As Mayor-elect Mike McGinn prepares to move into City Hall, it's a good time to check in on the region’s most contentious mega-project. Whatever you thought of last January's decision to pursue a bored tunnel through downtown to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, you should be paying attention again now. Some rather serious problems are emerging for Seattle, and decision points are looming.
Planning for the tunnel project has been underway for about a year. While much of the data about its engineering, risks, and impacts are still under wraps, there has been no shortage of public discussion on the politics. Most recently, the talk has focused on how McGinn will engage Olympia and the City Council once he’s in charge (which begins next week). Whether or not his election was a referendum against the tunnel, McGinn is quick to point out that the Seattle public continues to voice strong opposition to this project. For now, all he’s saying is that it’s his job as mayor to ask the hard questions.
My involvement in this project primarily is via my role as director of the People’s Waterfront Coalition. Our organization, along with many allies and partner organizations, has advocated for a highway-free waterfront and a transportation solution that fits where Seattle is headed. I served on the project's 2008 stakeholder committee, and I also was one of McGinn's informal outreach "ambassadors" during his recent transiiton.
As we move into the next phase of consideration and negotiations on the viaduct replacement, here are the trouble spots I see on the horizon.
Risks to Pioneer Square and the waterfront. Assuming the project goes forward, the south portal tunnel mouth is shaping up to be, in a word, dreadful. Just south of King Street, State Route 99 would transition from elevated to surface to tunnel, creating a spaghetti bowl of highway lanes, on- and off-ramps, and a frontage road. The freight underpass long planned for Atlantic Street is no longer envisioned being underground; new plans shown at recent public meetings depict it as a block-long elevated structure. When you see drawings of the highway-scaled infrastructure and hear the expected traffic volumes going to and from the tunnel portal via city streets (perhaps 59,000 cars a day, according to WSDOT’s Ron Paananen), it’s hard to see how the pedestrian party around Pioneer Square and the stadium area on game day wouldn't be crushed.
About a month ago, WSDOT determined the engineering and structural risks from boring under Pioneer Square and First Avenue were hopeless, or at least too expensive to mitigate. The risks to historic buildings and utilities from vibrations and ground settlement were serious enough that WSDOT went back to the drawing board with a new (old) proposed tunnel alignment: the waterfront. From about King Street to Yesler Way, the tunnel would follow the waterfront and then veer inland under downtown.
While the proposed change alleviates risks to the historic structures on First Avenue, there are likely significant problems for Seattle on the waterfront too, but engineers haven’t fully assessed them. The soils near the water are as bad as the Square's, if not worse. This routing could further concentrate the portal-bound traffic on the waterfront street and create conflicts with ferry loading and offloading. A different set of Pioneer Square buildings may be put at risk due to vibration and ground settlement. Tunneling at the water's edge likely jeopardizes the opportunity for a softer-edge shoreline and big waterfront park at the current site of Pier 48 and the Washington Street Boat Landing.
For now, the new tunnel alignment is not much more than a line on a map. Many questions remain to be answered about its viability, including Homeland Security and the Federal Highway Administration’s opinions on tunneling directly under the Federal Building.
The tunnel itself doesn’t help — and may worsen — access to downtown. The viaduct is primarily used for in-city trips; 85 percent of SR-99 trips start and end within city limits, and about half of viaduct users are accessing downtown. Because there would be no ramps to or from the tunnel, it isn’t useful for anyone coming downtown to work or shop or play; users of the Elliott, Western, Seneca or Columbia ramps would need to find a new route.
In the January deal among the city, state and King County, Seattle street projects ($425 million) and additional Metro transit service ($190 million) were explained as necessary to replace the local function of the viaduct. The city is still figuring out how to pay for its street improvements. However, funding for the new transit service is not happening because the state didn't grant any taxing authority for King County. On top of that, Metro is currently more than $200 million in the hole. Unless the state authorizes some new funding sources, Metro is cutting service, not adding it.
Tolling could push even more traffic to city streets. One part of the funding scheme for the tunnel is a toll on drivers for use of the tunnel. But tolls on the bored tunnel likely would divert a troubling amount of traffic onto city streets. A tolling study (PDF), prepared for WSDOT in December 2008 but still unreleased, predicts that tolling the tunnel would compel 35 percent to 40 percent of SR-99 drivers to avoid the toll, switching either destinations or modes, or driving through city streets instead.
Since drivers are not being offered other options like transit, and other streets are free, this could divert about 30,000 extra cars per day onto downtown streets. Add that to the 59,000 cars already going to and from the south portal, and Seattle could be dealing with a traffic mess. The high diversion rate raises a larger question: If the project already doesn’t serve a significant number of downtown users, and WSDOT expects 35 percent to 40 percent of the target audience to avoid the tunnel in favor of other routes, why again is it worth building?
Are Seattle citizens on the hook for cost overruns, or not? Legislators continue to squabble over the validity of the language in their 2009 funding allocation that fingers “Seattle area property owners who benefit” to pay WSDOT’s possible cost overruns. Some legislators wink and say the provision is unenforceable; others like Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, insist it is real and maintain they will deny funding without that safeguard on state money. In a statement to the City Council, McGinn said he believes "that it would be irresponsible to get to the point of no return on the tunnel without resolving who will pay for cost overruns.” A showdown seems imminent.
Ninety percent of mega-projects run into serious trouble; how can this one be immune? As two Brightwater tunnel boring machines sit broken and idle underground, citizens are rightly skeptical of the sanguine promises of tunnel boosters. This tunnel would be one of the largest-diameter bored tunnels ever attempted, and in some very complex soil and geotechnical conditions, under some of the Northwest’s most valuable real estate.
Cost escalations are typical for projects of this size and ambition, despite everyone’s best intentions. Expensive isn’t necessarily bad — if the benefits are worth it.
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