Two days ago I read a very disappointing post on Seattle Transit Blog. I personally think the deep-bore tunnel is a terrible investment, but Ben Schiendelman’s post was just a lot of handwavy projections of the impact of the alternatives on two individual commute patterns, and in my opinion did little to advance the argument in favor of I-5/Surface/Transit. So I’m going to present the facts as I see them and explain why they lead me to oppose the tunnel.
Let’s start by reviewing how we got here.
March 2004: WSDOT releases a Draft Environmental Impact Statement which contains 5 alternatives, including 2 elevated viaducts, 2 tunnels, and a surface option.
July 2006: WSDOT releases a Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement which analyzes two alternatives: a viaduct rebuild and a cut-and-cover tunnel which would eliminate the downtown ramps but retain ramps at Elliott and Western.
March 2007: In an advisory vote, Seattle voters reject both alternatives studied in the 2006 SDEIS.
December 2007: Governor Gregoire appoints a 29-member Stakeholder Advisory Committee to provide feedback on new alternatives being developed.
December 2008: The Stakeholder Advisory Committee makes their final recommendation to “move forward with an Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Plan that includes improvements to I-5, transit, surface streets and potential for construction of a deep bore tunnel” and “a state-funded Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement should include review of an I-5/surface/ transit hybrid, including the proposed building block investments. Sufficient funds should also be included within the SEIS for design and necessary environmental review of construction of a bored tunnel with a commitment to bring it to a record of decision.”
January 13, 2009: Governor Gregoire, King County Executive Ron Sims and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels sign a Letter of Agreement to move forward with “a four-lane bored tunnel, together with improvements to city streets, the city waterfront, and transit.” Among other things, the letter states that “the allocation of specific project responsibility to each jurisdiction carries with it the responsibility for…project cost overruns” and “the parties agree to…support efforts to obtain state legislative authority for King County to implement a 1% Motor Vehicle Excise Tax.”
February 2, 2009: While working on the bill authorizing funding for the deep-bore tunnel, some legislators express opposition to the provision authorizing Metro to implement an MVET. Governor Gregoire then tells the Legislature that the MVET authorization “doesn’t have anything to do with the tunnel.”
May 12, 2009: Governor Gregoire signs ESSB 5768 which does not include an MVET authorization but does state that “Any costs in excess of two billion eight hundred million dollars shall be borne by property owners in the Seattle area who benefit from replacement of the existing viaduct with the deep bore tunnel.”
One of the criticisms I often hear is that it is not clear what tunnel opponents mean when they talk about “Surface/Transit.” For the record, we’re referring to what was referred to as “Scenario L” in the Stakeholder Advisory Committee process. Here is a map and a fact sheet on “Scenario L.”
This document describes the Bored Tunnel Alternative.
Below are maps of the two alternatives. Notice that the map for the I-5/Surface/Transit alternative has quite a bit more ink on it. It includes many changes to I-5 and the downtown street grid as well as an Alaskan/Western couplet of three lanes each which is more pedestrian-friendly than the six-lane two-way boulevard that had been a part of an earlier surface proposal (and arguably more pedestrian-friendly than the four-lane boulevard in the tunnel plan).
“This plan includes a lot of transit.”
Councilman Tom Rasmussen, chair of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, has on several occasions said this of the deep-bore plan. And in one sense, he is correct.
However, with the exception of $30 million from the state in construction mitigation funding for transit while the tunnel is being built, all of the funding for transit is supposed to come out of King County Metro’s budget, to the tune of $190 million in capital expeditures and $15 million annually for operations. That’s why the State was supposed to grant Metro authority to implement a 1% MVET.
King County Metro, however, doesn’t exactly have a lot of extra money lying around. Declining sales tax revenues in the recession have put the squeeze to Metro’s budget. Metro has so far staved off cuts by implementing schedule efficiencies, raising fares, and raiding a surplus in a capital account to prop up operations. However, unless new funding sources become available, Metro may end up having to cut service, not expand it. Additionally, Congress is threatening to pull funding for RapidRide C, the already-planned West Seattle line. This could delay the opening of that line, to say nothing of the additional Burien/Delridge line called for in both the tunnel and surface/transit plans.
Both plans call for more transit service. But unless the State comes through with additional funding options for Metro, it is unlikely that much of that transit service will materialize.
But won’t somebody think of the economy?
One of the common themes bandied about is that a surface option would be a disaster for the economic vitality of Seattle. In the Publicola debate about the tunnel, David Freiboth stated (around 19:00) that “We spent about a year looking at the facts, looking at all the options, looking at what it would take to replace this structure, to provide for one of two limited-access arterials that we have running through this town that are vital for our economic integrity, and the jobs that are needed for the economic vitality of this working port and the other aspects of this town. When this got boiled down what we found was, that the two alternatives that the state was bringing forward, the surface and the rebuild, weren’t viable.”
However, this is at odds with the presentation made to the committee shortly before they made their recommendation which stated that the “primary impact area accounts for approximately 5% of the regional economy” and “if the viaduct was taken down and not replaced, the change in output or jobs less than 0.5% on average,” ultimately concluding that “all scenarios have limited effects on the regional economy during construction and operation.”
Reclaiming the Waterfront
Something else that David Freiboth said during that debate really piqued my interest. He said, “We brought in a firm from Denmark, GEHL architects, to take a look at the livability issue, what that would do to the livability of this town, and they concluded that the surface option was not viable. It was going to destroy the livability that we already have, it was going make this town more dangerous for pedestrians and bicycles.”
I tracked down the presentation to which he referred, and it is true that the report was critical of the effects of the surface option, stating “the less vehicular traffic on the surface, the better.” However, this also leads them to be critical to the deep-bore tunnel, since it would still increase traffic on the surface relative to today. They point out what many of us already realize: the City’s efforts to make the waterfront a nice place will fail because “none of the scenarios create a nice waterfront at a good human scale that is possible to activate with human life.”
Ultimately they say “a scenario that provides high quality urban spaces is one that reduces traffic capacity in the city.” And while Freiboth states that “we’re not talking about replacing what we have there, we’re going from six lanes down to four lanes,” I challenge this characterization. While true that the tunnel would have only two lanes in each direction, the project also includes a four-lane surface boulevard that would supplement the tunnel. Today there is no useful connection between Alaskan Way and the south end of the Viaduct. Ultimately that is why the tunnel was chosen: it largely preserves the existing capacity. Freiboth talks about the 100,000 daily trips on the Viaduct as if they were a force of nature, unyielding and inavoidable. But research has shown that city traffic is in fact very elastic. If a significant change is made to traffic capacity, congestion probably will get worse for a time. But eventually it will reach equilibrium as people make different decisions about where to live, where to shop, and when to travel.
The Bottom Line
There are a lot of different components that comprise this projects $4 billion price tag, and four different entities are responsible for parts of the funding. However, what really matters is the cost of the tunnel itself vs. the cost of improvements to I-5. Both would be the State’s responsibility and both could be funded from gas taxes (unlike transit, the seawall, or the waterfront park).
The State’s estimate for the tunnel portion of the project is $1.96 billion. The estimate for I-5 improvements was $553 million. That’s quite a big difference, and I-5 serves more bona fide “through trips” than SR-99.
Ultimately, a surface option provides greater flexibility for future uses. It would be a part of the downtown urban fabric. If congestion makes transit unreliable, treatments such as bus lanes and signal priority can be applied. If in the future traffic volumes fall due to rising gas prices or other factors, surface streets can be reconfigured with wider sidewalks, on-street parking, bike lanes, or even at-grade rail transit. The deep-bore tunnel, on the other hand, is a very expensive bet on the status quo, and would never be useful to pedestrians, bicyclists, or transit.
I deliberately did not talk much about the usual talking points, but I’ll quickly run through them. First, the tunnel will be tolled, resulting in significantly more trips being diverted to the surface. Second, a tunnel introduces significantly more construction risk than a surface or elevated project, which could result in damage to downtown buildings, delays, lawsuits, and cost overruns. Third, the tunnel plan leaves the unsafe viaduct up until the tunnel is completed – 2016 at the earliest.
Governor Gregoire has boldly declared that “we have no cost overruns in this project at all, zero.” Of course, in 2008 she declared that the Viaduct was coming down in 2012 whether Seattle liked it or not. Now she’s singing a different tune.
Here is what I think should happen:
The State should find funding sources for Metro, and there should be a clear funding plan and implementation timeline for the additional RapidRide line(s), rapid trolley network and downtown transit improvements as soon as possible.
The seawall should be replaced and the waterfront boulevard built and connected to SR-99 at King Street and the Battery Street Tunnel.
The changes to I-5 should be implemented.
The Viaduct should be closed and torn down.
Then, if the worst fears come true and downtown traffic becomes atrocious, build the tunnel. Apparently as recently as 2008 Governor Gregoire felt that the safety concerns about the Viaduct were enough to trump concerns about traffic congestion, so why should we believe we couldn’t get along without it for a few years? But I strongly suspect that downtown traffic will remain manageable without the need for this extremely expensive facility.