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Parsing Conlin's Tunnel Pitch
Last Saturday, the Seattle Times published an interview with Seattle City Council President Richard Conlin headlined "Conlin makes pitch for tunnel to replace viaduct." Some pitch.
Every benefit of the tunnel claimed by Conlin applies just as well to the I-5/surface/transit option, which would replace the viaduct with a mix of improvements to I-5, SR-99, surface roads, and public transit. By my read, in fact, the only tunnel-specific rationale left standing is that the state of Washington has the power to make the decision, and Seattle must abide by it.
Think I'm unfairly simplifying? Let's see:
Conlin: "...the tunnel accomplishes a number of different things with fewer risks than the other alternatives."
Unfortunately, Conlin doesn't elaborate on what, exactly, those risks are. It seems unlikely, though, that he's talking about the risk of boring the largest-diameter tunnel ever attempted in the world. Allow me to suggest that the "risk" he's referring to here is the (unsubstantiated) fear that the I-5/surface/transit alternative wouldn't work, and we'd end up with gridlock on I-5. But the city, county, and state Departments of Transportation had no such fears when they all signed off on I-5/Surface/Transit. And the city's own Urban Mobility Plan provides in-depth support for that view.
Conlin: "...[the tunnel] being able to provide security and reliability in the transportation system."
Conlin offers no specifics about why the tunnel would excel in these areas, and I'm at a loss to come up with any myself. In fact, one could argue that a system utilizing multiply redundant surface street grid connections and more alternatives to single-occupant vehicles is actually more secure and reliable than a bypass tunnel for cars with only one way in and one way out.
Conlin: "We get rid of the unsafe viaduct."
Never mind that compared to I-5/Surface/Transit, the tunnel option leaves that unsafe viaduct standing for an additional four to five years.
Conlin: "...and we create a new and safe corridor."
The implication here seems to be that the tunnel is the safe option, and that alternatives like I-5/surface/transit are unsafe. But I know of no basis for such a claim. What am I missing?
Conlin: "It creates for us the great waterfront park that we're looking for..."
Yes, and so does I-5/surface/transit. And if so much of the state's contribution didn't have to be spent building the deep-bore tunnel, we could use it on the surface to create the kind of great waterfront street that would provide a worthy complement to a world-class waterfront park.
Many people assume that I-5/surface/transit would require a huge freeway down Alaskan Way. But the fact is, I-5/surface/transit was designed to move so many car trips out of the Alaskan Way corridor that even a four-lane roadway could handle the traffic.
In contrast, with the tunnel, we could end up with even more traffic on the waterfront. Tolling and the lack of downtown exits will encourage drivers to use the waterfront surface street instead of the tunnel. And unlike I-5/surface/transit, the tunnel option doesn't include the additional transit service and improvements to I-5 and the street grid that would reduce car trips in the Alaskan Way corridor. (I-5/surface/transit would also avoid both the traffic bottlenecks and the massive dead zones in the urban fabric associated with the tunnel portals and ventilation buildings.)
Conlin: "If cost overruns take place, then we'll have to figure it out."
Last January, Conlin told the West Seattle Herald that "There won't be any cost overruns" on the tunnel. Meanwhile, the state assures us that "we intend to bring the project in on time and on budget." Neither argument—that there won't be any cost overruns on one hand, and that we'll "figure it out" on the other—is reassuring.
Conlin: "Ultimately the mayor really doesn't have the ability to stop it anyway, as the legislature demonstrated when they created that bill that would have declared an emergency on transportation projects and overridden local regulations."
Although Conlin does add that he was glad the legislature didn't pass the bill, he's putting himself in the politically awkward position of appearing to be thankful that the state would force their will on Seattle if the mayor found a way to stop the tunnel. It's a dubious stance for a Seattle politician to take.
Conlin: "...it's going to be a great benefit to us in our growth-management strategy... to make our urban centers places where people want to live and people want to have jobs. We expect this is going to create a lot of interest and attention for people who want to develop new housing downtown, people who want to develop new jobs downtown, and that's going to be a benefit for everybody."
There is some truth in what Conlin is saying here, but all told, the negative impacts of the tunnel would far outweigh the benefits he cites. Not to mention that the benefits he cites would also accrue from the I-5/surface/transit alternative. The only real difference is that the that the (unsafe) viaduct could be left in service until the tunnel opened.
Here's the reality: If our goal is to create a sustainable urban core with a high-density of housing and jobs, then spending billions on new infrastructure for cars is the last thing we ought to be doing. Dense, sustainable cities require transit, not cars. And across the U.S, history has shown that bypass freeways make it easier to speed through and avoid any interaction with the urban core, promoting car-dependent sprawl and the increased greenhouse gas emissions and toxic runoff that come with it.
Over the long term, the cities that wean themselves from car dependence will become the prosperous cities of the future. The operative forces span the spectrum from economic to environmental to social. Given the world that anyone who's paying attention can see coming, spending huge piles of our dwindling public funds on new, unnecessary freeways is irresponsible, if not immoral. Clearly, too many of the state of Washington's leaders don't get that. But that doesn't excuse those who know better for going along with them.
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