[UPDATE 2: Numbers corrected on DBT transit funding.]

[UPDATE: It may very well be that nothing can stop the tunnel at this point. However, tunnel opponents are told that trying to stop it could lead to a worse outcome. The point of this post is that it isn’t the case.]

We’ve made it abundantly clear that the Surface/Transit/I-5 option is the best one, on the policy merits, to replace the viaduct. Spending billions to maintain highway capacity, including $2.4 billion in unrestricted non-gas-tax funds, when so many other transportation priorities go unfunded is fundamentally unsound. Both portals will create huge, dozen-lane-width concrete plazas hostile into any human-scale activity near some of our most delicate neighborhoods. Many tunnel proponents tacitly admit this when they explain that this is the best deal we can get out of Olympia, rather than defend the tunnel on the underlying merits.

Although it is far less important than the overall policy critique, the debate has paid a lot of attention to the troublesome details. No one has committed to fund the overruns; there are large technical and financial risks; and the required tolling rate will divert most of the traffic the tunnel is intended to absorb.

But is it the best deal we can get? I haven’t done a whip count in the legislature, but let’s assume that Governor, House, and Senate can’t be brought around to the best solution. My perception is that, left to their own devices, the State would have rebuilt the viaduct long ago, and that the DBT is viewed as a concession to Seattle. Is fighting for that concession worthwhile? In other words, given the choice between tunnel and new viaduct, which is a better option for advocates of alternative transportation? Consider:

1. The viaduct is $700m cheaper, and includes transit. The final iteration of the rebuild scenario priced it at $3.5 billion, including $267m for transit improvements. The DBT has $190m in county investment in transit, which King County has no authority to raise and is not included in the $4.2 billion figure. In other words, when you set aside transit improvements and assume the viaduct would be tolled*, there is $800m 1 billion available for other priorities, most of it likely at Seattle’s disposal. $800m is equivalent to the midpoint estimate for the rest of the Streetcar network ($545m 345m), AND the whole Bike Master Plan ($240m, according to the Mayor’s office).

2. Net neighborhood impacts. It’s clear that the space opened up on the waterfront will be used not to create a new, dense neighborhood, but as a giant park for existing neighborhoods. Everyone loves parks, but this one is costing us $1 billion and will forever devote large chunks of Pioneer Square and Uptown to impassable asphalt.

3. It’s Four Lanes. When Seattle voted on the waterfront options, voters were presented with a monstrous six lane viaduct built to modern highway standards, substantially bulkier than the current viaduct. What isn’t as well known is that the final iteration was a four-lane, single-deck bypass. An elevated option wouldn’t introduce any more capacity than a DBT. As a bonus, it would preserve the Western Ave. ramps.

4. Significant Transit Improvements. Under the rebuild plan, downtown’s transit infrastructure would be transformed: a First Avenue Streetcar all the way to Seattle Center; bus lanes on Marginal Way, 4th Ave S, Washington St, Main St, Madison, Pike, Pine, Stewart, Howell, Battery, Wall, 1st Ave W, and Olive Way; BAT lanes on Aurora all the way down to Aloha St; and additional service hours.

The idea of a waterfront park is an appealing one, but the price tag to get it is simply unacceptable to anyone with any other priorities. The viaduct debate is famously divided between three factions, each willing to veto the others and none able to command a majority to accomplish anything. Surface/Transit advocates would do well to endorse a viaduct if it’s the only way to stop the tunnel.

* If there’s no tolling, then the figure is $600m, but then you’re not extracting $400m from the people of Seattle, which has its own benefits.  Personally, I’d prefer if they applied the toll.

96 Replies to “Editorial: Viaduct or Tunnel”

  1. How loud would it be? For me at least, the roar of the viaduct is a much bigger blight on the waterfront and Harbor Steps than any visual impact.

    1. I don’t know for sure but from my understanding a large part of the noise comes from sound from cars on the lower level reflecting off the top level and coming back down.

    2. The current viaduct is loud because the upper deck deflects the noise from the lower deck down to the ground. It is similar to the roof of the Kingdome deflecting crowd noise back down onto the field. It is the same reason the I-5 bridge over the boat canal is so loud when you are on the ground near it — because it is double-decked.

      The Spokane Street viaduct, for one example, is not nearly as noisy as the Alaskan Way viaduct, because the Spokane St. viaduct is single-deck.

      The noise can be mitigated with sound-absorbing material on the bottom of the upper deck so the noise from the lower deck is not deflected to the ground.

      Or, in a scenario that Martin describes, whici is side-by-side single deck viaducts, there would be no upper deck to deflect the noise back to the ground. Single deck viaducts would be much quieter than the current double-deck viaduct.

      There is also now “quiet asphalt”, which has been used in places in our area, and which cuts traffic noise signifcantly, although there seems to be a problem with it wearing out too fast because of studded tires being used in the winter.

      At any rate, any new viadcut would be much quieter than the current viaduct.

      The noise issue is somewhat of a red herring, anyway. If you are near any bus or truck on Alaskan Way surface street, it completely drowns out the noise from the viaduct. With the surface option, there would be many more large trucks on the surface street along the waterfront, along with buses, which, along with the many thousands of other vehicles forced to use the surface street on the waterfront, would create their own noise issue.

    3. If you want to get some idea, try going to the fremont troll. It’s really not noisy. You also might try visiting the area under the ship canal bridge after midnight when they close the express lanes — completely different from the daytime.

      Now it will still be noisy at Victor Steinbrueck park as that is above the highway. Things like “quiet asphalt” could be tried to further improve it, but the benefit is likely to be short-lived. They tested that on 520, and at first the difference was amazing, but after a year it’s as noisy as any other asphalt.

      I have to say I’m surprised to see that the state has released plans for a reduced capacity viaduct. But then WSDOT did release surface plans as well, so I’m not sure I’d take the existence of this proposal to mean there is a chance in hell the political leaders in this state will allow this to happen.

  2. “But is it the best deal we can get?”(Martin)
    Probably, given the fact that the sealed bids are open, and an award to start building isn’t very far behind.

    1. I don’t think you understand the question. If the choice really is viaduct or tunnel, is the tunnel really better?

      1. I don’t think there is any “tunnel vs. elevated” choice. I believe “elevated” is dead as an option and would never be built.

        The choice we have is “tunnel+surface vs. surface only”. Given that choice, and the fact that the State wouldn’t pay a cent for the “surface only” option, I think it is clear that the “tunnel+surface” is the best choice.

        I agree with the Bremerton Mayor’s criticism of Seattle: “Never has a city done so little with so much.”

        Stop the debate and build the d*mn tunnel.

      2. Well, I thought I did.
        (Martin said)”In other words, given the choice between tunnel and new viaduct, which is a better option for advocates of alternative transportation?”
        Trying to get the DBT called off, after so much has been sunk in the bidding process is like asking a battleship to stop on a dime.
        But stranger things have happened (NJ-NY tunnel called off, Monorail killed). Personally, IMHO the DBT is a mistake, but that’s worth less than a latte tall.

      3. lazarus,

        I hope you’re right that the choice is surface or tunnel because that’s a better choice to have.

        But a lot of local tunnel supporters claim that if the tunnel doesn’t work out the State will simply rebuild the viaduct. My point is that that would actually be a better outcome, and so is nothing to fear.

    1. I didn’t want to make the post too long, but most of Seattle’s expenditure is on the waterfront. If WSDOT is putting the viaduct right where it currently is, there’s much less scope for the city to have anything to do.

      Certainly, if the city had left well enough alone I think we’d be in good shape to get all of the above. Now that we’d be trying to change horses, the legislature may very well only be willing to change if it reduces their overall contribution.

  3. The current viaduct is to be demolished because it supposedly will not survive an earthquake. My only question is — what will happen to either alternative after the “big one”? The EIS for the original viaduct stated that the new viaduct would also not be usable after a large ‘quake. The same EIS did say that the new viaduct might not kill as many people. Both viaducts are built on fill and the soil conditions would not change.

    The advantage to the tunnel is that it MIGHT survive an earthquake (based solely on the fact that it is built on better soil, presumably), although after a lot of looking I have not been able to find anything about the tunnels survivability.

    So, which expensive option will require the least amount to repair when the big one hits? I am in favor of leaving the current viaduct and rebuilding after.

    1. On tunnel survivability, well 300 years ago, out on the coast, the land moved 6ft. If you think a tunnel moving 6 ft, then imagine yourself in it, and recognize that it’s below the waterline, you might not want to build it. Of course that depends on whether the sheer force is perpendicular to a section of the tunnel, or would the whole tunnel move as a single unit.

      If you are interested in what can happen in a severe earthquake, you might like to look at “A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906” by S. Winchester. We aren’t likely to have this amount of earth movement, 21 ft, but even 6ft in the wrong direction is going to be bad.

      1. During the Loma Prieta earthquake, the Bay Bridge broke but the Bart tunnel didn’t. In fact, BART was opened and used as soon as inspections were finished; the bridge, not so much. Same place, different results.

      2. Phil – sorry to nitpick, but it should be noted that the BART tunnel is an immersed tube, not a bored tunnel. While it would certainly be affected by shifts in the ground below it, it’s behavior in seismic events will be different than a bored tunnel (completely surrounded by earth).

      3. Brett – you are correct that they would have some differences. I would expect the immersed tube to fare worse than bored tunnel. Water pressure directly on exterior of the immersed tube will find any cracks before you do.

  4. Interesting points regarding the funding issues and costs for the tunnel vs. an elevated option.
    I see the I-5/surface option as the best as well.
    Yes, the WSDOT approach to any design work typically ends up eating enormous swaths of real estate with the SODO connectors around the stadiums a perfect example of this. You’re right that the tunnel entrances and surrounding circulation will significantly impact neighborhoods that are already impacted, possibly pushing any possible pedestrian presence permanently out of them.
    However, the section included with this article reminds me of 5th avenue under the Monorail. The difference in this instance would be an almost constant flow of traffic with the associated noise. That is still a significant impact if you ask me.
    Is this an instance where the city is effectively looking at a trade of sorts, trying to develop the pedestrian presence along the waterfront and more importantly, in connectivity to the waterfront along the east/west street corridors in exchange for the impacts to the SODO/Stadium/south Pioneer Square and the Mercer/Aurora corridors?

  5. The tunnel would be a far better solution. The wall of roar and fumes that is a viaduct would marginalize forever the waterfront. Better take a chance and aim high, than end up with a beautified version of the current situation. From my humble experience, I have lived in big cities all my life and I am used to high density of cars in high density neighborhoods, and the current waterfront in Seattle (with a whole highway) is a place that even I cannot imagine myself living in (one I5 is enough). Density without livability = mediocre long term decay.

    1. Please select a different handle. I’m no fan of first-name-only tags, but we already have a Frank who is a longtime commenter.

    2. Yes the tunnel will make the waterfront more livable, but it will do so by blighting South Lake Union and SODO/Pioneer Square. Is that a tradeoff we want?

      1. Those large interchanges will exist for *any* of the highway options. Yes the tunnel is the only design that has the ventilation buildings but those aren’t the worst thing, all the lanes of traffic are.

      2. The diagram in the link doesn’t seem quite as obtrusive as the DBT’s version. The north portal is obviously status quo.

      3. It will be better than the current disaster between SLU and QA. We’ll actually be able to drive and walk across 99 instead of being limited to Mercer going west and Broad going east, with Denny as a last resort going both ways.

      4. How will it blight those areas? At worst, it will preserve the wasteland status quo in the relatively small areas where they wi build the interchanges, while removing blight from the couple mile long stretch along the Viaduct and the few blocks north of Denny along what is now Aurora in Pioneer Square.

  6. An elevated viaduct on our waterfront is not a choice we should even consider. This is a 100 year decision and we must reclaim our waterfront, especially if we want more people living downtown. The elevated option is rightfully dead.

    I would also point out that the “impassable asphalt” would exist in Pioneer Square under an elevated scenario as well. And I believe you are overstating what the north portal will look like.

    The political reality is that if Seattle says no to the tunnel, the $3 billion will go elsewhere to fund 520 and finish 509. The state will simply build a crappy surface street and take their money elsewhere. We do not have the votes or the political ability, especially with this mayor, to win transit improvements from the legislature after saying no to the tunnel.

    1. A “crappy surface street” would put us in a better position fiscally and reduce car capacity, favoring transit use.

      1. I don’t realize that reducing car capacity was the primary goal of the viaduct replacement program. If it is, then Mayor McSchwinn needs to be honest with the State and with the citizens of Seattle and just admit that this is what he is all about.

        But making “reducing car capacity” the goal of the replacement program isn’t going to win the mayor any friends, and it isn’t going to move the viaduct replacement effort forward. Such utopian ideals might appeal to a few on the fringe, but they just aren’t going to play regionally.

      2. Hey, I don’t have a big problem with a surface street, but don’t be under any illusions the state is going to deliver on the “transit” of surface/transit. You may as well call it surface/lollypops.

      3. If the transit is unfunded, then you have a billion dollar cost difference. I’ll contend that the city pockets most of that, to be used on any number of worthy causes.

      4. I don’t realize that reducing car capacity was the primary goal of the viaduct replacement program.

        It’s not the primary goal, but if you’re ill disposed to funding transit capacity instead of car capacity you really don’t understand what this blog is about.

      5. While I really enjoy this blog, and I share many of the underlying ideals, the “I’m going to take my blog and go home” attitude isn’t healthy.

        You should cultivate decent. At least civil, reasoned decent. Otherwise your discussion grow stale.

        Just a recommendation based on being an eye-witness to quality blogs gone bad.

      6. And therein lies the paradox. I feel like I’m a dissenter but without spell checker I would descend into the class that can’t be tolerated. I guess only true liberals recognize something that is “misspelt” :=

      7. One of the problems, lazarus, is that the goal is not supposed to be “maintaining vehicle capacity” either. It’s supposed to be focused on the ability “to move people and goods through the corridor.”

        It should come as no surprise that the focus on vehicle capacity increased through the EIS process in order to make the tunnel look better as an alternative.

  7. I think the waterfront park is a silly choice. Why not just expand downtown to the waterfront? More residences and businesses, and perhaps a few smaller parks.

    1. What makes Kirkland’s waterfront so nice is access. Even if we didn’t build right on the shoreline, parks on the water help people realize that dumping crud into a street drain has consequences that you can see. Besides, the shoreline is sand, building on a sand foundation is not smart.

  8. I’m wondering that even if the state wants to build the tunnel, is there money for it? It looks like they have already spent 1/2 the contingency fund on the design which doesn’t leave much for real emergencies like one of the tunnel borers getting stuck.

    I’m all for another downtown tunnel, but it appears to me that it should be for the Light Rail system not more cars. That’s the future, electric mass transit, not more individual transit via autos. In the long run we should be looking at servicing West Seattle & points South, and Ballard and points North. If I understand the capacity of the current rail/bus tunnel when the Eastside link is completed we will be at full capacity.

    Also with 40% or more of the current viaduct traffic choosing to not use the new tunnel due to tolls and lack of downtown exits, It makes me wonder if it’s really worth it?

    Yes we need to fix the sea wall, but to spend $3Billion on this tunnel seems stupid. Even if the money goes to the 520 bridge. The 520 bridge money has to come from somewhere.

    We live in a time of transition from fossil fuels to something else, (wind & solar & hydrogen) seems like the smart thing to do is recognize that fact and build for that future.

    1. Im not a betting guy, but I’d bet that after The Governor’s 6+ hour meeting with Departmental Secretaries last Sunday that we are going to find out that there is no money for this project. 520? Maybe. 509 and 99? Prolly no. Just a guess.

    2. Hear hear, Gary. Forget the tunnel, build a surface replacement, and focus our limited funds on other road projects (520 and other worn out bridges), the sea wall replacement, and improved transit & pedestrian/bike access. The next tunnel under downtown should be for additional rail capacity (this is probably way off in the future).

  9. You can’t think rationally about the options.

    Olympia only sees it in terms of revenue dollars.

    Doing what’s right, or efficient, is irrelevant.

  10. I have to disagree with the whole premise of your post. Yes given its own devices WSDOT would have built a new elevated structure but that is an artificially simplified world that doesn’t exist.

    There is one thing that just about all Seattle elected officials agree about and that is a new elevated structure is not an option. When the council asked voters about which option they want, the council phrased in a way specifically designed to kill the elevated structure. If the state tried to push the project through, it might succeed but the City would do *everything* in its power to stop it.

    You wrote this to say it isn’t between surface+transit or tunnel, it is between elevated or tunnel. I just disagree with that. If the tunnel falls apart I just don’t see a new elevated structure in the cards.

    1. It’s the pro-tunnel majority on the Council that’s saying the choice is viaduct or tunnel, because Olympia would never go for Surface/Transit/I-5.

      What I’m saying is that that is a superior outcome to the DBT, and City Council members are wrong to favor the DBT over the elevated option.

      1. Their saying that as a scare tactic to get people on board with the tunnel. I think the only way we will know whether this is true or not is for it to happen.

        Obviously the less you spend on highway the more you can spend on transit. I totally agree on that, but I’m not really sure you would see any more investment in transit with an elevated viaduct than you would with a tunnel.

        An elevated structure might lead to a “superior outcome” from a purely transit perspective but that isn’t the only important aspect of this project.

      2. The point is that the funds freed up are largely unrestricted city and county authority. It’s likely to be used for something better than what WSDOT would do.

      3. They currently don’t have the money together to build the DBT and the Sea Wall and other elements, and they’re scrambling to find other sources of funds. There’s no way that, in the event that they built the cheaper elevated option, they would go to all that effort and raise taxes so that we could spend that extra $700m on transit. And given that the Governor reneged on her promise and vetoed the provision to put money towards transit as part of the DBT plan, I am extremely skeptical that the State would put any money towards transit. They’d be looking for somewhere in the budget to cut, and transit would be first on the chopping block.

      4. @ alexjonlin

        From my understanding WSDOT is the one agency that has off of its funds identified and somewhat secured. The biggest outstanding fund source is the $300 million from the Port of Seattle. The City and Metro right now have essentially $0 dollars set aside for this project. Most of the Cities money will go to reconstruction of Alaska Way and the seawall. With RapidRide capitol improvements already paid for most new Metro funds will go towards service hours.

  11. I think the unofficial plan is to stall until nature makes the viaduct unusable. If that takes 10 more years, we won’t be talking about moving autos via viaduct or a tunnel. As SOV travel will have become too expensive and folks will be clamoring for more Mass Transit and a Light Rail extension package will be the best build out option.

      1. It’s an excellent video, but he never mentions coal. He doesn’t mention global warming, which is central to the argument: sure we’re depleting fossil fuels faster than they were created, but we’re going to burn the world up much faster than we’re going to risk running out of oil.

    1. It’s hard to imagine SOV travel ever becoming too expensive as long as governments are willing to spend billions of dollars subsidizing it. The tunnel is the perfect example. Our state has a massive deficit and is not just cutting but eliminating essential services for the neediest, and yet it’s going to spend billions of dollars to build a tunnel which is primarily used for SOV travel (and can’t be used by transit, cyclists, or pedestrians). A tunnel that runs completely counter to the state’s stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And nearly all of our “liberal environmentally-friendly” [sic] elected officials are supporting it.

  12. This option intrigues me. But, I think its a pipe dream unless there are more bid/funding issues sometime soon here. I may just have to move, because I really don’t want to live through Seattle’s version of the big dig disaster. The tunnel really is going to become that.

    You could reduce the visual impact by putting the two directions at slightly different elevations (say SB 10 ft lower) since it looks like the different directions are not connected. It continues the slope of the hillside that way and has negligible impacts on function.

  13. It’s nice that the picture that WSDOT chose to use was at the widest point and fails to mention the width of the viaducts. Further south, near the Coleman dock, they would almost completely cover the space below.

    1. The footprint isn’t much wider than the road below, so completely eliminating the viaduct won’t save you much space.

  14. Martin, I agree with your sentiment, but I’m not sure I agree with all the points you make, first:

    Everyone loves parks, but this one is costing us $1 billion and will forever devote large chunks of Pioneer Square and Uptown to impassable asphalt.

    Aren’t both these places already devoted to asphalt or are some new monstrosities being built? I both openings to the tunnel are places where SR-99 exists as a major freeway already.

    The viaduct debate is famously divided between three factions, each willing to veto the others and none able to command a majority to accomplish anything. Surface/Transit advocates would do well to endorse a viaduct if it’s the only way to stop the tunnel.

    For whatever maddening reasons, Surface/Transit has no credibility in Olympia. In hindsight, fighting for a rebuild would have been the right approach for surface supporters both for the reasons you mention and because it might be possible to tear down the rebuild at some future date (it will eventually decay as well).

    However, it’s just too late now. Surface/Transit supporters were never taken seriously because:
    1) We showed up too late.
    2) When we did show up, it we focused on the wrong arguments; talking about greenhouse gas emissions and streetcars scores you no points with a highway lobby, something that should be patently obvious.
    3) We rejected any compromise when we did show up; as this post highlights.

    Face it: we went for all the marbles and got none.

    1. Andrew,

      It may very well be too late. I think the takeaway from this piece is to ignore threats that we’ll be stuck with a rebuild if tunnel opponents succeed. A rebuild would be an improvement, if not the ideal solution.

    2. Pioneer Square, The ID, and South Lake Union are not “devoted to asphalt”. They are places where it is possible to walk around, and communicate with a large number of places and people — places that are in short supply elsewhere in the city.

      Seriously, you need to go back and look at those portal drawings again. They are SHOCKINGLY vast and impassible. For all that the tunnel is supposedly “underground”, there’s almost as much concrete above ground at surface level than there is with I-5.

      1. Pioneer Square, The ID, and South Lake Union are not “devoted to asphalt”.

        You very well know that was not what I was implying.

        As for the North portal, Aurora from Denny northward is every bit as impassable and devoted to asphalt today as it appears in the renderings. In fact, the tunnel would drop cars onto the surface a couple of blocks farther north – around Republican. This would not be a substantial pedestrian decrease from the present situation and may in fact be better.

        The south portal design is just a little less-pedestrian friendly than what’s there today, and that doesn’t matter anyway since the only thing to the west of Alaskan Way south of King is the Port, which is itself devoted to Asphalt.

        You honestly want to argue this and this are somehow passable?

        And if you are arguing for a completely pedestrian friendly alternative built with any state funds or help then you are the child reaching for the all marbles I described in my comment.

      2. Go look at the drawings. The thing is TWELVE LANES WIDE — the equivalent of sixteen when you count all the shoulders and slopes and whatnot. Yes, Aurora is a problem today. The tunnel doesn’t solve that problem, it expands it.

        The biggest obstacle in your first picture is the stadium. The current viaduct can be walked under, and is thus not an obstacle at all. As for the lack of good pedestrian uses, those don’t have to come from state funds; they ideally can come from the city using its regulatory power to encourage development, by making the places attractive to development. The fact that the city has no freaking clue how to do this today doesn’t mean we should pave it all over and make it permanently impossible.

        Your picture also shows the corner of not one but two fragile but vital neighborhood which the tunnel will, by its proponents’ own estimates, dump a gazillion cars a day into — I can’t remember, is it 60,000?

        Those portals are ghastly, and you surely have to realize it. They would be among the worst atrocities ever built in an American downtown.

      3. I agree the portals are terrible, I just think what’s there is also terrible, and you’re right about dumping all those damned cars there. The tunnel’s pretty much the worst option, I just think it’s our fault we got it, because we were never taken seriously. I remember talking to Dave Dye(WSDOT Deputy secretary) several years ago and the conversation went something like this:

        Me: You don’t need a new highway, just tear it down and put in a surface street.
        Him: I’ve heard this before. Your surface street would need to be an bigger highway and would close off the downtown from the waterfront. That’s why the city wants the tunnel, and no one wants to pay for it.
        Me: Not a highway, just a normal city arterial.
        Him: The capacity is way smaller, where are all those cars going to go? Me: Build transit for those people. They did this in San Francisco with the Embarcadero.
        Him: Assuming you even had the money and the ability to complete that innecessary time frame – you have neither – what about the freight capacity? You can’t just shutdown the Port. The Embarcadero was never a major freight corridor.
        Me: Oh that will be fine when everyone’s on transit.
        Him: You can’t be serious.

        I didn’t even bring up global warming, but from where I started there was no half-way to meet him.

    1. Hear, hear!

      In whatever option ends up getting built, there will be plenty of room for the GBWF streetcar line, two-way trackage even. (And no, a modern carline on First Avenue is not a substitute — that’s serving a completely different market).

  15. One problem with a new viaduct is that the old one has to come down before the new one can go up. Which means there will be a couple of years of nothing — no through traffic, no access to the waterfront. Anyone else remember how the construction of the bus tunnel killed downtown? Yes, you COULD wend your way through the mess, but unless you were a serious devotee of construction machinery you wouldn’t want to.

    During that whole time the through traffic is going to have no alternative but to drive through or around downtown. Access will be markedly LESS than it would be after a surface option.

    So, when they finish, the waterfront and all its businesses will be dead, and the traffic will have been forced to its knees already.

    The tunnel is simply not permissible due partly to cost (which we can’t afford even if there are no overruns) and, to my mind more importantly, the permanent disasters of the portals. I seriously believe that a completed DBT will provoke gasps of horror amongst all who see it, for eternity.

    Freight mobility is destroyed in both cases.

    So both these options destroy the thing they’re supposedly trying to save. Neither option even remotely addresses the fundamental problem with the waterfront, which is that when there are no USES, there’s no people. People TALK about “the waterfront” but realistically what little it’s being used for now is probably the best you’re going to get, since there are no plans for more commerce, or, you know, BOATS. A park is a waste of time. But neither the new viaduct and the tunnel do anything more for the area than a park; they all still feature vast areas of no use (and the tunnel creates new areas of no use that aren’t there).

    So why not go with the one that does the least damage?

    1. Fnarf, the issue here is the fear that a “couple of years of nothing” (actually probably more like 3+ years…) might not be so bad. Traffic adjusts. People change commute times, and modes. The “optional” traffic goes away (the reverse of latent demand; it’s something the highway tub-thumpers just can’t grasp).

      And if traffic adjusts and things aren’t so bad, then why the Hell are we spending $x billion on this thing (now a new viaduct)?

  16. Thanks for continuing to raise new alternatives, question existing assumptions, and engage in out-of-the-box thinking that makes STB a must-read. The tunnel proponents have argued that a viaduct-less waterfront is the key to Seattle’s future, but until now nobody has compared this benefit with what we get with the viaduct. If I have to choose between more RapidRide and streetcars vs a waterfront park, I’ll take the RapidRide and streetcars, thank you. And not having the weight of tunnel cost overruns on our heads will make it easier to convert the RapidRide routes to Link later.

  17. You know, traffic moved along the waterfront just fine in 1953 before the Viaduct was completed. And I hear they even had cars and freight traffic back then, and the city had almost half a million people. It sounds impossible but it’s true!

    So, while it would be silly to claim that traffic would work just the same almost 60 years later with a much bigger metro area and more traffic, it’s just as silly to pretend that it’s impossible for a city of about our size to function and even thrive without a waterfront freeway. We don’t need it, in any form. I think keeping something with a similar footprint to the current monstrosity would be better than a 12-16 lane freeway that squeezes down to a 4-lane tunnel for a short stretch downtown, but I think our efforts are best spent asking the state to spend the money on something else.

    Of course then I worry about the money going to make the 520 replacement even worse, or building the Cross Base Highway in Pierce County. We’d really be better off to reduce highway spending to maintenance only until the budgetary situation improves (and then put the new money into transit). But this is the project that’s easiest to kill first, and we should take the chance.

    1. Also, when the original viaduct was built there was no I-5. For heaven’s sake, do we really need two downtown freeways a mile apart?

    2. I’m actually a pro-tunnel person, and not ashamed to admit it. But, more than that, I absolutely agree with part of Cascadian’s last paragraph. We should stop building NEW roads and highways until we can actually maintain the ones we’ve got. If we keep building new roads, then it just means there’s MORE roads that need to be maintained in the future.

  18. One thing that isn’t mentioned though, is the Alaskan/Western one-way couplet. It would turn Western and Alaskan, currently a sleepy back road and a slow-moving tourist boulevard respectively, each into busy 3-lane one-way arterials directly attached to 99. They’d serve as surface extensions of the highway, basically, and was one of the concessions Seattle made to get WSDOT on board with a reduced capacity tunnel.

    The plans don’t show the couplet on the rebuild option, though. It shows a nicely packaged 4-lane, 2 way alaskan tucked in UNDERNEATH the structure (not side-by-side with it like the current Alaskan & Viaduct), and no changes to Western.

  19. I can’t believe that a blog dedicated to promoting transit and urbanism could possibly propose building an elevated highway along our waterfront. Have you really learned nothing from the last 50 or 60 years of awful highway building? At-grade and elevated freeways destroy neighborhoods, flat out. Your main argument seems to be that it would save $700m, but that’s ignoring the huge costs of having an elevated highway along the waterfront. The vast majority of the area west of First Ave is a wasteland, with few people and no retail along the streets and many vacant or underused buildings, despite the fact that it’s within a couple blocks of the core of our dense, vibrant Downtown, and this is mostly due to the Viaduct. That area of dozens if not hundreds of acres would see property values rise dramatically, vacant lots filled with high rise buildings and vacant historic factories turned into trendy lofts with clubs and restaurants along the street. None of that will happen if we simply erect another elevated monstrosity along Alaskan Way. A new elevated highway would be there for many decades.
    Building a new freeway Downtown sucks. What with climate change and peak oil and ever-rising population, increasing freeway capacity is the wrong way to go. But given a dichotomy between a sucky urban freeway that goes under Downtown and reinvigorates a huge swath of our center city and one that would preserve blight in that corridor for the next fifty years, it’s pretty clear to me
    Which one is better for our city.

    1. Alexjonlin,

      I didn’t think there was anyone else that agreed with me. Although I prefer a tunnel of the other choices, it is mostly with a heavy heart because of the cost and potential problems. To me, it is the least worse of the choices we have. But, the people that prefer a rebuild, they don’t seem to understand that whatever we get is going to be there for the rest of our lives and far beyond. Making the waterfront an open area, with shops, restaurants, etc, is far better than the constant ringing in my ears I get right now. And, having recently been down to San Francisco, walking along the Embarcadero, just shows me how you really CAN mix lots of traffic but yet still have a pedestrian-friendly, busy waterfront. I hope members of the Seattle Council get a chance to see what San Francisco did.

      1. Yeah, San Francisco is a great example of what we could do with our Waterfront. Around the foot of Market Street across from the Ferry Building is a – gasp – park and plaza that is full of people and that is a great place to be! And although the Embarcadero is in some cases 100 or 120 feet wide (two or three lanes in each direction, streetcar in the center with a buffer on either side of the tracks, in a lot of places parking and/or bike lanes), it’s still inviting for pedestrians. The Alaskan Way roadway will be around 80 feet wide at most in the central waterfront, it looks like.

    2. Seattle is more than just the waterfront. Increasing transit throughout the city makes it a more liveable city, and sorry about the waterfront but we can’t afford to do everything. The city is not going to live or die because one waterfront plan was chosen over another.

  20. BTW, a bit off topic but I am very grateful for the fact that the writers here at STB continue to participate in their blog posts and will even go update their original if necessary. As much as I enjoying reading Dan Bertolet for instance, his hit and run style does subtract some from the blog experience IMO.

  21. We’ve made it abundantly clear that the Surface/Transit/I-5 option is the best one, on the policy merits, to replace the viaduct.

    You could have at least provided a link to your “abundantly clear” proof. Any “abundantly clear” post is also missing from your Key Posts section.

    Perhaps you could back up this statement, rather than an appeal to authority?

    1. Selma,

      It’s not a “proof,” it’s an editorial position we’ve taken again and again. Search for it on this site.

      1. That’s kind of lame, isn’t it? If you’re going to make a huge assumption like that, the very least you could do is back it up with a link.

        In fairness, I’ve noticed this site to be more or less wishy washy on the Viaduct project. I’m a regular reader and haven’t seen the great big “This Is Our Position On the Viaduct” post that could be useful in a situation like this.

      2. You’re right that we haven’t done a collective editorial on the subject. We seldom do those. You’re also very perceptive to detect some wishy-washyness; personally, I was pretty indifferent to the tunnel until I became radicalized about a year ago.

        Anyway, here’s an instant negative reaction:
        And here’s me taking a shot at Nickels over the DBT:
        Adam and Ben have also shown a lot of skepticism about the DBT.

  22. I favour the surface option but don’t really have a say, not even being a US citizen (spelling of favour might give you a clue), but my major fear is that when the inevitable cost overruns come into being, the first thing to be cut will be the “non-essentials”, which to a SOV-oriented planner like those at WSDOT is going to be the various transit options. So you could very well end up with a shiny new viaduct causing all kinds of traffic and sight issues long into the future without any of the mitigating transit infrastructure as a benefit.

    1. That’s something worth remembering in any case. The state subsidies for transit on 520, the various other concessions that are included in a roads-and-transit bargain, and Metro levies like Transit Now, are valid only until the next budget shortfall.

  23. What always gets lost in these freeway rebuild/expansion questions is, if it wasn’t there already, would we build it now? If we didn’t have a viaduct, could we justify spending $3.5B to build a five-minute shortcut through downtown?

    My vote is we build the surface option now, and defer the bypass tunnel until the state has the money. I would suspect that we quickly discover we don’t need to build the tunnel after all. People just need to get used to the idea at first.

    1. If the viaduct wasn’t there already it’s almost inconceivable to me that a new highway would be built. This is all hypothetical but very few new urban highways have been built in the last few decades. We have seen is a major emphasis on expansion, better management and TDM of existing highways/corridors, not creation of new corridors.

      That’s what surface+transit essentially is. Expansion of capacity on I-5, better management of N/S traffic in the city and transit.

  24. First, just for the record, the main reason Downtown Seattle experienced so much disruption during the Downtown Seattle Transit Project was that at the very time the transit tunnel was being built, several major skyscrapers were also under construction.

    Second, it’s always seemed to me that the chief problem with the “Surface and Transit” option is that no one has presented a plan in any detail for a transit system serving the Waterfront- which seems strange, since old maps of Seattle show so many trains there.

    If pro-transit organizations could unite around an actual transit plan, transit itself will be in a stronger bargaining position whatever happens with the highway.

    If the State is in as much financial trouble as Ms. Gregoire claims, Washington State might not be in any hurry to build anything. And whatever official fears there are about the old viaduct in an earthquake, I doubt either Governor or the Mayor or the County Executive will sign an order to shut it down tonight.

    So there might be time to get some transit written into whatever gets built when the Depression is over.

    Mark Dublin

    1. The old maps of Seattle that show all the trains there are from back when that section of waterfront was still a working harbor, and the piers were both major commute and cargo destinations.

      There’s very little commuter traffic along the waterfront today, and to put transit lines there is to kneecap their walkshed (no destinations to the east, obviously), and for buses, to seriously hurt their reliablity. It’s better to put transit a couple blocks inland on 1st,

      And my understanding is that the “transit” portion of the surface/transit package was for through traffic, not local traffic – as the freeway’s purpose is to serve through traffic. The state is pimping transit lanes for RapidRide connections to West Seattle, Ballard, and on Aurora as the key transit improvements.

  25. Ever since I saw that the DBT was cutting the number of lanes from 3 in each direction to only 2 I’ve wanted to see a single level viaduct option on the table. Any idea why they are going with the split design? I’m wondering if it might be so that they can build one direction first parallel to the existing Viaduct before tearing it down. Since the lanes are size for a 50mph speed limit and include a generous brake down lane I’m sure they could open one side as a 4 lane 35 mph roadway. I’d still like to see a single roadway design with a Schwebebahn suspended underneath.

    Covered space in Seattle isn’t always a bad thing. The existing Viaduct serves as a ground level buffer. Admittedly it’s just parking but I can see a covered public space under a rebuilt viaduct as being useful public space. Of course there’s always the “Wall of Chopp” idea too which, if done right could be pretty decent if it were sort of a linear Pike Place Market.

  26. If we’re going to spend this kind of dough on something, I suggest we aim for more light rail. Like a number of people have mentioned, West Seattle to Ballard sounds like a good place to start.

    But talk is cheap. How do we make this happen? Who do I need to get on the phone to? Any ideas?

  27. I think we should just shut Aurora down and see where the cars go. I’m usually a very logical person but in the case of the Viaduct I just want it gone. I don’t care what the solution is but it (and the traffic) needs to go away. I’ve been to a lot of major cities in the world (and lived in a few of them) and the ones that people love living in and where tourists like to go are the ones that are pleasant. The Seattle Waterfront is repulsive. Strong words but it’s so noisy down there that I can’t stand taking my out of town relatives there. Without the ugliness and noise of the viaduct our waterfront will take on a completely different character. If the park thing doesn’t work out we can turn it into a street market, if that doesn’t turn out we can sell the land for high density housing etc.. We’re not locked in if the viaduct is gone.

    Maybe the DBT is the answer, maybe it’s not. Maybe we can tear the Viaduct down and divert the cars somewhere else. Maybe we need a tunnel. I just think for multiple reasons it has to go. Ideally we don’t replace it and we don’t build a tunnel but we spend the money on other things. Figure out who is driving on it and where they’re going and maybe we can spend the billions on a transit solution for them.

  28. Have their been any studies on where to/from are these people driving? Maybe Aurora should stop at South Lake Union period. Anyone needing to go through the city will have to use I-5. If the traffic is made up of cars going to the city then that would be fine.

  29. If this proposal addresses the connectivity for Ballard; the ability to exit into downtown for the West Seattle folks as they do now and won’t be able to with the tunnel; provides for transit; costs less money; still allows for some waterfront development underneath; would have an elegant architectural desgn to it that would be an asset to our waterfront and perhaps incorporated into the overall design elements; maintains the fabulous and only killer views out over the sound for people driving through our city; why aren’t we fighting harder for this option? As for me, I drive the viaduct daily and – during an earthquake – I would rather take my chances on a new viaduct than underground in a tunnel given the soil that we have along our waterfront!!!!

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