Driving into a (Bored-)Hole (Tunnel): The Latest on Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct
The recent news out of Seattle provides an interesting twist in the continuing Alaskan Way Viaduct saga. WSDoT released its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) late last week on the proposed $3.1 billion bored-hole tunnel, and its thousands of pages lead to some favorable conclusions for the project. According to the accompanying press release for the FEIS, the tunnel, among other things, "creates opportunities for public open space along the downtown Seattle waterfront" and "improves the waterfront environment by reducing noise, treating stormwater runoff and enhancing views and mobility from neighborhoods, including downtown, Pioneer Square and Belltown." Some local environmental activists have thrown their support behind the project as well. Speaking about his somewhat ambivalent support of the tunnel to the Seattle Times, Peter Goldman of the Washington Forest Law Center stated, "This is not easy, but I think at the end of the day it's the best alternative."
And yet, as Dominic Holden of local Seattle paper The Stranger has written about in his exhaustive coverage of the proposal, there's a large question of the tunnel being an alternative to what? Working with research conducted by the Sightline Institute, Holden notes that traffic in downtown Seattle will not significantly change at all whether a tunnel is built or if the viaduct is simply shut down. This is supported by studies from Scott Bernstein of the Center for Neighborhood Technology that show trips by automobile in Seattle have declined by 6% from 2000 to 2009, while at the same time the population increased by nearly 10%. That's nearly 14% fewer trips per capita. What will result if the tunnel is pushed through is not a reduction in traffic, but rather a shift in where that traffic congregates - right on downtown streets. Holden writes, "the benefit of building a tunnel is that the city's core could accommodate 10 percent more traffic than if we just rip down the viaduct. But the tunnel itself would have less capacity than the current viaduct, which has downtown exits where lots of the traffic gets off. The study [SDEIS] says, 'most of the 30,000 daily trips on SR 99 through midtown would be accommodated elsewhere in the transportation system.' Of those, 'about 28,000 vehicles per day would shift to downtown city streets.'”
The Sightline Institute's Traffic Estimates
Creating more congestion on local streets certainly doesn't seem to mesh with the idea of building out the tunnel for increasing vehicular capacity. Nor does the agglomeration of vehicles bode well for environmental concerns. More of Holden's findings from the SDEIS report: "Building a tunnel that increases car capacity will result in an increase of roadway emissions from 988 metric tons per day in the downtown core to 1236 metric tons by 2030." All of these concerns add up to a potential (estimated) $3.1billion boondoggle that the Seattle area will be paying for years to come. As the city prepares to vote on a measure regarding the tunnel on August 16th, Seattle voters would be wise to bear in mind Bernstein's advice to "stay the course and celebrate its disappearing traffic and replace its viaduct with a waterfront boulevard connected to the street grid and mass transit. This will be a cost-reducing investment that pays permanent dividends."
With a conundrum of this size, Seattle may have a little extra help on hand to solve this problem. Guy Noir, the private eye alter ego of Garrison Kellior, recently took on the case in an episode of the Prairie Home Companion. You can listen to Noir's take by clicking here.
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