In Groundhog Day fashion, the deep-bore tunnel option to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct on Seattle’s waterfront keeps showing up. But let's be real: The deep-bore tunnel will take longer, cost more and do less than proponents admit. The engineering, funding, and political hurdles it faces are immense. Chances are that Mayor Greg Nickels, County Executive Ron Sims and Governor Chris Gregoire will all have departed the scene before the first dirt is shoveled.
By default or by design, the Viaduct will come down, and we desperately need interim traffic solutions to be in place before it does. The traffic workarounds should have been done by the City years ago. Plans exist. They should be undertaken now with removal of the Viaduct to follow.
Linking Viaduct removal to the opening of the deep-bored tunnel idea only delays the inevitable and increases the danger. Better to bring the structure down in controlled fashion than to let it pancake onto the politicians and innocents beneath it. Once that’s done perhaps a more honest assessment of the technical challenges will be complete, the true costs known and ample funding (perhaps) secured. But don’t bet on it. Despite Nickels, Sims and Gregoire’s showy proclamation of unity (faintly tinged with the unmistakable scent of political desperation) the deep-bore tunnel is nowhere near a sure thing.
Here’s why. Project costs were "estimated" before adequate engineering has been done; that in itself is a multi-year process as Mayor Nickels admitted on a recent call-in program. The promised funding package is an ungainly hodgepodge that leans heavily on state budgets now made shaky by the $6-8 billion deficit engulfing Olympia. The hope of money raining down from federal stimulus packages is hazy at best and probably too little to get the job done in any case.
But won't it be funded by (wildly unpopular) vehicle taxes or tolls spun as "user fees"? Not likely as the public comes to understand that the tunnel would reduce traffic capacity while simultaneously eliminating road connections to downtown. Meanwhile, in Olympia the keeper of the Legislature's purse strings, House Speaker Frank Chopp, waits in the wings dreamily sketching plans for his own whimsical Skyway to the Future — With Houses Underneath!
My father Tyman Fikse was an expert who invented many tunneling technologies and spent his career designing massive tunnel boring machines (TBMs) for projects around the world. If there is one thing hanging out with "sandhogs" as a kid and riding muck trains miles in the dark deep below ground taught me, it is this: The earth will surprise you.
Consider: The ground between preliminary core samples can change most unexpectedly. Geologic pressures are enormous. Tunnel liners shift and spring leaks. Gases escape — or worse. The best hard-rock boring machine will become gunked-up to a standstill if it is surprised by a section of sand or clay. Stuff happens.
Deep tunnels are marvels of engineering that are also among the most difficult projects to plan in advance. To pretend otherwise is delusion. Remove the blinders and the real-world cost of the deep-bore tunnel will easily be double the current guess of $2.8 billion. Factor in the State Department of Transportation’s history of managing large projects (recall the record-setting final bill for the I-90 lid), and one gets a sense of the enormity of the challenge.
Given all this, I believe a better path forward would be to break the Viaduct solution into distinct chunks that can be accomplished in stages, starting right now. First, the City must get going on a Viaduct-free future by implementing the most ambitious interim traffic workaround plans it already has on the books. Second, the Viaduct needs to come down as soon as traffic workarounds are in place.
Simultaneously, we can let the tunnel process play itself out as far as it will go, fast or slow. Then, if the deep tunnel plan falls apart, we will need the best possible Plan B ready to go. Either of the two options the Viaduct Stakeholders Group was preparing to recommend (a pure surface plus transit verion or a new, lower viaduct) could fit the bill.
Worst would be, when the deep tunnel fails to materialize, that we would leave a further degraded Viaduct intact. That wouldl be viewed as an unconscionable failure of leadership by the politicians who forced the deep tunnel to the top of the agenda.
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