Seattle’s biggest boondoggle and two of the candidates for Mayor must shoulder some of the blame
by Carolee Colter and John V. Fox, reprinted from Pacific Publishing newspapers
In April, the world’s largest boring machine, ‘Bertha’, finally broke through just west of Aurora, completing its 1.7-mile underground journey. However, the tunnel itself won’t be carrying vehicles until 2019–four years after its scheduled 2015 completion date.
The State and City likely will be in court for years fighting contractors over who will pay the estimated half billion dollars in cost overruns associated with the delay and fixing the drill, but we bet taxpayers in the end will get stiffed. That will bring total costs of the project well over $3.2 billion, including boring, viaduct removal, and surrounding surface street improvements—perhaps the priciest single piece of city infrastructure ever.
To top it off, when completed the tunnel will have 30% less vehicle capacity than the current viaduct. And with tolling required to cover some of its costs, planners say half the 100,000 vehicles now using the viaduct will divert to I-5 and surface streets that are already in near gridlock.
Consider that a ‘retrofit’ of the viaduct would have cost about $1.2 billion–$2 billion less than the tunnel–and would have accommodated an equal or greater flow of traffic, allowed freight to continue move and effectively preserved the waterfront’s historic character. Perhaps best of all, it would all be in our rear view mirror, completed perhaps a decade ago.
We bring this up not to say we told you so (although in a 2012 column, we did predict the tunnel would run up costly delays), but because all three of the major candidates for Mayor (Murray would have been one of the three but has now withdrawn from the race – after this story was posted) share responsibility for allowing this fiasco to move forward despite opportunities to stop it.
When the City put the first tunnel measure on the ballot in 2007, we were given a choice to vote ‘for’ or ‘against’ a new elevated structure at a cost substantially less than a tunnel (but a billion dollars more than the cost of fixing up or retrofitting the viaduct), and a choice to vote ‘for’ or ‘against’ a ‘cut and cover’ tunnel. Peculiarly both choices were put on the ballot at once but voters never were given the chance to vote for or against the fix-it or retrofit option.
This was during the Mayor Nickels era. He shamelessly catered throughout his tenure to downtown interests, including those owning and developing the area immediately east of the viaduct who suddenly would have prime view property once the viaduct went down. In fact, this was the principle driver – downtown special interests – that kept tunnel plans moving forward. And it explained why most city and state leaders, from the Governor, then Senator Ed Murray, Mayor and councilmembers on down remained steadfastly wed to the project.
At the time John co-chaired a “No Tunnel Alliance” composed of Ballard commercial and industrial interests, freight haulers dependent on the viaduct, waterfront businesses fearing displacement, and neighborhood and mass transportation advocates.
We asked all factions opposing the tunnel to set aside their differences to defeat the tunnel. Later, we could fight over what would replace it. Among these potential allies we called upon were those backing replacement of the viaduct with only improvements to surface streets. This group included Cary Moon, recently announced Mayoral candidate, and former Mayor McGinn, now running again. Other factions backed retrofitting the viaduct or a two-level “elevated” replacement of the viaduct.
For a time we were able to hold these factions together but the first to split from our coalition were the surface-only folks who trashed all options other than their own. Their critics jokingly called them “flat earthers‘” because they actually believed that if you tore the viaduct down and replaced it effectively with nothing (other than a little bit of reworking of the downtown grid and a few more buses into and out of downtown) that 100,000 plus vehicles now using the viaduct would simply be absorbed into the remaining grid. They offered studies from other cities to prove their point, but the roadways removed in these other instances were not critical arteries, drivers had other options, and they didn’t carry anything close to the number of vehicles of our viaduct.
This is classic Pollyannaesque, new urbanist baloney–if we just stop accommodating cars they’ll miraculously go away. Cary Moon and Mike McGinn either naively believed in this approach or simply didn’t care much about the consequences for thousands of commuters. They also held on to a dream for a new waterfront–what she and other planners, artists, professional engineers and architects could create down there–a new younger emerging class of cognoscenti.
Come election time in 2007, voters overwhelmingly voted down the tunnel by nearly 2-1, but by a narrower margin, they also voted down the rebuild option. When both went down to defeat, the powers that be at the Mayor’s and Governor’s offices, and Ed Murray, then a powerful local legislator, offered a new slightly modified version of the tunnel option – a “deep bore” option instead of “cut and cover”.
And from there on out, their line was “Hey we heard you, we’re responding to the voters.” The tunnel was brought back to the ballot a second time in 2011 in the form of a Hail-Mary referendum hatched by the surface-only backers, including McGinn and Moon. But it was too late; funding commitments had been made and design of the tunnel was well underway. And at this point, voters really weren’t given a choice. It was either the tunnel or surface-only, which to most voters was comparable to tearing down the viaduct and replacing it was nothing. Fixing up the existing viaduct at minimal cost – the state and city never gave it serious consideration. And as for a new elevated structure, this option by now also had been taken off the table. Voters understandably chose the tunnel.
And from that point on. Downtown elites, the corporate crowd, the Governor and Ed Murray had their mandate. Construction began on the tunnel and within a few months, by Dec of 2013 only a few hundred feet from where drilling began a few months earlier, it stalled and there it stayed some two years swallowing up hundreds of millions more in state and local funding.
Ironically Cary Moon and Mike McGinn and the other “flat earthers” helped ensure in an indirect but still very real way, that the tunnel would in the end get built. Instead of joining with all other factions to kill the tunnel, they flirted with the pro-tunnel forces joining the downtown crowd opposing any rebuild or fix-up option that left an elevated structure in place. The result: Seattle is likely doomed to generations of gridlock.