[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.