Cost breakdown for three viaduct replacement options (image by Zach, costs in millions)

There are people who would like to try to solve congestion problems by providing lots of highway capacity. There are people who prefer an option other than the deep bore tunnel (Nick Licata is a good example) but believe that WSDOT cannot be moved off the DBT plan. I can understand, and in a way respect, those positions.

The way some pro-transit, pro-tunnel proponents square the circle is to claim the tunnel is a transit investment. As Adam suggested, that’s just silly. The reasoning appears to be that although no bus currently connects the relevant markets, one could in the future.

By this definition, any new highway project is also transit project. The R.H.Thomson Expressway or the Cross Base Highway or I-605 would all quicken trips between hypothetical buses traveling between their endpoints. To call the DBT a transit project strips the term of all meaning.

Wonkier reasons this is bogus are below the fold.

  1. No transit money. Although the original deal had $190m in capital investment, that hasn’t materialized.  All that remains is mitigation funds: that is, temporary money to run buses during construction, which is standard issue for any major WSDOT highway project.
  2. The DBT has the least transit investment of the three options.
  3. No bus routes will run through it. There is no HOV or transit lane in the tunnel, and Metro isn’t looking for new corridors to invest in.
  4. No bus routes should run through it. If we are to take seriously the idea of frequent, gridded, comprehensible routes based on quick connections, then routes that bypass downtown, the biggest connection node in the system, are simply unacceptable.

People have their own reasons for supporting the tunnel, and those can be very well be consistent with the values they hold. But no one should support the tunnel under the illusion that it’s a transit project.

46 Replies to “No Such Thing as a Transit Project”

  1. As to your last point, I don’t think a commitment to a frequent transit grid necessarily means no buses should ever go through the tunnel. Even cities that have gridded systems have routes that go off the grid. An example is radial service, particularly during commute hours, a characteristic of most cities with strong downtowns. When we build North Link and East Link those won’t follow the grid, really, but they’ll be useful services anyway.

    Right now I can’t imagine much demand for a trip skipping downtown along the route of the deep-bore tunnel, so it’s indeed silly to say a DBT is pro-transit on that ground…

    One true benefit of the DBT plan for bikes, pedestrians, and some transit users is that the reconnection of the surface street grid where Aurora currently breaks it up. I’m not sure that’s enough to redeem the plan, but it’s a benefit. I wonder if we could reconnect the grid for less money. Frankly, given our position and responsibilities with respect to climate change and carbon emissions, I think we should reconnect the surface streets, close the current viaduct and Battery St. Tunnel, and replace them with nothing but a nice, straightforward Alaskan Way. Less auto capacity into downtown, where very few people need SOVs for the peak commute, is a feature, not a bug. Maybe throw in some congestion fees to keep things moving. But… I’m not sure I could convince the majority of STB readers on that, let alone anyone else.

    1. The streets across Aurora were going to be connected regardless. As I recall Greg Nickels planned for this long before the idea of a DBT came up.

    2. The most feasable bus is from Stadium station to Mercer (tx Seattle Center and Queen Anne routes) and perhaps continuing to Fremont (tx north Seattle routes). That would serve a marginal market of those going from TIB to Seattle Center, or from northwest Seattle to the airport and south end. But what Fremont and Ballard really need is a faster bus/train to downtown, not a fast bus to Stadium. As for express buses from north Seattle to the airport, not gonna happen; there are existing shuttle services for the onesies and twosies that are doing that.

      1. My experience with shuttle services is that they tend to not be able to pick you up close to the time that you need to be at the airport.

        You end up either taking the car to the airport and leaving with one of the airport parking services or if you live much closer, then you cab it.

    3. I’d rather thinking about moving density away from downtown so it becomes “one of many” rather than the simpleminded hub-and-spoke system that local planners have been roping us into.

      Multi-point design, connected by auto-bus-train-bike-pedestrian channels is the way.

      1. This is exactly what we’ve been trying to push for in Roosevelt, the U District, and in bits and pieces all over Seattle.

        A central downtown is important, but we need to increase density all over at the same time as we grow downtown.

  2. Having tried to make sense out of many transportation projects over the years, it seems like human nature to decide how you feel about something, then proceed to go to nearly any length to justify it in other peoples minds.
    All projects require money – mostly in the form of public taxes – yet when alternate viewpoints are expressed, the usual cadre of shouters come down hard on them. John Niles, John Bailo, and Norman come to mind. If you really park your prejudices at the door, then telecommuting, carpools and vanpools pencil out to provide society with the mobility we all strive for. We don’t put those on the ballot because their simple and ‘un-sexy’.
    Claiming all will be better in a 100 years when HST, LRT or BRT or who knows what RT is the silver bullet of the day is a fools errand.
    When I hear politicians vomiting up the buzz words of the day to get this tax or that tax past their fellow brethren or the voters it makes me want to puke also.
    Tax poor agencies? When transit taxes are tallied up for all the agencies in this area, then compared to most other SMSA’s we are rich. Are we spending it wisely? I don’t think so, but I’m just one person. With so many other un-met needs for tax dollars, including borrowing less, it seems to me transit should collectively get their shit together.
    DBT and transit? ROFLOL.

    1. “If you really park your prejudices at the door, then telecommuting, carpools and vanpools pencil out to provide society with the mobility we all strive for.”

      No. They don’t.

      I’ve figured it. They simply don’t.

      About half the mobility, I’d say.

      Very roughly a quarter falls in the “dense traffic along the same route” category, the classic example being huge numbers of people going to work at a factory across a bottleneck (and there are others which can’t be done by telecommuting). And that needs “mass transit”.

      Very roughly a quarter falls in the “one-off nobody-else-is-going-this-way” category, and that usually requires individual vehicles (bikes in some cases).

      (Of course this is all assuming practically all vehicles are converted to electricity; we have to get off oil in any case.)

      1. Sorry, poorly worded. I didn’t mean all the mobility needs, or even half. My thought was that it pencils out to buy vanpools and promote ridematching and other means to get people to quit driving SOV’s as a more environmentally freindly, quicker and cheaper solution to congestion, than relying on a few mega projects to solve it. We don’t see a #20 buck tax measure to buy vans, but will tax ourselves to death to buy tunnels at $125,000 per foot.

  3. 1. For anyone with requisite travel experience: Would any other city of comparable size, population, geography and topography anywhere else in the world deal with our waterfront without building our proposed deep bore tunnel?

    2. If I thought the deep bore tunnel and greatly-improved west-side public transit were equally critical to the functioning of my city, county, region, and state…what would I need in terms of money and political muscle to “make it so?”

    As usual, just curious.

    Mark Dublin

      1. Do you really want to talk about infrastructure that’s less than 2 years old underperforming predictions? Seems we have a system involving tracks that has a similar experience.

        I’d say look back after ten years.

      2. Did you actually read the section in question?

        Bypass tunnel opens, everyone says “that’s nice to have” and tries it out.

        Toll come into effect, 2/3 bail on the tunnel, everyone goes back to doing what they did before, traffic elsewhere unaffected by the tunnel’s existence. (The toll-free soft opening was likely an attempt to hook commuters, something we’re not even trying and that didn’t work anyway.)

        Tunnel was completely unnecessary. Miniscule tolling revenue bunkrupts the private half of the public-private partnership, likely leaving taxpayers holding the bag.

      3. Say what you will about Link’s routing, station spacing, etc., all of which have affected ridership, but you cannot say Seattle didn’t need a rapid transit system. You can not call Link “unnecessary.” What we had before (and still largely rely on) is just too deficient.

        But in the case of Brisbane’s boondoggle — identical to the DBT in so many ways — the question of whether the necessity existed at all is of utmost importance. And immediate driver behavior is thus totally enlightening.

      4. In fact Link is carrying 8% of all daily transit trips in the region. Past that Link ridership is far higher than the bus routes it replaced or supplemented. Not bad for a “failure”.

    1. You already have an example…New York City.

      They tore down the West Side (elevated) Highway and turned it into a surface street.

      It’s one of the most successful ever because not only is it just as useful for cars, but it incorporates a road diet that added bike only lanes, park areas and pedestrian walkways.

      If they can do it there, then they can do it in Seattle.

      Case closed.

      1. But there are no traffic lights to hold up traffic I don’t believe, unlike the surface traffic option being promoted in this city.

      2. @East Coast Cynic – the version of Alaskan Way you’re thinking of, most likely, is WSDOT’s version, which indeed has a tremendous number of stoplights. Of course, WSDOT didn’t look at signal issues the way they’ve been done on MLK with LINK, didn’t look at other cities with waterfront streets and east-west connections to see best practices, and didn’t really look at better ways of making cars, trucks, bicycles, pedestrians and streetcar co-exist in the right-of-way.

        To expand on Martin’s point elsewhere, Alaskan Way congestion is a good thing for pedestrians (and cyclists, assuming a separate cycle track is built), and even for streetcar users (yeah, I am one of those folks).

    2. “1. For anyone with requisite travel experience: Would any other city of comparable size, population, geography and topography anywhere else in the world deal with our waterfront without building our proposed deep bore tunnel?”

      San Fran and the Embarcadero? They had an earthquake damaged waterfront freeway and went with a surface only option.

      1. True enough. SF also added a wonderful classic streetcar system called the F-line, completely integrated with the existing street rail system with the rest of the city. Spent several hours riding it week before last.

        Difference is shape and location of San Francisco vs. Seattle. Look at any map. Embarcadero freeway was not one of only two through intercity corridors through a single, very narrow urban area.

        Incidentally, I think some major political pressure is in order directed at present Waterfront redevelopment project. Several weeks back, presentation offered extensive renderings depicting promenade sidewalks and general traffic lanes, but not streetcar one.

        Presenter told me face-to-face that in his opinion, one, First Avenue was close enough for a streetcar line, two, there just wasn’t any room for streetcars on the Waterfront, and three, pedicabs and little vans were good enough.

        Problem with Waterfront discussion for me is not fight for or against the Tunnel, but lack of fight for transit necessary to make any project work. I’ll accept argument that deep-bore tunnel money could buy a lot of transit.

        Just don’t see any evidence that if DBT doesn’t happen, transit automatically will.

        Mark Dublin

      2. Difference is shape and location of San Francisco vs. Seattle. Look at any map. Embarcadero freeway was not one of only two through intercity corridors through a single, very narrow urban area.

        True, although to this day I still have no idea how to get from the Golden Gate Bridge through the city without constant traffic. I would imagine that the waterfront freeway when it was there made it marginally easier to get from north to south.

        Incidentally, I think some major political pressure is in order directed at present Waterfront redevelopment project. Several weeks back, presentation offered extensive renderings depicting promenade sidewalks and general traffic lanes, but not streetcar one.

        Presenter told me face-to-face that in his opinion, one, First Avenue was close enough for a streetcar line, two, there just wasn’t any room for streetcars on the Waterfront, and three, pedicabs and little vans were good enough.

        Although I know I’m a minority opinion on it, that’s really too bad. I doubt that a streetcar would be put in, but I would have loved to have a streetcar, mainly for nostalgic reasons. It would mainly be for tourists, but we have the historic streetcars.. why not use ’em? They were always my favorite part of the waterfront and I doubt the park will end up being that great.

        Also, 1st being close enough? I don’t think so. A lot of that has too much hill for people to want to routinely tackle. I mean, the slight incline and 2 block distance was used to derail (ha!) the couplet concept for the Broadway streetcar. This one is further and steeper, but here it’s not a major issue?

      3. Any idiot who claims 1st is “close enough” should have to spend the next month walking between Alaska and 1st on every E/W street between Broad and Main while wearing high heels and carrying a child and a large number of packages. For all practical purposes the Waterfront and 1st aren’t connected in any meaningful sense between Madison and Broad.

      4. Again, and I worked in an office right on the Embarcadero after it was demolished, the Embarcadero was not a through freeway; it was a huge onramp to the Bay Bridge and US 101 south. The surface solution caused more congestion reaching the Bay Bridge, but there was already plenty of that.

        Comparing the 99 viaduct to the Embarcadero is at least apples and oranges. And comparing the 99 tunnel to Boston’s big dig is apples and tugboats.

    3. 1. EVERY other city would deal with your waterfront without building the deep bore tunnel.
      2. Political muscle? Control of the Governor and one house of the legislature.

  4. Ask people who live in W. Seattle if the Alaskan Way viaduct is a valuable transit corridor for them. There are hundreds of buses per day which use the Alaskan Way viaduct.

    What is the best transit route between W. Seattle and downtown:

    Deep Bored Tunnel
    Surface I/5

    Is Martin’s argument that money spent on buses is “transit” expenditure, but money spent on the roads buses use is not “transit” expenditure?

    1. Mike McGinn proposed accelerating construction of light rail from West Seattle to downtown…but the plan was shut down.

      This is the thing — all reasonable alternatives are kibashed by the people who have a vested interest in DBT…so how can a real balanced decision be made?

    2. Bait and switch. Of course West Seattle uses the viaduct to downtown. But the DBT won’t do that for them. If there’s an EXIT at the tunnel entrance, they can use that, but then they’re not really using the DBT. If there’s no exit, they still won’t use the tunnel because it makes no sense to drive to Mercer Street and backtrack.

      1. We in West Seattle will be exiting by the stadiums in SODO utilizing the DBT, only to potentially be greeted by lots of traffic from toll avoiding cars:(.

        Realpolitik wise there are no good solutions for WS.

  5. Thinking more about the theme of this posting, a couple things occur:

    Since public transit really is a passion of mine, I share Martin’s distaste for using the term “transit” as an image to stick on a campaign poster. Especially for a project whose sponsors in Olympia have so emphatically excluded any specific permanent accommodation for any kind of transit in a multibillion dollar transportation project in the heart of their State’s chief city.

    I’m also reminded, however, of posters in the campaign against the proposed monorail project several years ago featuring blue and white LINK cars, strongly suggesting that defeat of the monorail would open the way for the substitution of light rail along the same corridor. Which I really would like to see happen.

    Word to the wise in all upcoming elections: I doubt I’m the only voter who’s come to hate this kind of multimedia lying so bad that not only will I refuse to help pay for campaigns using it, but will also sooner or later refuse to vote for them either. Campaign staff on all sides, just tell the truth and accept you won’t lose any worse.

    But I also clearly remember walking a length of right-of-way outside of Sacramento with an engineer on the first leg of the light rail system there twenty years ago. He pointed out that the structure we were standing on had originally been built as part of a freeway that didn’t materialize. He told me that in general, something built for a highway would certainly structurally hold rail.

    No one can say for sure what changes will occur throughout the life of the proposed tunnel. Transit association may be a sleazy campaign lie this year. But that doesn’t mean history won’t put trains there in thirty years and express buses in ten. Same, incidentally for I-5 and rest of Interstates through urban areas.

    I don’t think Dwight Eisenhower would have minded at all.

    Mark Dublin

    1. No doubt rail can be retrofitted if needed, and it’s not unheard of for transportation corridors to be reused — Pittsburgh, I believe, has a rail corridor that’s been pressed into service as a BRT line.

      There’s nothing wrong with adapting a leftover piece of infrastructure for use in a transit network if it makes sense. No doubt trains could be run through the tunnel in the future, if needed– just as the I-5 corridor could be reused if, say, gas went to $20 per gallon and 4 or 6 lanes through downtown were no longer needed.

      But the utility of the DBT for transit is very limited. For one thing, it’s going to need to pay off toll revenue bonds for the next few decades. For another, a highway tunnel would need to be retrofitted with rails and electric wiring–not to mention a station or two that would need to be somehow carved out of the underground and connected to the surface.

      That might be worth exploring if the tunnel gets built and then abandoned in 2050 or so. Seattle has plenty of need for transit facilities now–not decades from now.

      1. I’m not sure it would even be worth exploring in 2050. Has any city ever added a totally new station to a subway line? The only exits built into the tunnel are a few odd emergency doors leading apparently to stairwells to the surface. So they’d need to dig a lot more holes and poke some bigger exits in the side of this thing…

      2. Several cities have added new stations to cut-and-cover subways.

        I think I can find a few examples of cities adding new infill stations to deep bored subways, but only as part of building intersecting lines (building junction stations on the old line while you build the new one) — I can’t think of any standalone construction of an infill station on a deep bore.

      3. It would be more cost-effective to build another DSTT, which then could have several stations including Belltown and Seattle Center, and a spur to Aurora.

  6. Let Seattle show the world that an actual tunnel can be built. This will be a first. An actual roadway built underground. What a stunning engineering feat that would be. A roadway built underground. ROFL

  7. I maintain that for all the argumentation and willingness to spend money with abandon, I have never seen any good metrics on where people are going, where they are coming from and why they are traveling.

    I have proposed using Android data. I think actually with Google Locator service, if you turn on your GPS that data is available, you wouldn’t really need an App, just an API to report on the data.

    I’d like to have a WADOT/SoundTransit/Metro program where they do just that…start sampling where people are traveling and why.

    Maybe there are opportunities to use simply incentives to “load level” traffic without having to add capacity.

    I’d also like to investigate if we create our own problems by locating density in the most inaccessible places (Mercer and the Key/Seattle Center come to mind).

    With all the investment in transit the result should be that we don’t have to live, work and play all in the same 4 square miles.

    We can have density in multiple locations, surrounded by a lot of sparsity for those who want the traditional home and backyard and mental health that comes with it.

    For example, I was at The Landing in Renton last night…it was full of fun, people, young and old, going to restaurants, dates, movies. It was as lively as any “Seattle” experience and yet here it was right next to the Boeing plant!

    With design that focuses on what people want — food, shopping, entertainment — you can create great local congregation places (like Kent Station) that will serve to distribute load locally instead of concentrating it into bottlenecks.

    We are not raising the really big design questions.
    We don’t have the data.

    How can we proceed?!

    1. The thing is, once a company grows to a certain size it makes sense to consolidate offices in a central location. I don’t think that’s going away any time soon.

      1. Study the economics of, oh, I think it’s called “geographical aggregation” — anyway there’s a long fancy term for why industries tend to cluster in one place. *entire industries*, not just individual companies.

        The Internet has reduced the need for physical concentration somewhat, but it’s still happening, and there are at least three reasons: first, the fact that most bosses like to oversee their workers and their equipment “face to face” (documented, and you can see why — rudimentary fraud detection); second the fact that certain types of work — blue collar work — actually require showing up (obvious); third the fact that some kinds of work and business deals are still more efficient when people can collaborate in person (teleconferencing just isn’t that great yet).

  8. @4,

    There do exist bus routes bypassing downtown: the 113 from Burien and the 586 from Tacoma, both to the U. I expect both of those routes will go away with the opening of U-Link.

    That said, there really is no market for a bus route from West Seattle to Aurora, bypassing downtown.

  9. I’m hesitant to dismiss a project based primarily on it’s cost, because I do think we need to be making some big investments. I do think this is a bad investment, but what concerns me the most about this project is how shady the entire decision making process was.

    More fundamentally, the fact that we have $2.4 BILLION in gas tax reserved by the state constitution to highway use only is the bigger problem. I’m no tea partier, but I am increasingly aware how expensive UW is getting. Spending this money on a tunnel is simply bad PR.

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