Why the waterfront tunnel is key to the region's economy

The tunnel solution is essential to keep I-5 flowing during construction of a Viaduct replacement, thus serving the industrial "triangle" that powers the region.

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The tunnel solution is essential to keep I-5 flowing during construction of a Viaduct replacement, thus serving the industrial "triangle" that powers the region.

The problem addressed by the deep-bore waterfront tunnel in a recent Crosscut story goes beyond the usual cars vs. bikes debate (or new vs.old Seattle). It is also about the topography and economy of our region.

Only two roads, limited-access or otherwise, traverse Seattle north-to-south, I-5 and SR 99. These two are also the primary highway arteries serving a triangle formed by the three major Boeing production facilities at Boeing Field, Paine Field, and Renton. The triangle also includes the home port for the north Pacific Fishing Fleet (still a big deal financially) and the marine cargo sector based on Elliott Bay. The triangle also includes hundreds of Boeing suppliers and thousands of companies engaged in metal fabricating, machine making, air, sea, and land freight transportation, wholesale-distributors, and specialty trade construction.

Together these companies contribute to a production economy that ranks as the fourth largest export-production center in the nation, according to the US Department of Commerce, with annual average export sales of $43 billion from 2005 through 2009. To put that sum into context, the entire financial output of the National Football League is estimated at $9 billion per year..

Yet when Seattle focused its political conversation on the issue of replacing the viaduct, the discussions almost always started with the central waterfront, viaduct vs. parks, new vs. old, etc. But from the perspective of the regional economy, the more important starting point was how to replace the Alaska Way Viaduct while preserving through capacity on I-5. It was critical to keep our civic eye on the volume of wealth created throughout the triangle.

The I-5 solution requires keeping SR 99 functional while a viaduct replacement is being built, so as to keep as much traffic as possible from diverting to I-5 from SR 99. Before the deep bore tunnel emerged, no solution could fix the I-5/SR 99 flow issue during construction. Once the tunnel emerged in December, 2008, it went from nowhere to $2.4 billion in state funding in the space of four months — in spite of opposition from House Speaker Frank Chopp, anti-Seattle biases in Olympia, and the horrible economy.

Today, the economic value of maintaining the flow of commerce in the triangle easily justifies the risk of overruns on the tunnel. From that perspective, the riskiest option is the Seattle-goes-it-alone, surface-option strategy, which risks losing the traffic flow necessary to sustain the triangle.

In retrospect, when you start with the issue of maintaining flow on I-5, you come up with a regional solution to a truly regional problem. We who favor the tunnel soon picked up support from Eastern Washington Republicans for this reason, as well as from the governor. Start with the myopic Seattle absorption with the central waterfront, and you only get an intramural battle inside the city. That narrow battle, with all its media infatuation, blinded us to the need for the partnership with the state (and feds) and their financial support.

These practical drivers — topography and economy — should also help resolve the issues around tolling and traffic diversion. If tolling truly threatens I-5, the state will help find a way to prevent that from happening for the same reasons state leaders came up with $2.4 billion solution for a “Seattle” problem in spite of their intense dislike for the political leadership of the city. State officials have little choice because of the triangle and its value to the entire state.

Many in Seattle miss or minimize these points because they are so stuck in the cars vs. bike, road vs. transit debates. When it comes to I-5, SR 99, and the triangle, roads are a progressive solution. It’s not a solution meant to favor freeways or to encourage suburban sprawl. It is meant to preserve our largest financial assets at a critical time in the region's economy — assets which, by the way, are doing extremely well in the global marketplace.

Along the way, we get an historic opportunity to re-do the central waterfront, But that's a side benefit, not the driver of the deal.


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