repeal.  If the paperwork is a challenge, focus on fixing that problem first.

One of the key features of this tax that makes it even more important to hold on to is that it is bondable, meaning every dollar that we collect brings with it more potential dollars in the form of low interest, or no interest loans in the form of bonds. If you repeal this you also repeal that leverage

Two other important facts to note; the same Council that repealed the “head tax” and rushed a tunnel agreement forward for a vote (9-0) took more than a year to pass legislation allowing 800 square foot backyard cottages. In a multiple year pilot in the southeast section of the city, less than two dozen cottages were built. Yet it took the City Council over a year to do what Portland did years ago and Vancouver BC did much faster. Sustainable cities allow cottages because they create more options and choices. The City Council chose to make simple decisions overly complicated and complicated ones overly simple.

Reason was just a speed bump on the drive to satisfy a very narrow set of business interests—the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Seattle Association—on the “head tax.” Again, this was the repeal of a tax that did everything right—funded pedestrian and bike infrastructure at the expense of people who drive to work—for very little cost to business ($92 a year for the average business). And there was no outcry from actual, real businesses about the tax.

Personally, I would have been irritated by the repeal but accepting if it actually created jobs and helped small and medium sized businesses. I would have shrugged if the tax was replaced with another source of revenue, in this budget, that was dedicated to pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.  And if that revenue was derived from auto intensive uses like parking taxes and tickets, for example, I probably wouldn’t be outraged. And finally, had the Council deliberated more on the billion dollar tunnel vote and a lot less on backyard cottages I almost certainly wouldn’t be writing this bill of particulars. But that isn’t how it happened.

So maybe someone in our city will organize around this issue and little by little and in quiet ways get ready for the 2011 council elections, when there are five seats up for election.  It is early yet for 2011. But it isn’t too early to find candidates willing to run for open or occupied seats. Bold? Maybe it is. Ill advised? I don’t think so.

Is there any other way to create a happy ending to the story of the ill fated “head tax?” Can the shape of Council change by 2011? Or will the story end with good stewardship of public resources and sustainability abandoned by politicians in favor of pleasing a couple of business organizations. Will the Council create a dedicated fund for bike and pedestrian infrastructure in this budget?

Only time, and the voters eventually, will tell whether this was an easy win for business soon forgotten by the losers, or if it will be but one battle in a longer struggle to make Seattle a city that has leadership willing to pay for sustainability not just talk about it.

The Tunnel: 8 track technology for an I-Pod world

I have been trying to think of an analogy, a parable maybe, to explain the absurdity of a waterfront tunnel to replace the viaduct. I think I have one. This should also clarify the term “backward looking,” I used to describe tunnel advocates. That term is not intended to be an insult or some kind of transportation bigotry. Instead, it’s a kind of explanation of the confusion that could lead otherwise intelligent people to think of the tunnel as a replacement for the viaduct. So here it goes, the parable of the 8-track.

Imagine that for the last 35 years the main way you appreciated your music was using an 8- track player and 8-track tapes. When you bought it back in the 70s it was state of the art. You bought all your music, Donny Osmond, Earth Wind and Fire, Captain and Tineal and Golden Earring on 8-track tapes.

Things were just rocking along until your player started to break down. At first it was small things. A dial fell off, the vinyl siding cracked a bit, nothing serious. But soon it was mechanical problems. Tapes started playing slower. Donna Summers sounded like she wasn’t inhaling helium when she sang “Last Dance.” So you fixed it. And then you fixed it again, and again and then again.

So last night while you were groovin’ to the sounds of Steppenwolf, the player makes a weird sound. And right in the middle of Boddhisatva everything stops, smoke starts pouring out and your roommate, Jack Tripper, pours his Pina Colada on the flames. But its too late, the fire also consumes most of your 8-track tapes too.

Now it’s ruined. It will never play again. You have a choice. You can pay thousands of dollars, maybe tens of thousands to have someone build you a custom 8-track player and custom 8- track tapes. You don’t know where to start but you put out an RFP. The responses are really high and none of the contractors can guarantee that it won’t cost even more—and there may be legal problems because of copyright issues.

Your other choice is to buy an I-Pod and replace your music on I-Tunes for $1,000 maybe $1,500.

The same is true of the viaduct replacement. Freeways and cars are to transportation today what the 8-track tape players and 8-track tapes are to music listening devices of the 21st century. They work, but most of us agree its time to make a shift to new ideas and technology. Why would we rebuild or conform our thinking around a technology that is running, has run or certainly will run its course. Do we want to rely on Mideast and Alaskan oil supplies? An think about climate change and pollution.

And the thing is that we can still listen to our music, that is we can still get around town, travel to see friends and do everything else we want to do but we can just do it on foot, buses, zip cars or via the internet. The idea that we would spend billions of dollars to recapitulate an old way of doing things is backward looking, it assumes a one for one replacement of an old thing with something that is passé, outmoded and finished.

So let’s get the I-Pod and replace that old Deep Purple 8-track with some MP3s. You can keep the Matador. It’s still pretty cool.

This Blog Will Now Go Slit Its Wrists

Because Mike McGinn said that if elected Mayor he would honor prior agreements made by the City’s elected representatives.  The sun has set on hugeasscity.


UPDATE:  Please note that I grew up in the Boston area where sarcasm is well-used.

UPDATE 2:  I better spell it out:  Sarcasm is when you say the opposite of what you mean, as in, “slitting your wrists” would mean you actually couldn’t care less.  In other words, McGinn’s statement on the Council’s approval of the tunnel agreement has not changed anything regarding my unequivocal support for his candidacy.  Because it has always been about more than one issue.

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.)


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

Tunnel Memorandum of Agreement Petition

Not that I expect to reach many deep-bore tunnel fans in the hugeasscity echo chamber, but for any of you out there who are still unsure, I hope you will consider the many reasons why the Seattle City Council should not rush to approve an agreement this week.   The many remaining uncertainties and unanswered questions are listed in the petition reproduced below, which is now set up on-line to accept signatures at this link. If you agree, please sign the online form ASAP and spread the word, as this petition needs to be delivered tomorrow (Monday).


October 19, 2009

Dear Mayor Nickels and Members of the Seattle City Council,

We are writing today to express our concern over the undue economic, environmental and social risks that Seattle residents will be taking on if the City Council moves forward with its Memorandum of Agreement to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a deep bore tunnel. While our specific motivations are varied, we are united in our belief that in the current economic climate, it is premature to irrevocably obligate the City of Seattle to the fiduciary and environmental risks associated with this project without holistic review of possible detrimental impacts.

Below is an unbiased list of the critical issues and uncertainties. We believe that the voters and taxpayers of Seattle deserve answers to these questions before our elected leaders further commit significant public resources to the deep-bore tunnel project through the proposed agreement.

COST OVERRUNS. Who will pay for cost overruns and how? Currently the State has mandated that Seattle voters will be responsible for all cost overruns. While many have asserted that this is illegal, there will need to be some equitable distribution of the risk of overruns between the City, County and State. A recent study by the Sightline Institute showed that recent tunnel projects have gone over budget by 30 – 56%.

THE IMPACTS OF I-1033. If I-1033 passes, severely limiting both the City, County and State’s abilities to raise revenues, how will the project be funded without drastic cuts to other government programs?

SAFETY. The deep-bore tunnel plan leaves the current viaduct in place for the longest amount of time. The safety of the viaduct continues to be a pressing matter and leaving it standing until 2016 increases the risk of catastrophic and life-threatening failure.

CLIMATE CHANGE. The transportation sector generates half of the State’s greenhouse gas emissions. Studies have repeatedly shown that new urban highways induce vehicular travel resulting in increased greenhouse gas emissions. How will the tunnel project help us achieve our broader goals as outlined in the Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement?

OTHER ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS. What are the range and consequences of potential environmental impacts? How will salmon and other marine life be affected? What is the likely cost of cleanup from historic industrial practices? How does building a tunnel support or detract from Seattle’s goals for a healthier, more sustainable and environmentally responsible future? We fear that these questions are not being adequately addressed due to the lack of alternative evaluations in the State’s EIS process.

PIONEER SQUARE IMPACTS. What will the impacts be upon our cultural resources in Pioneer Square? Since the tunnel does not have any downtown exits and there are no plans for the First Avenue streetcar, the project will direct a large number of cars through Pioneer Square, and the tunnelling equipment may cause instability under these cherished buildings.

GEOLOGY. The geology of the waterfront area is some of the most complex in Washington State.The tunnel routing goes through liquefaction zones andcuts across earthquake faults. What kind of risk does this incur? Will the tunnel be safe in an earthquake?

AN ELEVATED OVERPASS. Will the state rebuild a portion of an elevated structure West of Pioneer Square? If built, what impact will that have upon Pioneer Square’s connection to the waterfront?

CUTS TO HUMAN SERVICES AND OTHER PROGRAMS. What cuts will be taken out of other programs to free up the $17 million dollars in general fund resources that were identified to replace downtown parking revenue? Will these cuts be made in social services, arts, police, or parks?

SIDEWALK FUNDING. How will the City fund sidewalks when many of the proposed if funding sources for sidewalks are used to fund the tunnel project, including increased parking taxes, increased utility fees, and a vehicle licensing fee?

TOLLING COSTS. What will the tolling cost for the tunnel? Some WSDOT estimates place the annual toll cost at close to $3000 for a commuter who uses the tunnel daily.

IMPACTS ON HOUSING AFFORDABILITY. What will the impacts be to housing affordability be from new taxes, utility rates and other fees are levied upon development?

HIGHER UTILITY RATES. A report in Saturday’s Seattle Times documented the high costs of basic services that Seattle residents already pay. How will the new utility rates impact those at the margins and on fixed incomes? How will it affect Seattle’s capacity to be a jobs-generator?

As concerned citizens and in many cases experts on issues related to the proposed deep-bore tunnel project, we are urging you to wait before signing any agreement with the State. While we appreciate the desire to move forward with a solution to the replacement to the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the City Council attend to the questions above before taking any next steps.

In short, we believe that there simply is not enough information at this time to commit Seattle to this momentous decision without further clarity on the issues described above. We hope that you do not bear this burden lightly, and are united in our belief that consideration to this letter will save the City residents from unwarranted expenses, service reductions and assure a waterfront replacement project worthy of Seattle’s world standing in the 21st century.


One Issue

[ The deep-bore tunnel would provide no access to the downtown core from SR-99. ]

The deep-bore tunnel is the loose cannon of Seattle’s upcoming mayoral election.  In the primary, the tunnel energized Mike McGinn’s supporters while it drove many greens away from the Nickels camp, and was arguably the single most important issue that led to Mayor Nickels’ defeat.

Now in the general election, the burning question on every Seattle politico’s lips is, will the loose cannon tunnel end up pointed back at McGinn, and hand victory to Mallahan?

Recent polling results that show Mallahan doing well in neighborhoods  like Fremont have been interpreted by some as evidence that the tunnel issue has caused many who would normally be expected to back McGinn to opt for Mallahan instead.   My interwebs have been flush with anecdotal stories along these lines.  Though at this point nobody really knows how big a factor it may turn out to be.  And Publicola’s polling also revealed that a whopping one third are still undecided.

As a McGinn supporter and one who also believes that the deep-bore tunnel is a spectacularly bad idea, my response to those who would  seem to be compromising their values in a broad sense by letting the tunnel be the single deciding factor, is this:  There is a lot more at stake here than the tunnel.  We are deciding between two futures for Seattle, and the tunnel is just one of the many potential manifestations of that choice.*

Many have accused McGinn of being a one-issue candidate, even though his past experience and his prolific production of ideas on wide range of issues during the campaign both testify otherwise.  But in any case, if one is in the habit of deriding one-issue candidates, then one ought not be a one-issue voter.

And the truth is, it is Mallahan who is turning out to be the real one-issue candidate of the race: We still don’t know much about why Joe Mallahan wants to be Mayor, but at least we know he’ll get that tunnel built, whatever it takes.


*Postscript:  Of course, the tunnel happens to be a quintessential example of the kind of challenging choices our future will increasingly demand.  Mallahan’s future is one in which we respond to such a choice by doing what we’ve always done—building more roads, in this example—and denying the reality that the most prosperous cities of the future will be the ones that aggressively apply their energy and resources towards making the transformation away from car-dependence.

Cost Overruns For Seattle-area Tunnel Projects

(Editor’s note:  The following post was copped from Sightline with permission from the author, Eric de Place, who, as is generally the rule with the whole Sightline crew, has a brain that is far too big for his own good.)


Will the deep-bore tunnel — the current choice by the city and state to replace Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct — go over budget?

One way to answer that question is to look at what’s happened with other tunneling projects in the Seattle area. In a new report — Cost Overruns For Seattle-area Tunnel Projects — Sightline examines the cost history of four recent tunneling projects: the Mt Baker I-90 expansion tunnel; the downtown Seattle bus tunnel; Sound Transit’s Beacon Hill tunnel; and the Brightwater sewage tunnels.


Opinions about the likelihood of a cost overrun for the deep-bore tunnel tend to fall in a pattern. Those in favor of the deep-bore project downplay the chance of going over-budget, and point to a 22 percent cushion in current budget that is set aside for unforeseen problems. Those opposed to the tunnel tend to less sanguine, pointing to international research suggesting that major infrastructure projects rarely stay within budget, even when they include such line items. 

There’s a lot riding on the current cost estimates. If the project goes over budget, Seattle taxpayers foot the bill — a curious result, considering that Seattle voters rejected a tunnel replacement option by a 39 point margin. A cost overrun as small as $100 million (just 2.4 percent of a $4.2 billion project) works out to about $167 per Seattle resident — or almost $700 for a family of four. For a city struggling to avoid deep cuts to basic services, even a relatively small cost overrun could be challenging.

Of course, it is impossible to know in advance whether any project will stay on budget. And that’s especially true for a project as complex, daunting, and unknown as this one. It would be among the widest-diameter bored tunnels ever built, through a seismic fault, directly underneath some of the densest and most valuable urban real estate on the West Coast. Besides, when engineers first made the $4.2 billion cost estimate for the entire Alaska Way Viaduct replacement project — with $1.9 billion price tag for the deep-bore tunnel — they had finished only 1 percent of the design. So the current cost estimate is little more than a placeholder.

It goes without saying that no two tunnels are alike. The deep-bore tunnel will be unlike any other tunnel that has been constructed locally. Nonetheless, we can learn something by examining recent local projects, each of which grappled with specific geographic and historical issues. It is only reasonable to believe that the deep-bore tunnel will face its own unique problems. But, speaking personally, the fact that the deep-bore tunnel is something new and different makes me more pessimistic than optimistic.

Importantly, the cost estimates I’ve included here are very conservative — that is, they tend to paint the projects in a favorable light — because they use initial cost estimates that were relatively well thought-out, usually when the contracts were ready to be sent out for bidding. In some cases, the earlier and less-planned-out cost estimates were much lower; using those rougher estimates could have resulted in a much worse accounting for the cost overruns.

Will the deep-bore tunnel prove to be as inexpensive as the Mount Baker tunnel? Or will it look more like the downtown Seattle bus tunnel? Only time will tell. In the meantime, Sightline’s report, “Cost Overruns For Seattle-area Tunnel Projects,” can help inform public understanding about the actual costs of similar projects nearby.

On The Wretchedness Of A World In Which Susan Hutchison Can Pose A Serious Challenge To Dow Constantine In The Race For King County Executive

That would be the same King County wherein resides a populace that is among the most highly educated, forward-thinking, and environmentally aware in the entire country.   Allegedly.

King County:  birthplace of Microsoft and Amazon; one of the nation’s first municipalities to regulate the greenhouse gas emissions associated with development; former stomping grounds of Ron Sims; operator of one the largest and most well-used transit systems in the U.S.

But given the what the polls are saying, apparently even the allegedly progressive populace of King County is rife with voters who (1) are willing to decide based on completely superficial name/hair recognition, or (2) are so alienated from their own culture (i.e. the government) that they’ll get on board with any warm body that is perceived to be anti-establishment.

It’s simple, argue the category (2) types:   King County is having budget problems so death to the incumbents.  Never mind that a major cause of the County’s budget shortfall is the inability of these very same people to accept that government provides important services that cost money, money that comes from taxes—a subconscious version of starving the beast.

Parallel in many ways to the races for Seattle Mayor and City Council Position 8, the King County Executive race presents such a glaringly distinct choice—between boldly moving forward and fearfully treading water, between substance and image, between being in-, and being out-of-touch with the mainstream values of the region—that contemplating the fact that Hutchison could actually win is, for me, nearly as staggeringly depressing as was the re-election of W.

That’s right people, a veteran local TV news anchor-model.  You might think that Hutchison’s highly lucrative, two decades long career delivering the toxic psychological sludge of fear and vacuousness that is the local TV news would be enough to make her a non-viable political candidate; that being an integral part of a medium that is a leading cause of civic disengagement would alone be grounds for disqualification in the eyes of the electorate.   But you would be wrong.

Hutchison has famously said that light rail to the airport wasn’t such a great idea because you can get there faster in a cab.  In contrast, Constantine is a tireless transit advocate with a Masters Degree in Urban Planning who understands the importance of creating compact communities and reducing car-dependence, and overall, recognizes the key role cities must play in creating a sustainable future.

Here’s how critical I believe it is that Dow Constantine becomes the next King County Executive: I support him even though he is backing the deep-bore tunnel (gasp!).  At a recent event Constantine cited concerns that reopening the debate could lead to far worse options resurfacing.  Fair enough, though conveniently skirted is the core question of whether or not the tunnel is the right thing to do in the long-term, big picture.

So then, if you’ve got an urge to help quell the wretchedness by supporting Dow Constantine, the campaign needs your money more than anything, but you might also consider spending an upcoming evening hanging out with the Transit & Land Use Advocates Calling for Dow:

We know that we can count on Dow. Can we count on you?  Please join us for a night to contact undecided voters throughout the County on behalf of Dow Constantine. As always, pizza and beverages will be on hand. Please email to let us know if you’re able to make it so that we have enough food and phone lines available.

Tuesday, October 20th, 5:30pm-8:30pm
SIEU’s office, 1914 34th St N, Seattle (Wallingford)

Can’t make the 20th? No problem, contact Dow’s campaign directly to find another time to volunteer:

Bringing Better Transit To The West Side

[ The West Seattle Bridge ]

(Editor’s note:  In the comments on Cary Moon’s tunnel post there was much discussion about options for transit service and McGinn’s proposal for light rail to West Seattle, and Joel Horn, former executive director of the Seattle Monorail Project, was asked to weigh in these questions:  So what options ARE technically viable for better mass transit to the west side? And what would have to change politically for transit that requires taking a car lane to succeed—like a true BRT system or light-rail?)

First off, I want to start by acknowledging that many good folks have worked on this for quite a few years.  And this isn’t the venue for a voluminous thesis, but there are a few points that I will make to continue the discussion:

1)  The quickest and least expensive way to add high capacity transit to West Seattle is to use the West Seattle Bridge (WSB). The Seattle Monorail Project (SMP) worked with a number of the world’s best engineers and construction companies, and with the City engineers, to determine the load carrying capacity of the WSB. SMP also worked with SDOT and had many public workshops about how to add high capacity transit and not remove any traffic lanes. The best way to achieve that is to use the airspace above the bridge. This airspace is a public resource that has significant capacity for grade-separated transit. There was a limitation as to how much weight can be added to the WSB. I do not know if it could handle the weight of an elevated light rail solution similar to the elevated system that Sound Transit is using to go to the airport.

2)  When SMP was coordinating its construction schedule with other major projects downtown we were instructed that Sound Transit would get first priority to complete light rail in the 3rd Avenue bus tunnel. Then the Green Line would be built on 2nd Avenue and then the viaduct would be taken down. SMP ran their ridership model to determine the potential impact on the Green Line during the period that the viaduct was not available. The model showed that SMP would need to add 4 additional trains to the Green Line to accommodate the additional ridership (running every 6 minutes to West Seattle). One of the relevant pieces of information from this ridership analysis was how many people would give up their cars and switch to the Monorail. The question was what would happen when the car capacity was replaced. At the time ridership experts advised the SMP that much of the ridership would permanently switch to mass transit, thereby reducing the need for capacity replacement with the viaduct project.

3)  One additional piece of information that came out of the ridership studies was that there is excess capacity on the downtown streets today. This is easy to observe if you go downtown on a “normal” day i.e. no construction and no Mariners game. The street system works well and can absorb additional demand for travel. In fact, even though the Monorail Green Line would have taken out a lane on 2nd Avenue there was still adequate capacity to handle the existing load. Ridership studies involve many variables and can be manipulated to make an argument for one alternative or another, but it was clear during the SMP analysis that taking a lane out of 2nd Avenue would not have an adverse impact on Downtown traffic if the lane was used for a transit solution that would actually be competitive enough (time savings by using grade separated transit and money saved by not needing to pay for parking) to get people to give up their car.

There are many additional topics to add to the mix, and these are only starting points to consider when thinking about how to best serve West Seattle with transit.

Tunnel Law Suit Filed Today

As has just been reported at Publicola, Elizabeth Campbell and The Citizens Against the Tunnel filed a lawsuit today to stop the deep-bore tunnel. Check out the gory details here (3 MB pdf).  Campbell’s group supports a new elevated solution to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, but that is irrelevant to the case being made against the tunnel.  Interestinger and interestinger.

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.

Saving Grace

[ The horrors of Snowpocalypse 2008 ]

One of the smartest decisions the next mayor of Seattle could make would be to retain Grace Crunican as the director of the Seattle Department of Transportation.  But sadly no, both Mallahan and McGinn have said said they would not.  Given Crunican’s record, it’s hard not to interpret that positition as pandering.

Since being appointed by Mayor Nickels in 2002, Crunican has completely transformed the heart and soul of SDOT.  What had been an inflexible, close-minded, car-centric, typical American big city transportation department, has been reborn as an agency that embraces the concept of “complete streets;” that produced the bicycle and pedestrian master plans; that delivered Seattle’s first modern age street car; that has been dedicating significant resources to slowly but surely chipping away at the task of improving infrastructure for non-motorized transportation.

Crunican has been consistently pushing for a two-way boulevard to fix the “Mercer Mess,” a proposal that sends the “all developers are evil” crowd into convulsions.  But when you have urban designers, transportation engineers, and bike/ped advocates all agreeing, you can be pretty sure you’re on to something good.  All indications are that Crunican would also promote a balanced solution for the waterfront after the viaduct comes down.

Crunican is arguably one of the most progressive city transportation directors in the entire country.  So why all the zealous calls for her head?  Because of “Snowpocalypse 2008?”  The infantile reaction that some Seattleites had to the snowstorm is an embarrassment to humanity.  Or simply because she’s a convenient scapegoat to appease car-headed whiners?  Because she’s tainted by Nickels?  Somebody help me out here.

For two outsider candidates lacking experience in City Hall, saving Grace would demonstrate a recognition that in some cases stabilty and continuity are as important as renewal.