Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Tunnel Vision for the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Plan

Dateline: 12:39 pm February 6, 2011 Filed under:

A couple years ago I had the honor of playing guitar (In My Life by the Beatles, no less!) at my friend’s wedding in Seattle. Several other friends from college converged on Seattle, and we decided to rent an apartment through VRBO, a vacation rentals website. We wound up with a lovely two-bedroom place with a stunning view of Elliot Bay and just down the Post Alley from Pike Place Market.

Other than the wonderful access to the historic Pioneer Square district, Pike Place Market and the waterfront, we could have just stayed in and enjoyed the view. Indeed we did that one evening, having bought fresh crab legs and several bottles of Chardonnay, we leisurely ate, drank and gazed out the window as the sun gave way to a rain shower, followed by a rainbow, a blazing sunset and then dusk settled over the bay as the lights of West Seattle and the container port flickered on.

Our flat was up on the 13th floor (good luck in this case), but all the while we enjoyed that view, the incessant hum of a distinctly foreign and entirely out of place roadway carried on below us. The Alaskan Way Viaduct, an ancient freeway intended to speed traffic around downtown Seattle, severs the city from its primary amenity, the water.

The viaduct is aging, and this fact presents an opportunity to tear it down, replace it with an urban boulevard a la the Embarcadero, and reconnect Seattle’s downtown with its waterfront. The good news is the city, state and Port of Seattle are working on a plan to essentially create the “Big Dig West.” The Big Dig West will replace the viaduct with a tunnel and a surface waterfront boulevard. The bad news is the project will cost an exceptional sum of money. The unfortunate news is the tunnel is not necessary.

In 2006 the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) sponsored a report by Smart Mobility that argued against the expensive tunnel option on the grounds that it would be built for traffic bypasssing the downtown, when in reality most viaduct traffic is accessing downtown, and the existing grid of streets and transit and bicycle improvements can accomodate it.

Read the Smart Mobility report here.

Meanwhile, more recent traffic numbers released by the Seattle DOT and analyzed by Scott Bernstein at CNT show that in the past 10 years trips by car have decreased in the city, while the population has risen. Essentially, people are driving 14% less, helped in part by the start of light rail service and improvements to commuter rail and biking alternatives. A primary rationale for the tunnel alternative is a forecast increase in traffic. That argument should be put to rest (of course, it has not).

Whether traffic decreases or not, the tunnel would terminate in the historic Pioneer Square neighborhood, forcing gridlock there rather than spreading it over the existing grid of streets downtown.

Furthermore, the city has set a goal of being carbon neutral by 2030. How does this fit with a tunnel that will encourage more driving?

Lastly, estimates vary, but the cost is at least $3 billion and could be in excess of $4 billion depending on overruns that are all too common with tunnel projects. For a mere 1.7-mile tunnel, well, you do the math. The issue is the state, city and Port of Seattle have agreed to split the cost (unevenly), not all dollars have been committed, and no entity has committed to paying for overruns. They would likely fall to the city of Seattle, and that could scuttle improvements to the waterfront boulevard planned above the tunnel. In effect, the tunnel is an unnecessary “investment” and potential boondoggle.

The mayor of Seattle is against the tunnel alternative, but the City Council and governor of Washington are in favor of it. This is an uphill battle for good urbanism.

The People’s Waterfront Coalition and its fearless leader Cary Moon have clearly laid out the argument against the tunnel, in lieu of a waterfront boulevard and improvements to the existing Interstate 5.

The facts and the urban context (like the view from the Harbor Steps and Pike Place Market) indicate the sensible alternative is no tunnel, but an urbane, urban boulevard for the good of Seattleites and visitors alike.

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.