Tunnel opponents (and I am one) have failed to make their case to the voters who cast their ballots in the election on Referendum 1, for all practical purposes an up or down vote on the deep bore tunnel. The question some of us find more interesting than parsing whether this means Seattle is becoming decisive all of a sudden, or if this was a referendum on the Mayor, is what do we talk about now. The answer, I think, is shifting our attention to the far more critical issue of appropriate land use decisions around light rail stations and the expansion of Transit Oriented Development beyond light rail station areas.

The Mayor has conceded that “he public said move ahead with the tunnel, and that’s what we’re going to do.” That doesn’t mean the tunnel is a good idea. And it doesn’t mean the tunnel is going to happen. The project has lots of problems.

But we do have a chance to shift our focus from the tunnel project to a broader range of more relevant and, in the long run, important issues. How will we get the density we need around light rail stations? What will we do to create sustainable financing for regional and local transit? What can we do to encourage regional governance? Is there a way to give Sound Transit the power to be a more powerful TOD agency? Can we get all these things done?

This is what the Mayor and all sides of the tunnel debate should start talking about. Putting the tunnel aside doesn’t mean acquiescence but pragmatism. The tunnel is truly a wasteful use of resources at a time when we’re seeing a decline in Vehicle Miles Traveled and when we have a policy agenda focused on transit and alternatives to driving. Nevertheless, the opportunities from shifting our discussions away from tunnel or no tunnel and toward these opportunities far out weighs the cost of the tunnel even with overruns and cut budgets.

82 Replies to “Game over: What comes next after tunnel debate?”

  1. sigh…
    I find myself this morning half hoping for a time in the future when I can point my finger at a sinking skyscraper and half-finished, bankrupt tunnel and say “I told you so!!!”
    But you’re right. There are more important and constructive ways to channel our energy. Thanks for the perspective.

  2. “give Sound Transit the power to be a more powerful TOD agency”- That could mean spending more transit dollars on commercial and residential real estate development. It could mean broader condemnation actions around stations to consolidate properties to facilitate large scale redevelopment. It could mean
    an agency that becomes perceived like an 800-pound gorilla when it comes to land use decisions around stations. What precisely do you want it to mean?

    I would like to see the City facilitate TOD on properties around stations, but I think Sound Transit should focus on getting the best value from the station properties that it has to acquire to build its facilities. The rest should rest on City policy and the market.

    1. Yep, ST is not a “TOD agency” and shouldn’t become one. Its main mission is building transit systems and infrastructure. Anything that detracts from that mission should be forbotten.

      That said, I think there are 3 things that can be done in the near term to move this city forward:

      1) Implement early tolling on the viaduct with the early phase revenue split 50-50 between SDOT and WSDOT. SDOT would use their revenue for toll diversion mitigation, and WDOT would use their revenue for the DBT. This issue needs to be addressed, and we might as well get started.

      2) Reactivate the WFSC. Yes, it is mainly a tourist line, but it is symbolic, and I think even a symbolic act of burying the hatchet and working together for “transit” would be important given all the poisoned rhetoric of the last few months.

      3) Work towards the Aloha Ext and the 4th/5th SC connector. I’m not sure if this means supporting the current $60 proposal (I have my doubts about that), but these SC extensions need to be made.

      1. +1 on not having ST as TOD agency. ST does not want this authority, and no-one wants to give it to them. I don’t understand why this idea won’t die — It’s political and legal poison.

        -1 on the waterfront streetcar. It’s not worth it. There’s far better ways to spend the small pool of streetcar money we might get.

      2. Transportation and land-use development are inextricable. ST can’t locate stations without taking into account how they develop. Seattlers are clueless.

    2. If ST is not the TOD agency (and I don’t think it should be), then which agencies should be championing TOD and how do we get them to do so?

    3. I’m not sure Roger was suggesting that ST do that – I think he was suggesting that the various municipalities do it, with us the community leading them towards the right re-zoning decisions. Most of these areas are zoned like what they are – places without any high-capacity transit infrastructure anywhere near them. That’s about to be really stupid. Sound Transit decision process involves a huge amount of public comment – we as the pro-transit community can stop screaming about the tunnel and start showing up to public meetings and make sure that we leverage the hell out of the transit infrastructure we’re getting.

  3. Had McGinn honored his campaign pledge and, instead of fighting this losing battle for the last two years, had used his position as a tunnel skeptic to demand at the very least some local taxing authority, if not a bit of money, from Olympia to put in place some of the surface options and also light rail lines to Ballard and West Seattle we could have been voting on that yesterday and the result may have been the opposite.

    Now McGinn is marginalized with almost every other political leader against him and a poisoned relationship with local business and civic groups that would be key to getting light rail passed.

    This is what happens when you elect stubborn arrogant ideologues.

    1. McGinn did what every responsible budget-administrator should do: demand a 100% funding plan before any project is approved.

      McGinn has also accomplished a lot. The road diets and complete streets would not have happened without him. The transit master plan may have languished without updating. In short, he has brought the city forward in ways that may not have happened for a decade or two otherwise.

      1. It seems that all Mcguinn did was waste a lot of time coming to a decision that was basically made BEFORE he was elected. In the past two years, we could have been working on many other things.

  4. ST was empowered to build HCT by the legislature.
    Cities and Counties are empowered to control development by law.
    To broaden the power of ST across these lines is foolish, and will never be supported by local governments or the legislature.
    Transit should be supportive of land use planning, density and better mobility with how they do their piece of the puzzle, but never be the puzzle master. Bringing $$ to the table to encourage TOD within the framework of existing plans is always appreciated. Even putting strings on funding is OK on a take it or leave it basis.
    My $.02

    1. Sound Transit can site its stations and lines wherever it wants. Local land use planning must conform to the situations ST creates. Don’t put the cart before the horse.

      1. Communities must accommodate HCT, and that’s all. That’s far different from cities having no say in the matter.
        By your logic, ST could plop a station smack in the middle of a residential area with no recourse for local government or home owners desires.

    2. “Transit should be supportive of land use planning, density and better mobility with how they do their piece of the puzzle, but never be the puzzle master.”

      Yes and no. Cities that build transit before development (by extending light rail or a streetcar to empty land on the edge) end up a better layout than those that allow development first and then have to play catch-up with transit. Most of the expense of Link is because we don’t have existing rail rights-of-way in the right places. MAX and Metra were largely built on existing rail lines. In England and Scotland the motorways generally run next to railroad tracks and so the growing cities already have rail access, while in the US freeways and suburbs are often put where there’s no rail access and no right-of-way reserved for it. I have heard that MAX’s Gresham line was also put in a pretty empty area in order to channel growth around it, so that would be an example of transit before development.

      1. I agree, but we were talking about ST, where there aren’t too many opportunities to lead with rail, and let development follow. That’s pretty much what the Interurban lines did 100 years ago.
        The best we can hope for now is to enhance re-development along corridors, like Hwy99 or Bel-Red Rd.
        Freeways are pretty much trashed already!

  5. I think land use is something that needs a sustained commitment. In the shorter term fighting Eyman and getting the CTAT proposal passed are my big priorities.

  6. I was pretty bummed out when I heard that headline in the news this morning. There have only been 19% of the total possible votes counted, but I’m not holding my breath. But the final vote may not be so widely apart.

    On the positive side, my office building is measuring out some more space to add yet another bicycle cage! The current one is nearly full every day and yet is 60% bigger than the space we had in our previous building.

    1. I believe that it is 19% of the registered voters. Since they only expect roughly 50% voter turnout, that 19% of registered voters would be something like 40% of votes cast.

      Check the state site on the above, but I think I read it right.

    2. I thought that too but we may be misinterpreting the statistic. I thought it meant that 19% of the ballots received had been counted, but it seems to mean that the number of ballots received so far equals 19% of the registered voters.

      Of course, the county is at fault here for not showing the percent of ballots counted at the top of the webpage, and for wording the statistic in a way that’s hard to understand and so easily leads to misinterpretation.

    1. Seems to miss the reality that the LDs weren’t remotely interested (except the 43rd) in even seriously considering an anti-tunnel stance. I’d chalk most of that up to labor.

  7. We already have an entity for regional planning. The Growth Management Act and the comprehensive plans it mandates. It is in these documents where TOD language needs to be strengthened. Indeed, it is in TOD and “urban villages” where local governments typically claim to meet their share of expected household growth in order to protect existing single family neighborhoods. Then, when they fail to live up to their own plan with particular zoning, would-be developers or environmental groups can challenge them.

  8. This may be a stupid suggestion but what about hoping that when the tunnel does outlive it’s usefulness in the future as car traffic declines, ensuring that it could double as a rail tunnel or convert it all to rail. We’re talking about long into the future, but something possible that the tunnel can be used for.

    1. Then we can put Downtown streets on road diets.

      Personally I don’t think driving will fall much. We could use half the oil per capita in this region, but still have the same miles driven — due to fuel economy improvements and population growth.

      1. 100 years from now? “Driving” may fall way off as the “expensive” oil is gone as well. We’ll have electric cars but there are serious issues with commodities that even if we recycle we eventually run out.

        Good article on it in the NYTimes Sunday magazine.

        But a lot could change between then and now. 50 years from now we could be looking at a 7x cost in energy which also reduces driving.

    2. When will we ever want a rail line without a downtown station? And (I presume) it would be prohibitively expensive to dig down and build a station later. (Unless it’s part of an intersecting east-west line. Madison Street subway, anyone?)

      1. I don’t see why you’d presume it would be prohibitively expensive – don’t we generally build underground stations by digging down?

      2. Plus, with a tunnel this massive we could probably remove the dirt from the station right from inside the tunnel.

      3. If you just build a station on an existing right-of-way, the cost will come out to millions of dollars mostly for that station, which will cause sticker shock. But if you build a new tunnel (as in Link’s Brooklyn station), the cost of the station is only a small part of the total project cost, so it looks less significant.

    3. I’m cautiously optimistic that the tunnel could eventually be used for some form of long-distance rail, HSR or otherwise. It’s too deep to usefully serve as a short-distance rapid transit line, but we could possibly build a single station.

  9. I think what McGinn and tunnel opponents need to do now is reshift the debate toward protecting downtown neighborhoods. There is still a lot of uncertainty and fear about tons of new cars diverting onto surface streets so I think now is an opportunity to start discussing pedestrian and biking improvements in Belltown, Downtown, and Denny Triangle. I even think many Council members would want to get behind this since sure, they supported the tunnel, but many of them are big proponents of livability and they need a new project to demonstrate this.

    A few possible improvement suggestions: bus only 3rd Ave; pedestrian improvements to 1st Ave; fixed sidewalks in PS; a bike only lane on 5th, on the West side of the monorail columns.

    1. I agree about 5th. In fact, all Belltown avenues are underused in terms of traffic vs. lanes, except First and Western if that’s Belltown. Second is a pedestrian nightmare due to constant obstacles (it’s why I typically choose First for commuting) and could use a wide, unblocked sidewalk along with a wider bike lane. Third is partially fixed with wider sidewalks and bulbed bus stops but the north end is absurdly wide vs. its light traffic. Fourth could drop a lane perhaps when some of the buses split off at Virginia. Fifth could easily drop the west side. Sixth is way too wide. Seventh and Eighth are way too wide but actually a fine bike street since there’s no traffic from Westlake to Denny.

      And let’s fix those damn tree wells. It’s infuriating that they’ve narrowed the walking area indiscriminately.

  10. You open with “Tunnel opponents (and I am one) have failed to make their case to the voters”. I think voters believe you did succeed in making your case. This is just their verdict on it, which is different.

    I like your ideas for moving forward, and think you’ll find the mayor as eager as you to put Ref 1 in the rearview mirror.

  11. Something interesting to watch: The feds have said there’s no way in hell they’ll let the state tunnel under one of their buildings (not an exact quote). I’ve been watching the stories come out and nothing has changed this – there is still no agreement on tunnelling under the old federal building on 1st.

    Not that I’m predicting a lack of agreement would necessarily be an end to this story, it’s just one more roadblock in the way of the tunnel.

    1. That brings up a good point. If you own property, how deep does that go?
      Excluding mineral rights.
      Will WSDOT have to pay each landowner for the right to pass under?

  12. As a suggestion, let’s expand from “How will we get the density we need around light rail stations” to simply “How will we get the density we need” whether there are actually light rail stations or not. SLU, First Hill, Uptown, Ballard, etc are unlikely to get full-on light rail stations in my lifetime but those are areas worth advocating for density, as are any major transit points in urban centers.

    1. It depends on your definition of the word “density”. Many of the opponents of densification think Seattle already is dense. Well, maybe it is.

      1. We’re 80% single family housing. It’s hard to argue that’s dense. And I’m not sure I want to listen to those that do make that argument.

        I think it’s time to take another little bite out of our huge areas of SF homes. Let’s expand our urban villages by a block, across the city, and bump up the heights on the main streets.

        We’re to a point where Roosevelt upzones by 10% in an area less than a square mile and everyone calls them progressive YIMBYs. Yet out in the far suburbs they’ll resume cutting trees and bulldozing farmland as soon as our economy picks back up.

  13. Maybe if opponents broadened the argument against the DBT to include how it further destabilizes soils permanently below downtown towers, those towers wouldn’t now be at risk? No, it was always and only all about the money, the cost overruns, the tolls. And as for designing Alaskan Way, count on SDOT incompetence to screw it up with their current design. Mercer Mess Messier, here we come. Driving the Denny Way Disaster? Sound Transit did a lackluster job with Link LRT and won’t take the most obvious steps to improve the initial line. I’ve refrained from calling the Lake Union Streetcar the SLUT, but it is the sleaziest new streetcar line. Seattle will remain a city one visits once; once is enough. Ride the Duck! Wheeee!

  14. The big question now is cost overruns and the clause saying Seattle will pick up the tab. If that is challenged and a court says it’s illegal/unenforceable then the precarious coalition in Olympia that approved this backroom deal falls apart.

  15. “We’re 80% single family housing. It’s hard to argue that’s dense. And I’m not sure I want to listen to those that do make that argument.”

    Is that 80% figure for Seattle only? Where does it come from?

    If so that’s higher than I would’ve thought…

    1. In terms of land use, I’ve heard 63% or thereabouts.

      In terms of units, Seattle became majority-multifamily a few years ago. I think I got that from the Census ACS stats.

      In terms of population, if you assume 1.5 people per multifamily unit and 2.5 for single-family, most people still live in houses. But when you count only adults (i.e. potential voters), the percentage is more narrow.

      1. I think this illustrates a really good point about the difference between land use and density. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t be building height in more places, but its worth noting that DADUs and SFH Add-ons could easily double Seattle’s density with very little change to the built environment.

      2. I like DADUs (and ADUs and duplex conversion, etc.), but it doesn’t seem realistic to thing that DADUs et al. could double Seattle’s density in any reasonable timeframe. It doesn’t seem like more than 15-20 a year get built, unless I’m missing something.

      3. Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit. Code for carving up residential zoning without actually changing the zoning and resulting in the worst type of development possible.

      4. Detatched Accessory Dwelling Units (mother-in-law style cottages, or a small home where you’d expect a garage).

        We’re building these really slowly. You have to find a single family that’s willing to spend the money and effort to build one, then the effort to actually rent it out. Except in the case of an actual mother-in-law or grown child needing a place to live, this probably doesn’t happen much.

      5. DADU = Detached Accessory Dwelling Unit. (aka, turning one’s garage into an apartment)

        ADU = Accessory Dwelling Unit. (aka, “mother-in-law” apartment)

      6. I’d put it this way:

        DADU: turning one’s (detached) garage into an apartment
        ADU: turning one’s (basement) garage into an apartment

        But realistically, most of the DADUs that have been built are totally new structures. You see more of them in places like Silicon Valley, where the lots are big, the housing prices are astronomical and the zoning for any attached housing is seriously restrictive. I think Matt the Engineer’s take is right: it’s an unusual family that is willing to spend the money and effort in Seattle, and it’s probably typically in order to house a family member.

    2. I’ve actually just been repeating it after just hearing it here in a comment. But you’ve prompted me to search for a source. Here’s a DJC article from 2000 that lists 72% of all land in Seattle is zoned Single Family. That’s pretty close and our zoning hasn’t changed much since then. The Seattle Times lists 70% in 2006. Neither of these articles reference their numbers – I’d love to see a hard number with a referenced source.

    3. Adding source data to [matt h]’s point, it looks like the 2010 census data about housing type isn’t out yet, but as of 2000:
      49.1% one unit, detatched
      2.2% one unit, attached (do we call this multifamily? has to be attached to something)
      48.2% 2+ units
      0.5% mobile home, RV, boat, van, etc.

      It’ll be interesting to see if there was much change between 2000 and 2010, considering areas like Belltown.

      Interesting notes: 16.1% have no access to vehicles. The average unit has 4.4 rooms. 19.8% of households had children. 40.8% households had only one person living alone. 26% families with no children.

      1. There is no long form 2010 census, use the American Community Survey (ACS) instead. I usually go for Social Explorer, I don’t know if this link will work for you:

        Here’s from the ACS 2005-2009 estimate:

        SE:T97. Housing Units In Structure
        Housing Units:
        1 Unit: 149,074 50.1%
        1, detached 138,660 46.6%
        1, attached 10,414 3.5%
        2 9,584 3.2%
        3 or 4 13,352 4.5%
        5 to 9 18,628 6.3%
        10 to 19 26,024 8.8%
        20 to 49 37,859 12.7%
        50 or More 41,437 13.9%
        Mobile home 1,060 0.4%
        Boat, RV, van, etc. 342 0.1%

        Interesting, single unit detached is just barely under 50%. I'm guessing single unit attached is housing attached to a business? Also I bet a lot of those 2, 3 or 4 units are converted single-family houses.

      2. Thanks [Josh]. I guessed that about attached housing as well, but could we really have an entire 3.5% of our housing stock as single units attached to stores? That seems huge. And not really the traditional “single family home” we’re trying to capture. I’d lean toward putting that in the multifamily number (they certainly wouldn’t be in a SFH zone in that case).

        Ignoring that category, it looks like we’re at 46.6% single family vs. 49.4% multifamily.

  16. We’re in a transition period where car use is declining and automobile-scaled neighborhoods are becoming less popular, but we haven’t yet reached the top of the curve so an expensive bypass highway still has resonance. We’ve already won the battle to not build new freeways in the city or first-ring suburbs: 99 and 520 are replacements of existing decayed freeways. The only new freeways being proposed are in the exurbs (the Cross-Base Highway and I-605), and they have little chance of happening.

    Focusing on urban neighborhoods makes sense now. We should also pursue mitigation for the diverted 99 traffic. And if the deal falls apart due to the project’s budget gap, cost overruns, declining federal funding, or trouble undergound, somebody will have to pick up the pieces and suggest, “What do we do now?”

  17. Maybe what’s next is finding a way for transit to work in the tunnel. At least in the commute peak, could there be demand for buses from the north to SODO and the port, and from the south to SLU/uptown? These are trips that currently are lousy on transit, and in a car they’ll require a hefty toll… yet if they’re building the road, there must be some concept that there’s demand for the trip they’re making.

    As some others have said, another thing that’s next is working to shape the areas around the portals, so pedestrians and cyclists have direct and safe ways across. We don’t want more Auroras in those areas. And removing the obstruction of Aurora itself, in SLU and Uptown.

  18. I realize that this is a car- and truck-oriented project, but the money that is going to be spent on it will create a ton of jobs in the area. Those jobs all come with taxable incomes, and the money that the people working in those jobs will all pay sales taxes when they buy stuff. The local companies that will be providing the supplies and materials and equipment will also see more jobs and income, and every store and restaurant and business that sells something to the tunnel workers will pay taxes and hire people as well. The billions that the tunnel will cost isn’t going to vanish – it’s coming right back into our economy. Probably a third of it will be paid back to the local, state and federal coffers as tax revenue as it moves from hand to hand.

    Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, it is car- and truck-centric. But we’re going to wind up with better crossings of Aurora south of Mercer and robust bike lanes along the waterfront. The waterfront is going to be a much more pleasant place for pedestrians without the sound-amplifying viaduct. Getting the cars and trucks off the downtown streets will be a benefit to bike riders and pedestrians. Slowing traffic along the waterfront will be a benefit to bikers and pedestrians. Keeping cars and trucks moving past the downtown bottleneck will help those people who have to drive somewhere to be able to spend more time moving than idling and polluting.

    The whole reason for the tunnel is to create a better environment for pedestrians and bikes on the waterfront; otherwise a viaduct replacement would have been fine. Not replacing the viaduct with anything would have just resulted in even more cars, trucks and buses on the streets for bikes and people to compete with.

    1. ah, according to the FEIS only 40,000 of the 100,000 daily trips from the current viaduct will use the tunnel. The surface streets get the extra 60,000. I don’t see that as a win for bicycles. Ok, maybe there will be so much surface traffic that it will gridlock and I’ll just ride around it, but otherwise yuck.

    2. Sean, this isn’t a jobs project. Any option we chose would have created jobs. They are going to dig this tunnel with a giant boring machine, not pickaxes. If they had offered to hire thousands of our jobless youth to actually dig it by hand, I might have actually supported it.

      1. We’ve done that before. 14 – 18 feet a day, at a grand total of $1.5M including materials. It took a year for planning, a year and a half for digging, and another two months to complete it “in every detail.”

  19. I for one am glad that this can now return to the “Seattle Transit Blog” rather than the “Seattle Anti-Tunnel Blog”.

    1. Oh yes, all those “anti-tunnel” articles about improving routes and in-depth look at the Transit Master Plan update.

    2. I generally agree, but please remember that STB folks have varying viewpoints on many issues, and they were pretty divided on the tunnel. They all hate the project on the merits, but many of the writers stayed purposefully quiet on the issue. Therefore, what did end up getting written was likely to annoy pro-tunnel types. Adam rightfully called out the pro-transit lie from Let’s Move Forward, but didn’t write much else. Martin wrote occasional opinion pieces and reported news items, but he was reasonably objective and I think at peace with seeing the tunnel built, but in his writing he expressed hesitation at some of PSN’s tactics. The true believer here was of course Ben, who took (much but not all of) his tunnel work to other places like KUOW, Publicola, the Stranger, and PSN itself.

      Look back through the posts the last few months. I’d be very surprised if tunnel-related posts exceeded 10% of total blog content.

  20. How bad is this tunnel going to congeal West Seattle’s already heavy Bridge traffic? How Rapid will Line C really be? I hope the fallout from this debacle strengthens resolve for light rail in W.S. This awful feeling is familiar- I am regularly disappointed by my fellow voters. I think they are trying to bankrupt me and they are succeeding one vote at a time.

    1. Much as West Seattleites have been “surprised” by all of the development post-collapse of the Monorail Project, I think we will be very “surprised” to discover that a toll may be put in place at the Bridge — not the tunnel entrance — to use 99 to get Downtown, forcing more traffic across the Spokane Street Viaduct to the 4th Ave exit. This will also further clog up access to I-5 and I-90.

  21. I’d still be surprised if the tunnel actually gets built. There are enough issues with it that’s it liable to go away without any help from me, not that I’m going to stop helping of course.

  22. Hopefully not too off-topic:

    The Seattle DPD is taking input on its 7-year update of the Comprehensive Plan. This is the perfect opportunity to tell the City it needs to grow up, especially where we’ve invested in transit.

    Take the DPD’s survey.

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