I want to start out here by saying that I write about and support transit because I don’t think our land use or transportation are sustainable. I didn’t start out as a subway geek – I started out buying organic and local, reducing my meat intake, replacing my lightbulbs, the basics of cutting my environmental impact. But over time, looking at statistics of what contributes to our emissions, I’ve realized that here in Puget Sound, where our buildings are mostly hydro-powered, transportation is by far the largest contributor to climate change.

Some of you know I don’t drive. I don’t even have a license, nor do I plan to get one. That doesn’t mean I don’t ever take car trips – I catch rides with people when they’re headed my way, or I’ll do a road trip. When I go to the store, a park, get groceries, catch a movie – those things I usually do on foot, or on the bus. I just try not to be absolutist – there are things cars are good for. Our urban form demands some car use sometimes. But that doesn’t make our urban form sustainable – it just means we’re in a bad situation.

None of the technologies to make cars ‘carbon neutral’ actually work at any scale. Sure, battery powered sports cars might be affordable for a few, and neighborhood electric vehicles might let us do last mile deliveries. But battery technology isn’t ‘advancing’ that much, and there’s no oil industry plot behind it, it’s just physics. When we have to generate our own power, rather than dig it out of the ground, most of us just don’t generate enough wealth to buy the energy it would take to drive us around.

I think, at this point, that most of us who are engaged and interested in these issues realize this. To survive as a species, we have to stop dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. However neat they may sound, new ways of filling our gas tanks really don’t do that.

On the other hand, electric transit not only allows us to use clean ways of generating power, it also just takes a lot less energy to move people around, and that’s more the case the higher density we live in. Not everyone has to live in higher density, by any means, but a lot more of us do than are now. We’re subsidized into thinking everyone can live in low density – through highway spending, and through the unsustainably cheap energy we found underground. I’m no libertarian, but it was pointed out to me long ago that the market didn’t build cars until we had oil shooting out of the ground. Before that, we had electric streetcars. Only with subsidy did that change, and only by removing the subsidy can it change back.

There are no car-based fusion reactors around the corner. There are no algae ponds that can fill your gas tank at $2/gallon. And there are not very many years left of pumping your commute energy out of the ground, so the sooner we can all move past the idea that some piece of technology will be our savior, the easier the transition to a sustainable transportation economy will be. That transition can either happen when we have control over it, or it can happen when we eventually can’t afford gas – or when climate impacts cause major weather events.

This is where I’m coming from. This is why I fight. I’m sure I’m still a little out of the mainstream, but in the last decade, I think the mainstream has been coming to meet me. Next Thursday, for instance, the EPA is holding a hearing on carbon dioxide as a threat to human health. The phrase “carbon tax” has entered our collective consciousness, and our Mayor wants to use it to fund transit. There’s a sea change in acceptance that we’re screwing things up for ourselves, and a realization that we have to mobilize to change our course.

Just before this region gets a wake-up call that we have a better way, our local, regional, and state governments are coming together to subsidize the automobile for another century. They want to spend billions – including city money that could go to transit – on a new viaduct tunnel. It’s completely unnecessary – a study in 2006 showed that if we just tear it down, almost a third of viaduct trips will be replaced with local trips or eliminated entirely. It also showed that most Viaduct traffic goes to and from downtown, and here we are creating a new way to subsidize just the suburb-to-suburb trips, further diluting our city core.

On top of that – where the original Viaduct plan included $120 million for transit to help mitigate this reduction in capacity to downtown, the one to be signed today does not. Sure, it’s bus transit. It’s not perfect, it still uses diesel. But every time someone new steps on a bus, that’s another person who realizes we need more mass transit. And now, not only do we get a new highway through our city, we don’t get a penny for real solutions. We spend $900 million in city funds on what should be a state project. That money could build our streetcar system, or go toward real mass transit to Ballard and West Seattle. But we’re spending it so the state can build a new highway.

This has to stop. We have to convince our leaders that this isn’t the path we want to be on. The question is – how?

137 Replies to “A New Viaduct And No Transit”

  1. You are probably the only Greg Nickles supporter who sounds like Michael McGinn.

    1. McGinn is running to be mayor of the viaduct. Unfortunately for him (and for us if he gets elected) the mayor of Seattle has a ton of responsibilities, and the viaduct replacement is just one of them.

      1. I liked his broadband utility idea, too. And his ideas on schools. And his ideas on consolidating departments to achieve greater efficiency and knowledge throughput. He ain’t a one-trick pony.

        Even if he was just a one-trick pony, a staunch environmentalist/transit pony would be a fine pony to have for the next four years.

      2. First, the schools thing is entirely out of his control.

        Second, the broadband utility is the most yuppy idea I’ve ever heard. Thousands of people are losing their job and he wants to run internet to everyone’s house? His priorities are way out of whack.

        There is no more staunch transit pony (never expected to write that sentance) than nickels. No one has been a more effective or a more earnest leader on transit than him, and even if McGinn’s heart is in the right place, he couldn’t possibly be more effective.

      3. Then why the fuck is Nickles promoting the only 21st century highway without so much as an HOV lane?

      4. I’m not going to defend the tunnel, which would, by the way, be the only road way in the city with a congestion charge. But what does the tunnel have to do with transit? You can support both, they’re not mutually exclusive.

        The fact that Nickels got his way on the tunnel, the streetcar and on light rail shows that he is an extraordinarily effective leader on transportation issues. Even if you don’t like the tunnel, you have to admit that the man gets what he wants and gets stuff done.

        The keyword is effective.

      5. Ah, yes, Greg Nickles. “Gettin’ it done, whether you want it or not since 2002.”

      6. I don’t like the tunnel. And neither, really, does Mayor Nickels. But he understands what it means to compromise; he’s a good politician. The Governor and the residents of West Seattle and Ballard just wouldn’t take a surface-transit plan, so he did the right thing and agreed that there could be a tunnel as long as lot’s of transit was included. Unfortunately now that no one has any money, everyone’s going back on their promises and it looks like the transit portion won’t happen, but that’s through no fault of the Mayor.

      7. Hey, the broadband utility ‘idea’ has been on the books (and there’s a website) in the city for years. We just don’t have the money compared to resurfacing broken streets and building sidewalks.

        I’d rather have sidewalks than broadband. People outside are better than people inside.

  2. don’t forget … the manufacturing process to make the batteries for electric cars is extremely polluting and damaging to the environment

  3. What about. Rebuild the Viaduct, one level of road and put a park on the top level, accessible from Pike Place Market? That would be a peoples’ space as opposed to a bunch more high priced, high rise condos.

    1. That would be a crime spree. The problem is, parks are really only useful when they connect two places. Jane Jacobs wrote about this a lot.

      And frankly – how is rebuilding the Viaduct going to help? We have no reason to build a new highway.

      1. Thanks for a great essay, Ben. The world IS coming to you, if perhaps more slowly than it should.
        And, no, we absolutely do not need any kind of replacement viaduct or tunnel oriented toward, or exclusively internal combustion vehicles. Transit improvements only, transit improvements only.

  4. How about a surface boulevard, better connections to downtown avenues, and a West Seattle-Ballard light rail line? Now that would be an investment in the future. Someone needs to debunk the myth that most trips on the viaduct are through trips! Make access to SR-99 on both ends of downtown easier and most of the viaduct traffic would go away.

  5. I agree with you 100% Ben. I don’t understand why our electeds are willing to shell out BILLIONS of dollars for a 2 mile highway. Why are they not doing anything visionary? Our area has expanded highways over and over again, but traffic always gets worse. It is really disheartening to see so much money thrown in the same direction.
    Thank you.

  6. You know Brazil gets serious portion of it’s automobile fuel from sugar ethanol, so it’s not completely crazy to think you could have carbon neutral cars. Obviously not carbon neutral hummers…

    1. You’re right, they do, but at the cost of the Amazon rainforest. And remember, 15% car ownership.

  7. There’s a fundamental flaw with a lot of this thinking. You cannot agree with both:

    a) We have to stop using oil today or we’ll destroy the earth

    b) In the semi-near future oil will be so expensive we cannot afford it.

    Either Oil will be expensive and we have to stop using it or we’re going to burn up the world with our greenhouse gases. Can’t be both.

    1. The fear is that we don’t move away from internal combustion engines by the time b) happens, and someone has the bright idea to switch to fuel made from coal. We have vast supplies of that terrible resource, and it would certainly make a) true (changing “oil” to “fossil fuels).

      1. The problem is that you can do A, then end up at B later anyway. The hope is that oil becomes too expensive and there are decent alternatives when it does, before we’ve locked in the worst environmental effects of its use.

        If we get to A it doesn’t really matter whether we ever get to B. If we get to B before we’re ready for it, we can be happy that at least we didn’t end up with A but that won’t do much to alleviate the economic and social dislocations of an ever-decreasing supply of oil.

        In either case, the only way to avoid the worst effects of both A and B is to invest in transit and other low-emissions technologies as quickly as possible. The only way to get the worst of both worlds is if we fail to make those investments. Considering that, it’s not at all contradictory to make points A and B simultaneously.

    2. I disagree with both your framing of Ben’s argument and the argument itself. These two points are not contradictory on their face, and claiming that they are does not make them so.

      We need to stop using fossil fuels – like oil – that produce greenhouse gases sooner rather than later, or we’ll do irreparable damage to our planet (or, at least, irreparable insofar as the human mind can envision time). This is fact.

      The time of peak oil is on the horizon. We’re already 44 years past peak discovery (, and the demand for oil is still increasing by an average of 2% annually ( This is also fact.

      Now, what we don’t know is which one will happen first. If we’re lucky, it’ll be the 2nd option, but it’s really irrelevant: in either case, it makes good ecological and economic sense to take action.

      1. Saying I’m wrong, especially in light of the evidence does not make it so either.

        Peak Oil is a giant red herring:

        Switching from oil to coal is fairly trivial. Coal just happens to be more expensive today so people still use oil. The moment oil gets expensive enough to make coal cheaper than oil, people will begin to switch to coal.

        The 2nd option can’t happen first, it actually cannot happen at all, at least not in the way ben describes. It’s impossible from both an economic and a common sense perspective. That’s a fact.

      2. If oil or coal or any other energy source becomes scarce compared to demand people will switch to alternatives because of rising prices. That’s true. But saying that doesn’t mean that there aren’t costs during that transition, particularly if it happens quickly. The evidence is unclear as to whether we are running using sufficient oil to precipitate a calamitous sudden drop in supply in our lifetimes, but it’s possible. Transitioning to coal is also possible but if it has to replace oil on any significant scale the cited supplies of hundreds of years at current use shrink to decades. The same is true of uranium and thorium, the typical fuels for nuclear power (even if speed of plant construction is the real limiting factor there.) A combination of all these substitutes might keep our economy going well enough to avoid option B (energy too expensive to maintain our way of life) but it’s not guaranteed.

        There are no other high-intensity energy sources available. If fossil fuels become scarce that’s it: in human terms we won’t have more because it takes too long to make more. You can’t look at any other economic event in history and say with certainty that this scenario is impossible, because none of the historical comparisons is truly parallel. Petroleum (and coal) comprise a unique class of energy-dense fuel that has no historical precedent, and nuclear is the only technology found since that could replace it–and it has potentially similar long-term supply problems.

        That said, environmental devastation from oil, gas, and coal is a much more serious and imminent problem, as our time to act effectively is counted in years rather than decades or centuries depending upon who you believe in the debate over supply. But just because scenario A is more serious doesn’t mean that you should ignore the possibility of scenario B or dismiss it as impossible.

      3. There is really a lot of coal. I’ve read in many places the US has enough coal reserves to support hundreds or even a thousand years of current energy use. If that’s the case, we don’t need to worry about running out of energy, we’ll burn up the earth long long before.

      4. We cannot ignore the political reality: high gas prices last summer did more for cap-and-trade legislation and a “green economy” than climate change has. I suppose logically we can dismiss peak oil as made up, but we can’t dismiss the industrialization of India and China and the myriad of other reasons that could limit oil as a commodity. In fact, we should use it to our advantage to advance our goals in terms of the environment.

      5. Hundreds of years translates to decades when you start using coal for the things we currently use oil for. Wikipedia is all over the map on this but the two numbers mentioned with current recoverable supplies and current coal consumption are 164 years and 263 years. Actual recoverable supplies would include future discoveries and is some multiple of this, but the real problem is that 164 years at current use is only 57 years if coal had to replace oil. So we could have an oil peak, followed by a rapid and painful conversion to coal, 50 years of coal-fired plants destroying the planet, and then a peak in coal just when the environmental disasters really arrive in force. And that assumes no increase in population or per capita consumption. If you follow current trends for per capita energy use and population I’ve seen estimates of coal supplies in the 30-year range. Admittedly, those were estimates by peak-oil advocates far more credulous than I prefer to be.

        The likely outcome is that oil will be sufficiently plentiful for a couple of decades, then we’ll have a gradual transition to coal, augmented by nuclear, with all of those sources economically unviable by end of century. (In other words, A will likely be mild when it finally comes.) But by then we’ll hopefully have regulated emissions and also made inroads with transit and alternative energy, or else the ecological consequences (scenario B) will be dire. Still, it doesn’t hurt to plan for the worst of both worlds.

      6. 30-years is way too low, I don’t believe that for a second. I’ve seen the amount of current known coal reserves to be in the 200-year range, and that’s without really looking that hard: there’s coal pretty much everywhere.

    3. I think you can agree with both, as it certainly goes the other way: burning expensive fuel both wastes vast amounts of money and kills the environment. These are two reasons to move now on alternatives to oil and coal as well as alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles. Either conclusion, a dead planet or a planet without transportation, is unacceptable. The only thing worse than a doomsday scenario is two of them.

      I disagree with Ben in that I think humanity is at the stage where personal transportation is a requirement for an advanced society. Whether they’ll require scientific breakthroughs we haven’t witnessed yet or expensive new infrastructure, I don’t know. In urban areas the alternative is clear and easy: mass transit. Outside of urban areas, it isn’t so clear.

      1. Well, there’s no real reason for large numbers of people to live outside of urban areas (including suburbs). Agriculture is no longer labor-intensive enough to employ large numbers of people. The small number of people who can economically survive or thrive in rural areas can use personal vehicles using various alternative sources of energy pretty much indefinitely without major environmental problems or scarcity.

        The real tough nut to crack is suburbia, i.e. the sprawling parts of urban areas that are not well-served by transit and contain people with prejudices against it. Short term we need electric cars and new rail lines that encourage urban density over time. Converting car suburbs (and low-density city neighborhoods) to a new generation of rail suburbs will save lots of energy, and eventually turn those burbs into successful urban places. But people have to learn that huge houses on multiple acres are a luxury and not a birthright.

    4. No, the logic is fine, they’re just not at the same time. The lag time to destroying our climate is so long that we’ll still have an oil expense problem, but by then we’ll already have set in motion the events that kill us.

      1. First, there’s no such thing as an oil expense problem. That is a red herring, see above.

        Second, if the greenhouse gases are going to destroy the world first, how is the second point even a problem? It doesn’t pass the sniff test. That leads to the marginalization of environmentalist ideas. Focus on one problem and people believe you, but say “we’re going to destroy the world AND THEN gas is going to get expensive” and people will be fairly certain you’re not really sure about the first point.

        The whole reason people still think there’s a “debate” about global warming is that environmentalists are having contradictory conversations with themselves!

      2. “we’re going to destroy the world AND THEN gas is going to get expensive”

        I don’t think that order of events was ever implied by anyone except for yourself. And it’s a lovely little straw man, to be sure, since it’s just plain silly.

        What we’re saying is. “A could happen soon. So could B. Which first? We don’t know, but we’d like to avoid both.” So what if peak oil is a red herring (and I don’t agree that it is)? That doesn’t make that statement any less valid.

      3. I don’t think that order of events was ever implied by anyone except for yourself.

        Read Ben’s comment, “hot shot!”

        I’m telling you that you’re dead, dead wrong. B will not happen. There’s too much coal for B to ever happen. If you don’t agree that you are ignoring the facts on the ground.

        A is going to happen unless we do something right now.

        Stop talking about “B”, you’re giving ammunition to the global warming denialists.

  8. “This has to stop. We have to convince our leaders that this isn’t the path we want to be on. The question is – how?”

    The obvious answer is to vote for the candidate who agrees w/ you.

    McGinn = green transportation

    Nickles = Smog

    1. That’s the most insipid analysis I’ve ever read. Ask McGinn whether he wants a surface option or a replacement viaduct. His website won’t tell you.

      I’ve said this before, he’s running to be mayor of the viaduct, but what are his plans for the rest of the city? He won’t talk about them other than “more buses”. McGinn would not be a good mayor, and likely wouldn’t be able to stop the tunnel anyway. Only Tim Eyman can help with that.

      1. That was not an ad hominem attack. I did not attempt to discredit his argument by labeling him. I engaged his argument, and then made a snyde remark. Difference.

      2. Zelbianian, you didn’t quite get there but it was approaching it… We have a different tone here than some other blogs, so consider it a learning experience. :) We’re all for hearing your opinions, though!

      3. The point is that he’s running a fairly dishonest campaign. He’ll say “no tunnel” and leave you to figure out what he means. You project what you like on him. That way he can get both the “new elevated” and the “surface-transit” supports to vote for him.

        He can’t please both.

      4. Fair enough. I was just trying to point out that saying his position on tunnel alternatives is unknown when you know his history is a bit disingenuous. I do take your point, though; people who don’t know his background might not know what he’s for.

      5. Look, I never said he had an unknown position, I said he has no interest in telling you his position. And the vast majority of voters don’t know his history, and he clearly wants to keep it that way: look at his website.

      6. I want to agree with Andrew here. I have a hard time finding policy positions on his site. That’s not good.

    2. That’s not clear at all.

      Frankly, this is where I’m coming from: I think Nickels isn’t as good ideologically as McGinn, perhaps, but Nickels knows how to do the work to get *some* things done, and I’m unsure McGinn does.

      Essentially – I like 80% of McGinn’s positions, but expect him to get 10% done. I like 50% of Nickels’ positions, but expect him to get 30% done.

      1. You know, once upon a time, Nickels didn’t run anything worth anything, either. And, for my money, Sierra Club and Great City are worth something.

  9. Agree with Paulish, put your money where your mouth is and vote for leaders who understand that wasting billions on a tunnel does not help us solve any problems.

    1. At the cost of what other priorities? If Nickels was instrumental to ST2 passing and delivering many more bus hours to Seattle and focusing on “complete streets,” how can we be assured that McGinn will be just as good on these issues?

      The foundation of democracy requires challengers to speak their mind and apply pressure to the establishment. I disagree with Nickels on the tunnel, but not as strongly as many. A tunnel is not the singular harbinger of environmental disaster and an underground supporter of sprawl (it both begins and ends in an urban city, literally cannot be expanded, and will be tolled).

      It is too expensive, particularly for the city and county. But that doesn’t make me forget Nickel’s advocacy for ST2, Seattle’s bus funding, the streetcar network, and serious action on bicycle infrastructure. If a politician works hard in office to support transit, then I think he deserves my support over someone who hasn’t held any elected office and talks a vague but pleasant game.

      1. You know, I think you guys ought to have a meet-up with McGinn (and the other mayoral candidates) just like you did with Nickles. That way we’d stop this echo-chamber effect and hey, it’d be fun :)

      2. Organizing the meet-ups is a lot of work. The Mayor worked with us, and if McGinn reached out like that we would have him there.

      3. Mike was instrumental in killing Roads and Transit (arguing that we should pass an all transit measure), passing the Parks Levy (over the Mayor’s objections) and helping to pass the “complete streets” legislation. What other priorities? $900 million of City money and over $2 billion of state money would pay for a TON of other priorities, like expanded transit, better schools, and libraries that don’t close due to budget cuts. I agree about Mayor Nickels being an effective supporter of transit, but when push came to shove he went for the politically expedient “compromise” that hypocritically flies in the face of his environmental talk.

      4. Mike McGinn can take all the credit he wants for shooting down the 2007 measure, but I remember fighting a lot of people on both the left and the right on that one, it wasn’t just the sierra club. Nickels wanted an all transit measure in 2007 as well. In fact, he didn’t even endorse the 2007 measure.

        And you know, what?

        He got the 2008 measure on the ballot by lobbying the board members and going in the face of the governor and olympia. He put his people in charge of the campaign. It won big. If that’s not effective I don’t know what is.

        And the $2.8 bn in state money could only go for roads by constitution, so don’t get it twisted and start mentally spending that money on schools.

      5. Look, this isn’t about taking credit for anything (though the Sierra Club and Ron Sims were THE voices on the left fighting against Roads and Transit); it’s about stepping up and taking leadership on the big issues that really matter, like 100 year infrastructure investments. If you call spending $900 million of City money on a tunnel to speed cars under downtown (not to mention the small matter of cost overruns) when we’re facing an enormous budget deficit effective, then that’s great. I call it hypocritical. I strongly support Mayor Nickel’s accomplishments with ST2, the BMP, the streetcar and complete streets (and a number of other things in fact), but flying around the country and calling on other Mayor’s to meet Kyoto and then not showing leadership when it really matters just hurts.

      6. the problem starts with the assumption that the surface option was something Olympia would have funded. It never was.

      7. Just like the assumption that voters would never pass an all transit ballot measure. Real leadership questions all assumptions.

      8. The voters in direct election and the leaders in Olympia are very different things.

        For one, you can directly ask those in Olympia whether they’ll support something. Frank Chopp’s phone number is available on the state legislature’s website…

  10. Denmark is fast on its way to becoming the first carbon-neutral country on the planet. If they can do it, why can’t Washington? Our economies are about the same size and based on similar industries. Washington covers a larger area, but the population is about the same. They have wind, we have wind. One of the largest differences right now is that 2/3 of their transport budget is going towards HSR, transit and cycling infrastructure instead of roads, 2/3 green and 1/3 black as they put it.

    1. The level of dedication to bicycles, pedestrians and intercity rail in Denmark is startling. When I read things about Portland being the most bike-friendly city in America, it makes me realize how far off we are.

      1. Yes it is. They started making the changes during the oil crisis of the 70’s. Now 1/2 of Copenhagen bikes to work and 1/3 of the entire country bikes to work. One big difference there is that the populous makes the government put their money where their mouth is instead of making lots of unfunded promises. They also demand a high level of service and accountability from the government, in accordance with the high taxes they pay.

      2. Yes, Portland is starting to set new goals based on Europe because the bar is so low in the US.

        To be fair, due to the massive domestic energy resources in the US (primarily coal but a good bit of oil too) our Federal government didn’t see it as a high priority in the early 70s. That was a mistake and we’re far behind now.

      3. Plus we had a huge carrot and a huge stick to get OPEC to give in and increase production again.

      4. It makes a difference that their entire country is about the size of Washington State in population. Washington DC screws everything up because it’s so far removed from the level of the average person. The EU at-large is fairly ineffective compared to the national governments, and we have the same situation here.

      5. Never mind that DC has the most effective metro system and largest number of urban villages in the country, give or take NYC. It is stunning that people who live a European-style life themselves don’t think it’s feasable for the rest of the country.

    2. We would have to start now to be where they are in 50 years. They simply developed differently (less sprawl), and it would not be easy to make those changes. Step 1 is to stop sprawling.

      1. Right, you have to make a bike commute reasonable before putting infrastructure in place, and that requires more density in our region.

      2. Yep. But in the 60’s they were in the where we are now, it shows how much change can happen in 2 generations if people have the will. Copenhagen was building auto-oriented suburbs and investing in highways when the oil crisis hit. They just reacted differently to it and used it as a reason to examine what type of environment they wanted to live in.

      3. From a population density that’s a pretty good analogy. To look forward (I don’t know that I’m really looking forward to it) The greater Seattle metro will have to grow to something approaching Atlanta in size which is possible, perhaps probably in the next 40-50 years. From a social and consumer standpoint we’re probably not too far different that Copenhagen was back in the 60’s.

        Of course Denmark just finish building a 2.5 mile tunnel and a 7 mile bridge across the North Sea so it’s not like they’ve given up on roads and mega projects.

      4. “Of course Denmark just finish building a 2.5 mile tunnel and a 7 mile bridge across the North Sea so it’s not like they’ve given up on roads and mega projects.”

        Which includes rail and a $35 dollar toll for cars. Maybe we could hire the Danes to rebuild 520? ;-) Last time I was there they had just finished the bridge, it’s a pretty amazing sight.

        They also built their Metro with a public-private partnership. They expect it to be paid off 9 years early.

  11. People’s Waterfront Coalition leader/Environmentalist/Urban Planner Cary Moon also supports Nickels, along the same lines as I do:

    I like Mike a lot, and I like Mayor Nickels too. I like Nickels better for Mayor. They both have superb intentions, but I think Nickels has the edge in being able to make things happen. And Nickel’s position of being the president of US Conference of Mayors next year is a big deal to me, as he will be able to spread the good word to 850+ other mayors and (I hope) help them get the urban / environmental agenda underway across the county.

    Regarding the tunnel, I had a front row seat watching how hard Nickels and Sims worked for surface / transit/ I-5. In the end, the Governor had more power and money and less courage. At the time the two choices for them were either solidarity around the tunnel, or leave it open for Frank Chopp to take the lead.

    The choice was never surface/transit or tunnel, it was tunnel or new elevated. The legislature would never have funded surface/transit.

  12. First of all, somebody is forgetting the 80-20 rule. The state is going to take their d**med fuel excise tax money and build a tunnel, the city has committed to streetcars and a pedestrian friendly waterfront, and the county has committed to more bus service. Quit while you’re ahead. There’s still plenty of other work to do.

    Secondly, tunnels don’t grow on trees. If you wanted to build a real subway under Seattle, imagine the moaning and gnashing of teeth. But here the state is going to build a tunnel and there’s a good chance that in 10-15 years it won’t be needed for rubber-tired vehicles. When the world economy recovers, gas is going immediately to $5/gallon and then it will start climbing.

    McGinn may have the best of intentions, but he’s depending on people not understanding that the money the state will spend boring a tunnel is not money that would otherwise be given to the city for transit. And that, in a basic way, is dishonest.

    1. For those who are wondering, McGinn supports surface/transit: See

      What I would do is what the citizen committee came forward with as one of their options, which the transportation departments of the state, county and city all said would work. And that was make some improvements to Interstate 5 to improve the through-puts, so you take care of all the through-trips. You make significant investments in local transit, so you take care of all the trips that come from the neighborhoods to downtown. Not all of them, but you take care of some of them. And you make improvements to the surface streets.

      That was one of the options put forward by the citizen’s committee. And it would work, and it would work for a lot less money.

      If we don’t build a tunnel, state gas-tax money could be spent on moving utilities from the Viaduct, building the overpasses that the Port of Seattle is going to pay for, and constructing new surface streets. There’s even an argument to be made that gas-tax money could be spent on the First Avenue streetcar line since it would be mitigation. But as it is, Seattle taxpayers and King County property owners are going to pay for all that.

      McGinn is right: if you spend tons of money on the tunnel, you can’t spend the money on other priorities. Plus, if you all go to the voters in 2012 asking for money for more in-city rail, it’s going to be less likely that they say yes.

      1. You can make a theoretical argument over whether the state could under the constitution fund a streetcar, but you really need to deal with the reality that the legislature in olympia would never ever have approved that, or a surface option.

      2. Andrew,

        How do you know? From my vantage point, the city government and Nickels never seriously tried to lobby the legislature for an alternative other than a tunnel. Nickels is a tenacious politician, as your coverage of his work on Sound Transit demonstrates well. When he has really wanted something, he has gotten it in the end. I don’t think he really wanted a surface/transit option.

      3. Andrew, I don’t think that’s valid. I talk to people in Olympia as well, and if the city blocked a tunnel, surface would be on the table.

      4. I don’t know who you talked to, but they were clearly difference than the people I’ve talked to.

      5. I don’t know why they wouldn’t support a surface option. SR-99 is already a surface street with signals for its entire length north and south of Seattle. The viaduct is the only stretch of it that resembles anything close to a highway. It just seems like a huge waste of money to build a tunnel for the small fraction of trips that are through trips. They say they need it for truck traffic to Ballard and Interbay, but the tunnel doesn’t serve those areas directly, the trucks still have to use surface streets through Queen Anne once they exit the tunnel.

      6. Inside City Limits Seattle will pretty much be on their own for surface street improvements. The tunnel, like the 520 bridge is a limited access highway. There might be a little from the State but probably only enough to cover the cost of removing the viaduct and mitigation of the aftermath.

        The fact that it doesn’t exit in downtown is probably a plus.

        I don’t know that it could ever be converted to something along the line of a replacement bus tunnel. Planning for than in the design would be a constructive thing to push for at this point if you think it’s going to happen irregardless of what voters have said. The current double deck proposal doesn’t look so good. Maybe it would work?

      7. A lot of people in Seattle don’t seem to realize that there are plenty of other communities in the state which are waiting for DOT highway improvements. For example, the Belfair Bypass is on something like a 12-year timeline. If the people in Seattle really don’t want a tunnel or viaduct, the state could fast-track dozens of projects like the Belfair Bypass, which is only waiting for funds.

        Nobody is going to change, or even significantly bend the state constitution so that Seattle can get “mitigation” funds after civic leaders throw a hissy fit and refuse totally to participate in the process. Nickels pushed that envelope as far as possible by making it plain that city permits for rebuilding a viaduct would not be forthcoming.

        To put it simply- the money does not belong to Seattle. If you don’t like that, find out who your representatives are and have a talk with them about it. You have two representatives and one senator. You also might want to check your legislative district boundaries and find out who else is in your district, because your representatives represent them also.

      8. Actually. The legislature voted to fund the Viaduct replacement project with that money. The legislature would have to go through very serious negotiation to amend that law to repurpose the money in the future, as Seattle votes were necessary for getting funding for non-Seattle projects in the same package.

        The money currently belongs to the project. If Seattle says they want a surface option, and that’s the only thing we’ll support, I think we’ll still get most of what we need from the state. WSDOT did find that the surface options moved a similar amount of traffic, just a little slower.

      9. Exactly- the money belongs to the project. And if the project is killed, it’s back to the drawing board. With Gregoire swearing to herself she’s not going to make that mistake twice.

    2. The further I dig into Washington State politics, the sicker I get to my stomach. Things like the 80-20 rule need to go. Or, even better, become the 20-80 rule.

      1. Me too, paying a lot of attention to Olympia is sure-fire way to get not just stomach sicknesses but also ulcers.

      2. I’m on the eastside but don’t depend on transit. Maybe if I did I’d feel differently but 20-80 sounds a bit more like it. When I go out running at lunch the 233 and 253 are running up and down 148th virtually empty (belching diesel exhaust btw that really makes you wonder if running is good for your health).

  13. Call me crazy, but I think they should re-instate the separate two-zone off-peak fare (equal to the value of the one-zone peak fare). Why they abandoned the 2ZOP fare in the early 2000’s I’ll never know!

    1. Probably because the biggest cost to the transit system is running those peak-only routes. One because they go places other buses don’t and get disproportionately stuck in traffic (because they’re peak hour). Two because they’re empty on the return trip, whereas normal buses have passengers both directions.

  14. Given how little engineering has been done on the 99 tunnel I have a feeling cost overruns could still kill the thing.

    I don’t think the city leadership is going to agree to fund a bottomless pit and if the city’s share of the cost rises to significantly more than estimated there will be a lot of pressure for the city to back out of the cost-sharing.

      1. I’ll sign up! I’d even go with a state initiative to withhold funding until a better study of surface alternatives are considered.

      2. I wonder if it will take this form, taking advantage of the state trying to shaft Seattle with the bill: Seattle cannot pay for one penny of the Viaduct replacement without a thorough study of both the tunnel option and a surface option conducted by the city, county, and state, and/or however much Seattle pays for construction of the tunnel, the state must pay for increased bus service. Since I suspect at least a little bit of overrun is probably inevitable, this will either kill the viaduct replacement or force the state to take a second look at the surface option (this time with a clear message sent by the voters of Seattle, and possibly killing the viaduct replacement anyway) and/or pony up the bus funding (while effectively putting the state on the hook for overruns, thus encouraging the project to keep them down).

  15. I might be beating a long dead horse, but I think the designers of this tunnel are missing the growing trend of driving less across this country. Even if the surface/transit option has less capacity for cars, that might be good both for the environment AND for the larger commuting trends.

    It’d be a waste of money for two reasons if you built a tunnel at a time when people really slowed down their miles driven.

  16. One of the best posts on transit and sustainability I’ve ever read. Did you send this as an op-ed to, say, the Times or the Weekly or something as well? It kinda reads like it.

    1. They don’t usually like things that have already been printed elsewhere – but I’ll give it a shot.

      1. Actually, I was asking if you had sent it to those places *along with* sending it to the blog – I thought it read like you had originally written it for them (because you talk about a lot of concepts on a fairly basic level non-transit geeks can understand).

  17. I admit that I haven’t read all (OK, any) of the other comments, but I just wanted to say that I’m with you, Ben–on pretty much every point. On the issue of cars not being sustainable, I would add that new technology and/or fuel sources won’t make more space for cars, and sprawl is also a real environmental issue.

    I’m just sick about the lack of vision our elected officials are showing. All of us will eventually pay the price.

  18. What I worry about, as a chemist, is that we’ll see a revival or extension of the car-based community model using hydrogen fuel cells. While battery technology isn’t advancing significantly, as Ben noted, hydrogen storage technologies are improving. And, given that hydrogen storage is a pretty new concept, there’s likely a lot of room for new developments. Of course, hydrogen-based technology is going to rely on electricity to generate hydrogen from water, so ultimately we’re using coal or possibly nuclear power. (If we were willing to reprocess nuclear waste, we could stretch uranium sources pretty far.)

    If it was nuclear based, it’d be carbon-neutral. But I think most of the people here aren’t really interested in finding a way to make a car culture more environmentally friendly. There are livability issues, congestion issues and lots of other things that have been discussed here.

    You can argue that this hydrogen fuel-cell based system still has a lot of problems and may never pan out, but I think that possibility is even more dangerous. Because it’s a pretty feasible-sounding set up and when the economy recovers and gas gets expensive again, or when the oceans rise and coastal cities flood, people are going to have to decide where we go next. Transit and density? Or a hydrogen miracle that might not work but wouldn’t require most of us to change our lifestyle? I think the more transit infrastructure we get into place now, the more easy it will be for people to choose transit.

    1. With congestion pricing, cars don’t have to be nearly as disruptive as they are today.

      I don’t know that much about fuel cell technology, but hydrogen in general is really dangerous. Skilled and trained hydregon handlers with carful handling procedures still have deadly accidents all the time. A drunk idiot with a cigar at a gas pump is still unlikely to hurt himself. The hydrogen technology has to not just improve and become more efficient, it would also have to be very safe.

      1. Good point about congestion pricing. I suppose in my ideal one-hundred years from now future for the world there are still cars. Even if transit could get me everywhere I could possibly need to go(sadly right now it really can’t; blame my grandparents for living in Duvall) I’d still want to be able to rent a truck to buy furniture off craigslist or it’s 22nd century equivalent.

        As for fuel cell safety, most of the R&D right now is focused on solid-phase storage, creating some sort of complex (often using a small amount of a transition metal) that can capture hydrogen as a safely handled solid and release the gas quickly for reaction. The science of is is pretty cool really, although finding a complex with just the right properties is difficult.

    2. I was under the impression that fuel cells were less energy dense per unit of mass than current battery technology – not to mention seal leakage or flammability. And don’t they cost a lot more than regular batteries?

      1. For the current technology that we have working prototypes of, yes. I think some of the newer solid-phase proposed models might be quite a bit better, but I don’t know the exact numbers. (I’m actually more of a biochemist!) Leakage and flammability aren’t an issue if you’re working with a solid that slowly releases the gas as it’s needed. Cost I have really no idea about right now. Most of the newest technology with the most potential is incredibly expensive now, but some of those costs would scale down with mass production. Some of them wouldn’t. I’ve seen solids that bind Hydrogen using the transition metal Rhodium. They have some interesting properties, but would be far too insanely expensive to mass-produce. Others using boron are lighter and cheaper.

        My point isn’t really that fuel cells are the salvation of the car. They might work; they might not. It’s that we have to persuade people that it’s more important to build transit infrastructure now than to hope for some miracle ‘green car’. Because there’s probably always going to be some technology that looks like it might be the answer, even if this one doesn’t pan out.

      2. I think that we already know they won’t work. If you’re using a solid, you’re even less energy dense…

  19. Sorry, but no more initiatives please. This is the problem with Seattle and why it takes forever to get anything done here. It time to move forward guys. Trust me, transit will come eventually. Just be patient.

    1. Time to move forward with something that saddles us with highway capacity for a century? I don’t think so. Sometimes we do have to fight.

      Also note that a city initiative is not a state initiative.

      1. The citizens of Seattle have fought this fight before. The city had a plan to criss-cross Seattle with freeways in the 50’s and 60’s. The R.H. Thomson expressway was going to roughly follow MLK through the CD, Madison Valley and the arboretum and finally hook up with 520 where the “ramps to nowhere” are now. It was a long fight, but the citizens finally defeated it, and the Bay Freeway, by referendum in 1972. A lot of anti-freeway sentiment was generated in Seattle when I-5 was pushed through downtown without any neighborhood mitigation.

      2. The city has fought the viaduct replacement for almost ten yrs now as well. Back and fourth politics on this issue has been very costly to this city and if we continue with this, if its not our way than we don’t want it perspective, we will continue to add more cost and problems to this situation and nothing will ever get done. It’s time to move forward before its too late.

      3. Too late for what?

        The whole point is that we don’t want anything to get done. We want to just let them tear down the current viaduct.

        By the way? Under the surface plans, the current viaduct goes down in 2012. Under the tunnel plan, they keep it up for years longer.

      4. I don’t think so. I know one of the ploys for the deep pockets tunnel is that they could leave the viaduct in place but I believe it is coming down in 2012 no matter what. Unless of course it falls down before then. The State is tired of the maintenance and afraid of the liability. I think it’s also an attempt to force a resolution and eliminate a seismic retrofit which could leave it in place for another 20 years.

      5. “The whole point is that we don’t want anything to get done” and that’s the whole problem with our city planning process, nothing ever gets done! Also,to make an assumption that the viaduct will come 2012 just because of its current conditions is not very cunning. If it was that simple then why not just bring it down now? or even next year? It time to put the Never Ending Story to rest and move forward.

      6. Also,to make an assumption that the viaduct will come 2012 just because of its current conditions is not very cunning.

        I don’t have time to search through the budget right now but my understanding is that the removal is already funded. Construction (destruction?) has already begun at the south end. Work is proceeding with the assumption that this is the start of tunnel construction. Quick, build it before the voters say NO (again).

  20. Fighting for transit is good but not at a cost for many lives that will be lost if we continue to have more initiatives and costly studies on this issue. Honestly, I like surface transit as well. However, its time to move forward with the tunnel.

    1. …do you think they’d just not tear down the viaduct? Is that why you’re rolling over? They’ll tear it down no matter what.

  21. Yes, because of this one word. GRIDLOCK. It’s either tunnel or new elevated. They’ve determined through many studies already that surface-transit can only help resolve a small portion of the total problem. I believe something in their studies trigger them not to go with surface-transit. Probably, because the fear of overload on I-5 and gridlock on the waterfront it may create. I like surface-transit but looking at all the different possibilities and outcomes I think they made a good judgment with the tunnel.

  22. As I read all the comments, and Bens original post again, it’s clear that we mostly agree that Darwin will win out in the long term.
    It’s the transition from Oil, to Coal, to Hydrogen, to Nuclear, to …??? that concerns me the most.
    We can’t continue to print money forever. Any Econ101 student gets that question right on the final exam.
    If we continue to blow our ecconimic resources on things like the AWV tunnel, and shortchange alternatives that do effect our global condition (like electric bikes for example), or transit, then our species will look dramatically different in decades to come — fewer of us, clustered in sustainable outposts, on higher ground in some scenerios.
    HSR from PDX to SEA can be electrified. Plug in jets are problematic! That’s just one example of what I think Ben is getting at. Get ahead of the curve, and the consequeses of transition from A to B to C is acceptable.
    Hang on to the old ways of doing things till the bitter end, just wastes time and resources with a dramatically different outcome.
    Just one opinion.

  23. After all these costly studies, it time to move on. Btw, I’m sure you already know, the governor sign the bill yesterday afternoon. No, I’m not rolling over,but I understand it time to move forward with a plan. NO MORE DELAYS!

  24. Gosh, it would be nice if the forward-looking people here could come up with a master plan so every cent spent could build efficient mass-transit for the future.

    But wait! What am I saying! The forward-looking people here have been presented with a plan to build a tunnel under Seattle- a tunnel that could in the future carry express transit under Seattle instead of through it- and they’re turning thumbs down. So much for that crystal ball.

    In fact, if you said that light-rail could run through the tunnel and continue north and south on the Highway 99 ROW, these same tunnel-haters would immediately point out that cars and trucks use 99 and we couldn’t possibly convert it to a rail line. You don’t need a tunnel to have tunnel-vision.

    The future is not a straight-line projection of the past. Building the tunnel will not encourage suburban sprawl or even mean it will be used as a highway for the next 50 years. Times change, and with maybe 30 years left to curb runaway AGW, they’re going to change a lot faster than we are accustomed to.

    You might end up being glad they built that tunnel back when they thought they had the money to do it.

    1. Your idea of just waiting until the auto traffic dies down and then putting a subway in the viaduct is intriguing, except for the station issue. One, there will be another subway two blocks away. Two, if it’s used for the Ballard-to-West-Seattle rail (or even continuing up Aurora), how many people really want to go from south Seattle to north Seattle without stopping downtown? The majority of riders will want to stop downtown, either because that’s their destination or to transfer to another line.

      1. A station could be built later if they decided to do this. I imagine a new SR99 underground station that will serve as a connector to the current downtown transit tunnel. This could become a major transfer point. I believe this will eventually happen.

      2. Well, obviously, letting them build a road tunnel and then converting it to rail is far from ideal. However, the road tunnel is being built for the traffic that wants to bypass downtown. That portion of that traffic which is commuters will still want to bypass downtown after they give up their cars.

        Then there’s the fact that the Sounder trains run on freight rails. If we get harsh on the truckers and say the containers have to leave the port on railroad cars, that’s so much more traffic on those freight rails. With the LINK essentially running a local service a faster longer-distance commuter service with fewer stops on the 99 alignment might be desirable.

        And the south entrance to the proposed tunnel is pretty close to the present station stop for Sounder, which AFAIK does not otherwise stop within Seattle city limits.

        In any case, the really expensive parts of building a tunnel are boring the tunnel and installing the lining. Transit systems rebuild stations all the time for far less expense.

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