A day late, I finally watched the PubliCola tunnel debate. Adam already shared his reaction and I endorse it. Thursday’s debate also illustrated some of the arguments in the broader debate, on both sides, that I think are unconvincing:


Let the Voters Decide. In principle, asking the electorate to judge a project of enormous technical and fiscal complexity is a terrible way to make policy. More practically, in a three-way contest the result of a vote is more likely to be determined by ballot design than by any merits of the projects.

“As many cars as the Ballard Bridge.” Eli Sanders practically begged the Mayor to pick up this sound bite. They’re both better judges of its political impact than me, but it’s a terrible comparison. For one thing, the tunnel is four times longer than the bridge. Secondly, an underground solution is more expensive than an elevated solution, as with light rail, for similar reasons and with similar benefits.

Tolling will divert most cars to the surface anyway. I have mixed feelings about this argument. It is true that the DBT robs the City of the funding to adequately fund alternative routes and modes. However, like a BRT “advocate” who doesn’t actually care how well transit works, many critics of tolling diversion aren’t interested in moving cars and actually like tolling. An underutilized tunnel improves freight mobility, which is the single best argument for the tunnel. Finally, like all surface/transit advocates I have faith that some of those trips will simply disappear, even without spending. This is a better project with tolling than without.

Bad pro-tunnel arguments after the jump…


It’s gas tax, so we couldn’t possibly use the savings for something better. Only $2.4 billion of the project’s costs are coming out of gas taxes. If the State held its commitment constant, the $700m of saved revenue authority could be used for virtually anything (although $400m in tolling might disappear), or not taxed in the first place.

Delay will kill people. In fact, the shortest paths to removing the unsafe roadway are the rebuild and surface/transit options. This was the source of Governor Gregoire’s promise to tear it down by 2012, although now that would probably have to be 2014.

The Tunnel Means Jobs. I confess that I haven’t seen a comparison of jobs created by the three options, but I suspect that huge capital spending on a tunnel boring machine can’t help the comparative employment. At any rate, there are plenty of clearly useful ways to create jobs for the same or less money.

It’s OK there are no downtown exits; people will just get off before the tunnel. This is an argument not so much for the tunnel as for the approaches to the tunnel, which are uncontroversial.

Any reference to “tunnel and transit.” Aside from temporary mitigation funds, there is no clear path to any transit funding in the DBT package. Even the original agreement had the least transit funding of the three options. Furthermore, there is not only no bus route that traverses SR99 without stopping downtown, it would be asinine to bypass the main transfer point and destination in the entire system. The argument that a bus could conceivably travel in the DBT is an argument that could be applied to literally any new highway project, anywhere.

I thought the PubliCola event did elevate the debate beyond sound bites, although the intervals where people actually talked about the alternatives themselves was too short. Congratulations to PubliCola and Essex Porter for making a big contribution to civic discourse.

74 Replies to “Editorial: Bad Tunnel Arguments”

  1. I questioned Senator Murray on transit, he said he has the highest rating from TCC and others on transit issues. That’s not difficult in Olympia, is it? I could claim I have the highest rating from others on caring about myself with as much gravitas.

    That being said, he only went so far as to admit Seattle wants it and that Olympia is a major issue. I later pressed him directly and admitted that, in the context of social standards in the northwest, he’s been particularly civil, but said he needs to work harder. He agreed, but, yeah, a knowing nod over the fact that it’s not that easy in Olympia.

    Councilmember Rasmussen was more amenable in private conversation, and aside from posturing for soundbites he agreed that transit is what we need, but again, Olympia.

    Senator Murray, by the way, maintained eye contact and was very considerate of what he was saying. As much as I’m dismayed by some of what he’s said, he’s still very personable.

    1. I got a good soundbite in, too!

      “And some of us, a lot of us, have seen our bus service cut when we need it the most” to which CM Rasmussen, CM O’Brien and Mayor McGinn nodded.

      1. Ed Murry: WA State Senator from Seattle (Cap Hill, Wallingford I think). Works in Olympia

        Patty Murry: WA US Senator, works in DC.

        Ed Murry was at the forum and the comments pertain to him.

  2. Fun Tunnel Facts:
    The cross sectional area of all the vehicles shown is about 205 sqr.ft.
    The cross sectional area of the tunnel is about 2250 sqr. ft.
    That’s a lot of digging for just 10% of usage.

  3. Here’s another related fact of tunneling.
    Sound Move was supposed to get to Northgate in 10 years.
    ST 2011 budget has pushed that back to 2021 or 10 years from now.
    Gee, tunneling sure is slow.

    1. I think there is one minor correction Mike. If I recall, Link getting to Northgate was only if it were affordable. However, your statement is still true for getting to the U. District.

      1. I feel better now. It’s a good thing ALL the pennies for DBT are sitting in a bank, just waiting to be spent.

  4. The main argument for doing away with entirely, if the numbers are right, is that most of the traffic on 99 coming into Seattle from North and South…stays in Seattle!

    Hence it makes little sense to have a “through road” with no exits.

    In fact, it makes little sense to have anything at all except a terminus at either end with a kind of fantail that distributes the traffic onto the city streets as widely as possible.

    1. Totally agree. Most traffic that uses any part of the AWV & Bell St tunnel either originates or terminates in downtown Seattle. It’s not much of a through route.

      1. PS – that’s why more than 50% of the potential traffic will divert to surface streets with a $3 toll. They are headed for or coming from somewhere in Seattle – so they can find a toll-free route to/from their destination.

      2. In fact, I propose it would be worth considering that we close all the downtown exits on I-5 and instead build a feeder from I-5 to 99 somewhere north or south of the city.

        Then 99 becomes the only way to enter downtown via a highway. And I-5 becomes an “express” lane all the time — moving traffic quickly with out the impedance of Mercer, Olive and Seneca street exits.

      3. That’s a genuinuely interesting idea, John, though I don’t quite see how it would work. I took a look at the overhead views from Google maps. So, no exits or entrances between Mercer St. and South Dearborn St., is your proposal?

      4. Did you mean Bell Street onramp to the Battery Street Tunnel or AWV south?

        I think this whole thread must belong in the realm of snark.

      5. While I don’t if I’d go as far as John Bailo in closing all downtown I-5 exits, I think that investing the $2-3 billion that was destined for the new DBT in I-5 improvements would have far more regional benefits. Certainly reconfiguration of through lanes and exits on I-5 through downtown Seattle would have the ability for a significant capacity increase, since there are essentially only two clear through lanes in each direction, which is a cause of backups.

        Then there could be a surface street from Spokane St heading toward Pioneer Square which could feed toward Alaskan Way as well as First Ave and Edgar Martinez, and perhaps the existing Battery St tunnel can be hooked up to Western and a route to Alaskan Way.

        And transit improvements, whether streetcar, light rail, or better dedicated bus routes & ramps & lanes could all be part of the mix.

      6. I’ll go Bailo one further (partly because it’s fun, and partly serious)

        Tear down I-5 through Seattle. It’s a blight on the landscape, and a waste of taxable land. Let’s put in a north “entry” to I-5 (which would become I-5 through Bellevue) at approximately Convention Place, and a south “entry” at Royal Brougham.

        Seriously, do we need I-5 in Downtown? Give that acuity to Blahview. They love it.

      7. Let’s hold off until North Link is finished, though. The 70-series buses could really use it…

      8. So, “Think about it”, you’d turn I-5 between SeaTac and Lynnwood into I-105 and I-305?

        I recall part of the reason for the recent work on I-5 at Pine Street was that if I-5 was so much as undermined by the Capitol Hill tunnel for Link without reinforcement, First and Capitol Hills would slide into downtown since I-5 is holding them up now.

        Basically, you’d probably have to bring in dirt to fill in I-5 between Seneca and Columbia, maybe even between Denny and Yesler. A connection to 99 south of downtown already exists in the form of SR 599 or the Spokane Street Viaduct, but there isn’t much of one north of downtown – apparently before it became South Lake Union, Cascade residents managed to block the creation of one. I’m not sure if I like the notion of all the I-5 downtown-bound traffic filing off the roadway at the Stewart/Denny exit. Mercer might be more palatable.

        At any rate, I-5 isn’t as much of a blight as the AWV, especially with the Convention Center lid…

  5. So let me get this straight. Is the state and city saying that they are going to allow hazardous cargo into the tunnel along with all the other users?

    As I understand it now, a truck carrying as such usually isn’t allowed in such places.

    So I can only wonder the first time there’s a fire in the new tunnel due to a commercial semi-truck and it causes chaos, I could see the city/state combo. clamping down on any trucks going through it, and claim obvious safety reasons.

    Then we’re back to the clogged streets again….

  6. Not only have I said this before, but I plan to keep on saying it until at least one other person takes over for me:

    The most important thing missing from the Fight for the Waterfront is anything like a specific plan to make the “Surface/Transit Option” more than a phrase. Look at the picture above. It’s not an engineering drawing- nobody could pour a foot of concrete from it. But it leaves a picture in people’s minds from which they can start making decisions about action.

    Tunnel or no tunnel, replacing the Viaduct without turning the Waterfront into a parking lot will require an enormous amount of public transit. Has anybody got a meeting scheduled whose only agenda item is Waterfront transit? “Anything to take to Olympia?”

    Because for me, protection from cost overruns isn’t the deal-breaker. Protection from no transit is.

    Mark Dublin

      1. This is my favorite quote from the fact sheet, “The bored tunnel was not carried forward due to its high cost.”

        Hahahahaaaaaa! It sure appears to have been carried forward, in fact it was the only option carried forward. Gotta love politics.

      2. Thanks, Martin, but unless I’m really missing something, the plan in its present condition is nothing I want for my city, let alone anything a transit blog should support.

        The rendering shows what may be one single transit vehicle- which by its paint scheme could also be a garbage truck- in a general purpose lane.

        It also shows a landscape which would be hard for human beings to inhabit- forget enjoy- winter and summer alike. As for “connecting Seattle with its Waterfront”, people will long for the connectivity we have right now.

        The southbound lanes and the streetcarless brick emptiness alongside it are bad enough. Maybe it’s best we don’t see what the new Western Avenue will do to Pike Place Market.

        Come on, somebody: show me some pictures with grooved rail, catenary, and a lot of other things for earthlings. And a lot less cars.

        Mark Dublin

  7. An underutilized tunnel improves freight mobility, which is the single best argument for the tunnel.

    This is a bad or even incorrect argument. The Environmental Impact Statement says that over 95% of the freight traffic coming for the Port of Seattle grounds uses either Spokane St. or Edgar Martinez to access I-5 and I-90, and is not affected by the project. Of the freight traffic that currently uses the AWV, more than 50% is headed to Interbay/Ballard and will use a surface path via Alaskan Way to Elliott Avenue. This traffic plus traffic headed for downtown areas uses the southern surface portion of the project, but exits at the tunnel portal, as do all West Seattle bus routes.

    The DBT will play a minimal role for freight traffic and transit.

    1. It is designed for auto-mobility almost exclusively, despite rhetoric from venal self serving poiticians and the WA DOT.

    2. I agree. I think freight mobility is important but in my opinion a project that focuses on reducing congestions on I-5 and SR-167 will do much more to improve freight mobility than the tunnel.

      1. Any project aimed at reducing congestion using only construction will only be successful for a short period of time (I believe the study I read concluded about 3 years). Want freight to move faster? Add freight lanes, tolling, or increase fuel taxes.

  8. Of course, there aren’t any southbound viaduct exits to downtown right now either – you either get off at before the Battery Street Tunnel onto Denny, just after the BST in Belltown, or down by the stadiums.

    Only SR99 users coming from the south will be affected the lack of downtown exits.

    One other pro-tunnel argument is that it will move traffic off the waterfront (whether elevated or surface), thus supposdely making the waterfront more attractive. Of course, as long as the ferries are docking there, you’ll have 1000s of cars every day in the area.

    1. But don’t forget about lack of entrances also. The two southbound onramps in downtown (Elliot, Seneca) will be no more.

  9. Comparing the 3.3 billion dollar surface transit option with the 4.2 billion dollar tunnel is not a fair comparison. What should have happened is the political leadership who found the extra money (though it’s still not clear where all of it will come from, exactly) should have gone back to the stakeholder group and said “now that we’ve added the extra money, what do you propose?

  10. “Tolling will divert most cars to the surface anyway.”

    I have to completely disagree about this. If this project happens, this is my largest concern.

    Just like it is a public waste of money to build a light rail system and then not significantly upzone around stations, it is a waste of money to build a billion dollar tunnel and then toll it so high that something like half of the traffic that would use it otherwise diverts. I’m all for tolling but it must create a more efficient transportation system, this tolling will not. See my old post on this topic.

    If I were in charge I would toll both I-5 and the viaduct and possibly exits at a lower rate. If done correctly a toll system like this will both minimize diversion, maximize on WSDOT tunnel investment, AND reduce congestion on the viaduct and I-5. Now that would improve freight mobility.

  11. I love the big “Tunnel Open” sign, that if this were a cross-section, would appear to be in the middle of the tunnel. I wonder where the cars would go if it suddenly said “Tunnel Closed”?

    1. If you’re driving in the tunnel and the sign changes, chances are good it will change to a warning about an accident ahead, so you slow down, or a car fire ahead, so you park and run for the pedestrian exits shown on the left just past the sign. Tunnel Open is just placeholder for when things go wrong.

  12. The “improves freight mobility” is, at least coming from the proponents, actually one of the most disingenuous arguments. (And I realize that calling the boosters liars probably doesn’t get them to stop and think any more than they already have. Oh, well.)

    Sans tolls, freight will take the new Alaskan Way. Tolls have various numerical effects on how much freight will divert, but unless the tunnel is untolled and Alaskan is tolled, freight will not divert into the tunnel. But under that scenario, freight will have simply been priced into going the long way around, so the improving-freight-mobility canard still doesn’t hold.

    1. Why would freight be diverted? When time lost in congestion involves explicit money value of time, $4 is a bargain uncongested trip.

      1. Martin,

        Have you been on Mercer St. lately? Getting over from Western to Aurora is going to be a congested trip, taking probably longer than heading straight down Alaskan *before a truck even enters the tunnel*. Try driving (or walking along) Mercer some time and see if you still think trucks will go out of their way to reach the north porthole from Interbay.

        It’s that stretch, its distance, and its history of gridlock that make a farce out of the tunnel design. Very few trucks will use the tunnel, *even if it isn’t tolled.*

        (Tolling Alaskan might actually increase truck usage of that street by discouraging general traffic, but then, the SDEIS neglected to cover that. But again, the tolling is a side argument to the problem of the tunnel’s routing not having freight in mind.)

        So, ignore the tolling arguments, pull out a map, and see why the tunnel was designed without any intention of using it for freight traffic.

        If the various parties (pro-, anti-, whatever) really want to move freight expeditiously, the best option (surface, tunnel, with-tolls, without-tolls, otherwise) is to designate Alaskan as freight, transit, and local traffic only.

      2. I do appreciate Martin’s efforts on this issue, and on transit activism in general, even if I find his analysis on the freight-utility debate to be lacking.

        “In theory, practice and theory are the same. In practice, they are not.” — source unremembered

      3. Brent,

        Mercer is going to be completely redone. I don’t know if that’ll fix the problem, but current performance probably isn’t informative in this case.

        I absolutely agree that there are much more effective ways to give freight priority, and that’s one reason I’m a surface/transit/I-5 supporter. I also am not going to pretend that most tunnel supporters are primarily interested in freight mobility. However, no plan includes any of those techniques. We really ought to compare the latest iterations of each alternative rather than an idealized version.

  13. As for where to stand on tolling in the tunnel, I think we should oppose the legislation enabling the tolls unless (1) part of the toll money is used for transit improvement projects, such as extending Link to Tacoma (which would get us some allies in the lege that we haven’t made an effort to get); and (2) the tolling is open-ended so that the tolling doesn’t end until Link has reached Tacoma and the tunnel is paid off.

  14. I normally expect pretty good logic from this site. But saying it is bad logic that pointing out that tolling will divert traffic to downtown streets is ridiculous. Supporters of the tunnel always claim that the surface plan would back up traffic downtown. And according to Martin tunnel opponents shouldn’t point out that the tunnel plan will do this as well? Next Martin will say it is a bad argument to point out that the tunnel costs a billion or so more than the alternatives.

    1. My thoughts exactly. What we have are two scenarios that dump considerable amounts of traffic on the surface. One costs $1 billion dollars more than the other, is incredibly more risky and depends on unproven engingineering, and does little or nothing to deal with this new flood of cars on the surface. Surface/transit/I-5 is turning into the more practical choice, and WSDOT is doing very little to prove otherwise (the EIS barely touches on this concept).

  15. Last year Mike O’Brien had attack ads run against him because he wanted tolling “everywhere”. Now Martin is implying that he is pointing out that tolling on the tunnel alone will cause diversion because he is anti-tolling. What a crappy post.

    No stupid logic on this site (which as I said above is rare) is complete without an ad-hominem attack on BRT supporters. [Comment policy complaining]

    1. I don’t see ad hominem attacks on BRT supporters on this site. Indeed, I don’t know any actual BRT opponents here.

      I do see complaints directed at rail opponents who say BRT is better, but then are not around to support BRT when it matters.

      1. The main issue is false BRT supporters. That is, those who claim to be pro BRT in order to defeat a rail project, but are never willing to support or pay taxes for a BRT project at other times, particularly when the alternative is freeway expansion.

      2. To clarify, I mean those who support the general concept of BRT in order to defeat a rail plan, without proposing a specific BRT alternative. These tend to be the same people who oppose a concrete BRT plan when it’s proposed, which lowers their credibility of being BRT supporters at all.

    2. What? I explicitly say that tolling is a good idea and transit advocates are generally for it. That’s the point!

  16. I just keep coming back to one thing. It’s not as though the DBT’s grand opening party is going to come a week after the viaduct is shut down for good. It’s got to be at least three or four years, if not significantly longer, that we’re not going to have either a viaduct or a tunnel.

    So what’s going to happen with all the people who currently use the viaduct everyday? I don’t suspect that they’re going to sit at home for four years waiting for the tunnel to open. People will find new routes, new routines. Life without 99 will become the new normal.

    I guess my point is, if we’re going to take years to open up the new transportation option, and it’s going to cost us a fortune, let’s at least look toward the future a bit. If we open up a brand new automobile tunnel, well I’m sure it’d be a nice tunnel and all, but it puts us right back where we were in 1953 when the viaduct first opened. If, on the other hand, we open up a brand new light rail tunnel, well to my mind that’d be real progress, and a much better use of the money.

    1. WSDOT’s plan is to close the viaduct almost simultaneously with opening up the tunnel to traffic. That’s why they built new onramps to the viaduct by the south porthole.

      1. Really? Well in that case my argument pretty much goes out the window. I’d still rather not build the DBT though, albeit for other reasons.

  17. I have heard many times that the tunnel will not be able to accommodate light rail. Yet I’ve never heard a reason why. It looks like it will be wide enough and tall enough to fit a Link train. Will it not be strong enough to support the weight of rail cars? What’s to prevent us from coming back and refitting the tunnel for light rail in 30 years?

      1. The WSDOT transit guy I talked to said the tunnel could be converted to high-speed rail, which is heavier, so I assume it could be converted to light rail.

        As for the utility of doing so, I’m sure stations could be dug out just fine. But being essentially under 1st Ave, it wouldn’t be in the best location.

        Keep in mind that, as a transit tunnel, it doesn’t have to be light rail.

        Furthermore, the stations may have to be split-level.

    1. For a sense of scale, the tunnel is going to be almost the same diameter as the vaulted ceiling of Pioneer Square Station.

  18. In the category of arguments totally missed, I still have to wonder if WSDOT is amenable to turning the Battery Street Tunnel over to the city for a better use (Veloway, bus/rail bypass, etc). It would be a terrible shame if WSDOT followed through with its plan to fill in the Battery Street Tunnel.

    1. I was wondering the same thing about the battery street tunnel. This seems like a perfect chance to convert it and be used for mass transit.

    2. What kind of transit routes could usefully use it? Waterfront to Aurora? These would compete with the 3rd Ave to Aurora routes, but they’d be much less attractive because of the steep hillside from Western to 1st and 3rd. And on Western there’s traffic congestion around Pike Place. These would outweigh the one minute of travel time you might save.

  19. If the goal of the DBT/AWV is to maintain vehicle capacity and improve traffic flow through and around downtown, the current plan poorly addresses these goals at a very high cost. This is my real problem with it. WSDOT is mostly a road-building agency – does anyone there recognize how ineffective this solution is?

    I think the problem is that the state legislature thinks they’re doing Seattle a favor by doing a tunnel instead of replacing the viaduct or making improvements to I-5. When are cooler heads going to prevail here??

  20. Just by looking at the picture it does appear odd that theres a lot of extra piping in the picture, i wonder how much of a hidden stake telecommunications ventures have in the tunnel and hopefully they will be billed appropratly for using the state right of way…

    1. There will be a lot of piping and conduit just to support the tunnel. Piping and wiring for fire and life safety, telecom for ITS systems, power for lighting, drainage…

  21. I’m not familiar with all the history on this debate… but if people are concerned that freight trucks will drive on the surface Alaskan Way route rather than the tunnel due to tolls what about just posting “No Trucks” signage on the surface street?

    1. Concerned that trucks will use Alaskan Way? Not really.

      Concerned that Mercer or other E-W streets will be turned from neighborhood arterials into mini-truckways? Yes. And that the money will be wasted because truckers will be smart enough not to take this extra-long path to SODO? Yes.

      And that this fantasy that trucks will go out of their way to use the tunnel (rather than the obviously shorter and faster Alaskan Way) is being used to justify billions of dollars being blown on a piece of infrastructure that will only have negative impacts for downtown transportation? Um, yeah.

      The DBT does nothing, zero, nada, for freight mobility. The argument that it does has nothing to back it up. The DBT is just a jobs-for-jobs-sake program.

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