Tunnel worries

The latest alignment of the proposed Seattle deep-bore tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct follows the waterfront. Credit: WSDOT

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.

The State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) requires that cost estimates, risk analysis, and assessment of negative environmental and community impacts must be evaluated and shared with the public before a decision is made. Data, not politics, should inform such a big decision. But an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) hasn’t been completed for this project yet. Gov. Chris Gregoire picked this solution before the EIS was started, when about 1 percent of the design work was done.

The first chance elected leaders and the public will get to see any sort of technical analysis of the costs and risks of the tunnel is in late spring. One of the problems with the EIS we’re about to see, however, is that it only considers one alternative — the bored tunnel. There is nothing to compare it against except a do-nothing alternative, which is not a responsible transportation solution.

Tunnel opponents have pointed out that the January 2009 announcement of a decision and subsequent full-court press to get the bored tunnel underway is not exactly in line with our state laws. A lawsuit has been filed against WSDOT, led by the widely respected attorney David Bricklin, for pursuing the tunnel exclusively in advance of completing an EIS. “The Washington State Department of Transportation is making a mockery of the SEPA process for the SR-99 Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall Replacement Project,” the complaint says.

“It’s a done deal” — the oft-repeated claim by Gregoire and her political adviser-turned tunnel outreach director, Ron Judd — is far from true, political will aside. Many hurdles must be cleared before anyone starts tunneling under downtown Seattle.

Here are some of the biggies:

January: WSDOT’s report about costs, tolling, traffic diversion, and revenue generation is due to the State Legislature. We’re bound to see some surprises here — more detail on the alignment change, a rumored switch to a smaller-diameter bore, details on the tolling diversion to Seattle streets, financing costs.

Late Spring: The tunnel’s draft EIS will be released (it’s been delayed from a March target date). Expect to see the full range of possible costs, encompassing the 10 percent to 90 percent confidence intervals, instead of a single number on the optimistic side. Expect to learn more about risks to Seattle traffic and neighborhoods. The final request for proposals will be issued to potential “design-build” bidders this spring too, so we’ll understand better what WSDOT expects can be built within the fixed budget.

September: Bids from builders will be due, so we’ll see what price builders are willing to guarantee. If costs for the tunnel go up, the project could fall apart. Or, as WSDOT’s Paananen explained, WSDOT could reduce the project scope on the other elements. The tunnel is in one contract, and everything else is in about eight others: designing and building the portals, reconnecting the street grid between South Lake Union and Queen Anne, funding the waterfront street replacement, and so on.

January 2011: The final EIS will be released, which may spark more lawsuits from parties concerned about the lack of alternatives being considered or about shortcomings in the analysis.

March 2011: This is the earliest possible official Record of Decision and approval to start the project, assuming all the previous milestones are achieved or resolved.

In more normal transportation planning reality, if politicians were not exhausted from eight years of this, local oversight might be unfolding quite differently. A good outcome for Seattle — whether the tunnel moves forward or fails — will require the city’s elected and civic leaders to stand up for Seattle’s interests.

Some suggestions:

Honest accounting. Get a determination from the state attorney general on the legality of the state legislation making Seattle citizens liable for overruns. Who is really on the hook? If unsuspecting citizens are, McGinn and the City Council should take action to protect us.

Share news, good and bad, with the public. Those who care about Seattle should not be in the dark about what’s happening, forced to rely on public disclosure requests and lawsuits to learn troubling news. The city should define a set of “must haves” that protect Seattle’s interests, establish an expert oversight committee, and start holding public forums to watchdog this project.

Hire the smartest lawyers for our side. Red Alert: All the things important to Seattle are in separate contracts from the tunnel itself, and could be last in line for spending. A local team of legal experts should review the request for proposals and the design-build contracts to ensure that sufficient funding for Seattle’s must-haves is protected.

Get the state to deliver what it promised the locals. Gregoire and elected officials in Seattle and King County should persuade the Legislature to grant authorization for King County to raise $190 million (or more) for new local transit service, as promised by Gregoire, Mayor Greg Nickels, and then-County Executive Ron Sims in the January 2009 deal. Additional transit service is essential for Seattle access and mobility, and elected leaders are accountable.

Take special care of Pioneer Square and the waterfront. The city should organize a professional review of the south portal. What exactly would it mean to add perhaps 59,000 cars trying to get to and from the tunnel entrance, and perhaps another 30,000 cars trying to sneak around a toll? Seattle needs technical expertise to ensure the historic district, streets, and future waterfront opportunity are protected. Before permits are granted.

Measure greenhouse gas emissions. The Seattle Office of Sustainability and Environment should do a thorough comparative assessment of greenhouse gas emissions for various possible solutions. Every effort should be made to explore how this infrastructure investment could help achieve a shift away from reliance on cars. Emissions should be predicted for both the construction project itself and its long-term effect on expected car usage for alternative approaches.

Make sure there is a viable Plan B. Seattle elected leaders should add at least one other alternative to the EIS in case the tunnel proposal doesn’t survive the fiscal, legal, political, and technical challenges ahead.

The City Council stated in 2007 that should the waterfront tunnel fail, the council’s fallback choice was the streets-and-transit approach. McGinn has proposed that a combination of westside light rail and I-5 improvements be considered. Whatever the mix, some version of I-5 improvements, additional transit, freight connections, and a regular four-lane urban waterfront street should be on the table as a backup. Otherwise, the city may be vulnerable to the state trying to force a rebuilt elevated highway, by default.

One of the two recommendations by the city and state departments of transportation at the conclusion of the 2008 stakeholder process was a combination of transit and I-5 and surface-street improvements, so this approach already has some support. The proposal included $553 million in improvements to I-5 to improve the flow for cars and freight, $476 million in new transit, a set of policies to reduce demand, street connectivity improvements throughout Seattle — including east-west connections for the Port of Seattle — and a regular urban street on the waterfront. (Not a surface highway, despite what like tunnel boosters like to threaten.)

According to WSDOT, the I-5/surface/transit hybrid (PDF) “offers a lower-cost SR-99 option that maintains the economic vitality of the city and region while reconnecting the city’s historic waterfront with downtown. System-wide improvements maintain regional traffic flows even with expected population growth.” This approach works because it improves the larger system, giving urban travelers many viable options instead of channeling everyone onto the same route.

The city already has taken the first step to protecting the future waterfront by officially committing to a regular four-lane urban street, by ordinance. For folks who want to defend this area from excessive traffic, it may turn out that adding a lot more transit service and doing the I-5 improvements are more effective than locating a highway entrance there.

With so much at stake, it’s more important than ever to keep an eye on the tunnel. From Seattle city leadership we need intelligent oversight and a dedicated defense of Seattle’s interests. From Gregoire, we need a continuing tough stance on fiscal responsibility, and more openness to an urban solution that isn’t about pouring concrete.

With McGinn already asking the hard questions, the days of playing chicken by insisting it’s the tunnel or bust are ending. If the tunnel plan falls apart for cost or technical reasons, finding a political win-win with the state is a steep challenge for the new mayor. With the state facing a $2.6-billion budget shortfall and transportation money scarce statewide (hello, 520!), a lower-cost, lower-risk answer might be a door-opener for McGinn in Olympia.

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