The environmentalists' case for the waterfront tunnel

Four prominent environmentalists argue for protecting the waterfront from a new wall of cars and removing the unsafe viaduct. Approving the tunnel plan on the Aug. 16 ballot will give back the waterfront to the city, while improving the air and reducing noise.

Crosscut archive image.

A visualization of Seattle's central waterfront after construction of a tunnel.

Four prominent environmentalists argue for protecting the waterfront from a new wall of cars and removing the unsafe viaduct. Approving the tunnel plan on the Aug. 16 ballot will give back the waterfront to the city, while improving the air and reducing noise.

We are environmentalists who strongly believe that one of the ways to protect Washington’s farms and forests from urban sprawl is to make our cities as safe, affordable, accessible, and filled with beautiful public places and pedestrian-bicycle friendly amenities as possible.

With the obvious need to take down the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct, Seattle has an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a long-term investment in its waterfront that will improve the quality of our lives, and the lives of our children and grandchildren. That’s why we ask Seattle voters to approve Referendum 1, which will ensure that we can start construction on the downtown tunnel and waterfront improvements as soon as possible. It’s time to end the needless and costly delays that may jeopardize this important opportunity to rebuild our city.

We have come to our decision carefully, after considering all the facts. The tunnel is not simply a “new” highway project but is the rebuilding of an important state highway corridor that is today seismically unsafe. The tunnel will give back Seattle its waterfront and make it a place with fewer cars and less noise and exhaust. It will create an enormous people-friendly park. It will prevent stormwater that drains a busy roadway from entering Puget Sound.

Some of our friends and colleagues in the environmental community oppose the tunnel as a misplaced investment in roads. We share their view that, in light of global warming and our transportation crisis, our area needs massive investments in all forms of non-car transportation.

Ultimately, however, we believe the tunnel strikes the appropriate balance and is a reasonable policy decision. The Viaduct replacement project is funded, places the financing in part on motorists, and includes $32 million for transit to be spent during the major phases of south end construction. That’s a good thing. The original agreement between the city of Seattle, King County, and the state of Washington committed King County to $190 million in additional transit. We must all rally behind the county and make sure these improvements are forthcoming.

The cooperation between the local and state governments is another important reason to move forward. The City Council is behind the project by a margin of 8-1, and it has the support of King County Executive Dow Constantine and Gov. Chris Gregoire. That’s meaningful to us because we respect these political leaders. To hamstring the community with Eyman-esque, paid-signature campaigns and referendums second-guessing our elected leaders erodes our democratic process. Revisiting every policy decision with a popular vote dooms us to the status quo when the health of our economy and our standard of living depend on making expensive and long-term investments in our transportation system. And because there is no consensus around another alternative, killing the tunnel simply dooms us to political gridlock. With low interest rates and the construction business in a lull, now is the time to build.

Critics of the tunnel say the surface option is the best alternative. But it is our view that this option will put tens of thousands of cars on Alaskan Way, effectively cutting off our waterfront. That’s not good urban planning, and it’s not good for the environment. We know that tolls will lead many from using the tunnel but we think tunnel opponents are over-emphasizing this point; tolls can always be adjusted down over time. We also are not concerned about the cost overrun issue since preventing delay is among the best ways to prevent cost overruns and because we are confident the state and property owners whose property will skyrocket in value will pick up the tab.

What’s more, we need to remember that the project is paid for by state gas tax money, and that our state constitution restricts those funds to roads and highways. It’s not a bank account that opponents can raid for whatever purpose they wish. Far more likely, state legislators would direct the money to other projects, leaving Seattle taxpayers holding the bag for the entire Viaduct replacement.

Getting people out of their cars requires that our city streets be friendly to bikes and pedestrians.  Sharing the surface streets with more trucks, buses, and autos is more likely to discourage bikes and pedestrians.  The best place to put motor vehicles is underground.

The tunnel is a unique opportunity for the state, city, business, labor, and environmental communities to agree on a plan and move forward with something positive. That goodwill can be harnessed to accomplish more urban renewal projects in the future, including better bus service, building out Seattle’s master bike plan, and a walk-friendly downtown. Let’s approve Referendum 1.

This story has been updated since it first appeared to add Kathy Fletcher as a co-signer.


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