Thursday, August 18, 2011

Seattle to Move Forward with Tunnel

Over the years the Seattle-Tacoma area has consistently been ranked in or near the top ten in metropolitan areas with the worst traffic. In 2010 the Chicago Tribune and Forbes Magazine put Seattle in the ninth position.

One of the worst areas is the waterfront area and the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Not only is this elevated stretch of Highway 99 congested at nearly anytime during the day, it is also a potential death trap should an earthquake of any significance hit the area.
Seattle and the state of Washington have been trying to solve this problem for several years. In 2008 public officials released a list of possible alternatives to replace the viaduct.  These included:

1. A four-lane viaduct from South King Street to Bell Street, then connecting to the currently under the north end of the downtown area.

2. A shorter four-lane viaduct but this one would have traffic only on one level, with a park on the top level.

3. A four-lane, two mile long bored tunnel connecting to the existing north-end tunnel.

4. A shorter four-lane tunnel that would be dug from above rather than bored.

5-7. All surface street options. Some include increasing the number of lanes, others would switch one-way streets to two-way.

8. This one is basically a sunken road with a partial cover in some locations, full cover in others.

For the full breakdown of each, click here.

As discussion continued over the ensuing years, some of the options fell to the wayside. The focus became whether to build the bored tunnel or one of the surface options. Current Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn became a strong opponent of the tunnel option preferring a surface option with lots of mass-transit built up. One of McGinn’s concerns was cost overruns and who would be responsible for those possible overruns. He cited the Big Dig in Boston as an example, where cost overruns ran into the billions. I shared his concerns. How often has anyone heard of a government award project coming in under the estimated costs? I can’t think of any recent examples. But what do you expect when you have contractors using taxpayer money.

But I also was not happy with any of the surface options. The one thing that the current viaduct does is that it gets traffic out of the downtown area quicker. As an added bonus, if you just wanted to pass through the downtown, the viaduct was there for you. Tearing down the viaduct and just widening the surface streets and doing some re-routing just didn’t seem smart to me. On top of that, the whole increasing mass-transit with street cars and more bus routes just didn’t seem to be a workable solution. User of the viaduct are either coming into or leaving the downtown area for point further out, or they are just passing through. If surface streets were the only options through the area, more folks would head to I-5, and that is already a mess.

Yesterday, the folks of Seattle had an election and by a fairly significant margin, they approved the tunnel options. Early on in the debate, McGinn had said that he was willing to put the tunnel option up for a vote, allowing the will of the people to decide. It is estimated to cost in the vicinity of $3 billion with annual operating costs somewhere near $7 million.

Now that the voters of Seattle have spoken, construction is expected to begin early this fall, with completion in 2016.

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