Let's Get One Thing Straight: The Tunnel Is Not The "Green Alternative"

By Dan Bertolet July 12, 2010

Although most of the recent noise about the Alaskan Way Viaduct has focused on cost overruns and spending caps, the core reality of the debate remains the same: The deep-bore tunnel is not the "green alternative," no matter what Seattle City Council President Richard Conlin or anyone else may claim.

The green alternative is the one that came out of a yearlong stakeholder process, was approved by the transportation agencies, and was widely supported by environmental groups, but was blown off at the eleventh hour after an intervention led by Gov. Chris Gregoire and Seattle's downtown business community. That alternative, dubbed I-5/Surface/Transit (I-5/S/T), would provide mobility by investing in improvements to existing roads---both I-5 and the downtown street grid---and increased transit service.

In a word, the deep-bore tunnel is a compromise---a compromise with those who are in denial about the future. Unfortunately, in this age of looming environmental crises, a compromise on such an expensive, long-lived, and consequential transportation project is no longer a sane option. It is widely recognized that the most critical strategy for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, reducing runoff pollution to Puget Sound, and creating a more sustainable and prosperous city overall requires curtailing our reliance on the private automobile. Yet spending billions on a bypass tunnel for cars promotes exactly the opposite of that goal.

Because there is a public hearing today on the proposed tunnel agreement, and because the city council will be voting on it within the next couple weeks, I thought it would be worth pointing out yet again the key reasons why I-5/S/T would be a better choice than the tunnel.

  • It costs about a billion dollars less. And that delta may be even larger given that the tunnel is much more a classic megaproject and therefore is more susceptible to cost overruns.

  • It is less risky to implement. I-5/S/T involves a large number of relatively simple steps, while the deep-bore tunnel will be the largest-diameter such tunnel ever attempted and must pass through a mess of unpredictable soils.

  • It invests more in transit. The original tunnel agreement designated $190 million for transit, but the state has so far blocked the establishment of a funding mechanism. Transit is an integral part of the I-5/S/T plan, not an afterthought.

  • It leverages infrastructure we've already built. One of the most fundamental principles of conservation is that you reuse what you already have before building something new.

  • It reduces car trips by "reverse induced demand." A 2006 study on a surface/transit replacement scenario estimated that¬†28 percent of trips would simply disappear as people adapted their routines.

  • It's both flexible and resilient. The tunnel is a single-purpose system that serves one mode of transportation and funnels traffic through a single pipe---it creates bottlenecks and when it fails it fails hard.¬† I-5/S/T is a distributed system that derives efficiency from the intelligence of individual people to make dynamic choices about mode and route.

  • It avoids portals and their awful impact on the urban fabric. The proposed portals require gigantic holes and wide swaths of freeway lanes that form barriers and alienating dead zones for pedestrians that will be clogged with traffic.

  • Finally, it is an opportunity for Seattle to demonstrate leadership. Many tunnel supporters argue that since, under the state constitution, we can only spend gas tax money on roads, at least we'll be spending it on infrastructure for Seattle, as if the state's contribution is free money. But instead of colluding on this devil's bargain, Seattle should be sending a message to the rest of the state that the status quo needs to change, and that the archaic limitation on gas taxes must be removed. Seattle needs to step up and demonstrate to the rest of the state how solutions that responsibly address sustainability are possible. If Seattle doesn't have the guts to lead on this, who will?

To those of us who see the tunnel in the above light, the cost overrun provision and spending cap add insult to injury. Not only is it a perverse solution, but it also has these ludicrous strings attached that could lead to all sorts of nasty outcomes for Seattle.

Now is the time to let the council know about these concerns.

Specifically, I would encourage folks to support proposed amendments that: (1) remove the cost overrun provision; (2) protect the promised $290 million for the surface street; and (3) add an escape clause based on the outcome of both the EIS and future contract negotiations.

People have a chance to comment at 2:30 this afternoon in city council chambers, or by email.
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