This post originally was published on this blog in October 2010.
Nearly four years ago I argued in a post that the deep bore tunnel was the real compromise for replacing the crumbling Alaskan Way viaduct architectural monstrosity. Although we have moved closer to the actual beginning of construction there still remains a number of very vocal entities in Seattle who continue to act like Chicken Little when the idea of getting on with building the damn thing comes up.
The main opposition seems to be Mayor McShwinn, bicyclists, certain eggheaded writers at the SLOG that love hairsplitting , a number of provincial thinking no tunnel folks, who I doubt own vehicles or need to use the viaduct on a regular basis, the don't tax me no matter what conservatives like Tim Eyman and people who like the view while driving on the upper deck of this deathtrap of a highway.
Many Seattleites remain skeptical. I think this is due mostly to a disinformation campaign, scare tactics, stonewalling, vague conspiracy theories put forth by the opponents and red herrings arguments coming from narrow-minded politicians, environmentalists who ride bicycles as the main means of transportation and anti-tunnel revisionists partially listed in the previous paragraph. Presented with the realities and benefits of building the tunnel I think that a majority of the citizens will come to the conclusion that the deep bore tunnel should be built.
It was a memorable moment when candidate McShwinn ended up mitigating his position in opposition to the tunnel just prior to the election, based on his advisors realizing that it would mean a probable election defeat. We know now that that this political theater was actually quite disingenuous. McShwinn never really liked the tunnel idea based on the ideology that everyone in the future apparently will be riding a bicycle, taking a bus or perhaps using space ships as a means of transport to get goods to market. Something that is unrealistic given the present day and foreseeable future demand for a corridor other than I-5 that will be needed to move people and deliveries through the city using personal or business trucks and vehicles.
McShwinn remains the main obstacle to progress. Even the City Council, to their credit, revolted and decided that it’s now time to move on towards actual construction. I think the citizens of Seattle and the region have had enough of the Chicken Little ideologically driven nay-sayer's conspiracy theories that drive their arguments in opposition to constructing the tunnel. The message from the opponents of the tunnel often appears to be based in a condescending form of social engineering that tells people, "we know best when it comes to people who still find it necessary to drive a personal vehicle", or that building a tunnel is is some vague way an attack on Seattle's "values". Please!
The main “red herring” argument against the tunnel seems to be that it will cost too much and create “cost overruns” that the city’s taxpayer will be force to pay. Lesser “pink herring” arguments runs the gambit and go something like this: That a tunnel built so close to the water will be an engineering impossibility and will probably cave-in during an earthquake. That there won’t be enough exits from the tunnel directly to downtown. That commuters won’t be as inclined to use public transit or ride their bike to wherever their going instead of driving. Somehow they surmise that a major traffic corridor through the city isn’t needed anymore once the viaduct is removed. Their current talking point is surface traffic increasing because tolling will make drivers more inclined to find other routes. An argument that fails to point out that 100% of the traffic will be on the surface streets if we go with their vague idea of using surface streets and transit. Finally, they like the views from the viaducts northbound upper deck when driving into town with their out of town relatives in the car. If those excuses don't hold water just claim that the sky is falling.
Let’s look at these arguments.
It cost too much and cost overruns:
Please name me a major capital hybrid project of this scale anywhere in the world in the last 100 years that didn’t have cost overruns? The Brooklyn Bridge had cost overruns. Have a contractor give you a estimate for major work on your house and the rule of thumb is that it will probably cost more then you thought it would cost in the beginning so add 15% to the estimate.
We should be looking at this project like the once in a lifetime project it is, and therefore it’s going to cost lots of money simply based on the size and scope of the undertaking. Considering the numerous long-term benefits the replacement of the viaduct and seawall will surely generate its worth it, given the increase in commerce it will bring for the region and its inhabitants. It’s really more about controlling cost overruns.
Lawmakers have gone on the record repeatedly stating that cost overruns will be controlled and the city’s responsibility for paying them mitigated. But, the Mayor continues to use this dishonest sandbag in a rather outmoded way. McShwinn really doesn’t want a tunnel at all and I believe he really never did. Most reasonable lawmakers, who have to answer to their constituents too, have moved on. They, at least, have the courage to see that building the tunnel is the real compromise here given the options that we have all been talking about ad nauseum for years now.
That the tunnel can’t be engineered safely, will be a construction nightmare and unsafe. The tunnel will eventually probably “cave-in”, during the eventual earthquake:
Hey scardicats, please! They build a tunnel under the English Channel didn’t they? We even built the downtown transit tunnel that most people don’t feel is going to collapse anytime soon. Modern engineers must have a good laugh about this objection. Bold engineering ideas help build this country. It’s duplicitous to say this tunnel will ultimately be unsound. If the region has a “big one” earthquake most shit will cave in folks no matter how well or when it was built. Earthquake faults are better understood today and engineers will take that into consideration. Digging tunnels is common place nowadays and this tunnel is nothing that modern engineers can't handle.
There won’t be enough exits directly to downtown:
It is truly the nature of the beast. Eventually people will adapt to the changes and learn how to navigate the new highway system. Though there are varying opinions about such matters, such as the loss of access ramps to downtown. I think overall the tunnel will be a traffic moving improvement and environmental benefit by reducing the overall amount of traffic over time given the combination of plans to improve surface transit , foot and bicycle traffic options.
People will still be more inclined to use cars rather then public transit:
When someone lives on Vashon Island, as I do, or in West Seattle or Ballard they actually need their car to efficiently get to central Seattle and beyond. Businesses have to make deliveries and trucks need to move goods. Not everyone wants or desires to use public transit or bicycles. People will use public transit when the city builds a viable transit system. Seattle’s politicians and citizens have missed the boat when it comes to actually building a real transit system in this region for years and we continue to lag behind most modern cities. The politics of having a modern transit system caught up in the same process that now stalls the tunnel construction. We continue the local political tradition of having a lack of vision or chutzpa.
We don’t need two major traffic corridors anyway. Let them use I-5:
This excuse is tied to “let them use I-5 for a while as the only way to get to town and then for sure they’ll be willing to consider riding a bike”. Seattle and the region need two major traffic corridors through the city. I-5 was not designed to handle the traffic increase that would take place if the highway 99 were not available. Commerce must move goods and services to market. Emergency response services would be impaired. You can’t use a bicycle or the bus if you’re a plumber going from south Seattle to Ballard to a job site.
Tolls are unfair or will force people to take other surface routes.
Historically tolling to support transportation projects is nothing new in Washington State. I recall paying tolls for years to paid for the first Lake Washington floating bridge. The amounts of the tolls for the tunnel have not been agreed upon, and will be adjusted so that they make the cost of using the tunnel acceptable to most drivers. I think most reasonable people understand that capital transportation improvements of this nature require reasonable tolling.
The sky is falling:
Perhaps on a second term for Mayor McGinn
But there are also many compelling reason why constructing a deep bore tunnel is the best option for the city. Here are a few:
Everyone agrees that the Viaduct needs replacing, is falling down and that a major earthquake could cause the structure to actually collapse with deadly results. The construction of the new tunnel also will include construction of a new seawall replacing the failing one that now exists.
Quality of Life:
Once the tunnel is constructed and the viaduct demolished Seattle should have one of the best waterfronts environments in the world. Everyone, even the “stop the tunnel” crowd, agrees the viaduct has been an architectural mistake. It’s ugly, blocks the waterfront from the downtown business district and actually serves as a “fence” that blocks economic development from happening in what potentially could be one of the most viable redeveloped neighborhoods in the world.
Small parks will line the areas where the viaduct once lived and promenades and city streets will replace most of the urban mess that now exists. New Businesses and shops are sure to thrive along this new viaduct-less thoroughfare. Hundreds if not thousands of new jobs can be generated by the redevelopment of the area. Seattle’s downtown will once again be connected more directly to the water. Traffic and smog will be reduced while walking and bicycles traffic will be enhanced and safer.
Jobs and more Jobs:
I have argued for some time that building the tunnel and seawall will bring thousands of union wage jobs during construction. Call it a super massive local stimulus plan if you want.These workers will be buying goods and services in the local economy. Billions of dollars will be pumped into the area directly related to tunnel and waterfront construction. In this time of economic insecurity it’s a no brainier. Local labor leadership and workers agree and estimate 30.000 new construction jobs with be created. As I said above the redevelopment of the neighborhoods surrounding the new tunnel will also create countless jobs.
The new deep bore tunnel option will keep traffic flowing during construction:
Completing the tunnel before the viaduct is removed will assure the least amount of disruption of the thousands of cars that use the corridor each day. A surface only option or replacement option would severely disrupt traffic for years during demolition and/or replacement. Most political leaders realized that keeping the viaduct open to traffic during construction of the tunnel was the real compromise.
Need for Action:
As I have said above. Most political types and many citizens agree that it's a time for action. 10 years of discussion meetings and committees on what to do with the viaduct is long enough. Had Mayor McSchwinn not been elected I think this project would have be closer to starting today. McSchwinn and his anti-tunnel allies need to realize that the tunnel “is the compromise” that knowledgeable citizens, stakeholders, most of our elected officials, and many sincere citizen activists have reached. Further delay will only add more cost to the project in the long run.
It’s time to build the tunnel, so let's get on with it.