Viaduct tunnel may not be worth saving

Originally published in the Capitol Hill Times.

Right now in downtown Seattle, there’s a $4.2 billion (and counting) hole in the ground that leads to nowhere. Its $80 million, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-inspired drill, Big Bertha, has broken down, and contractors may or may not be able to fix it. As reported by the Stranger’s Dominic Holden, no one’s really sure if or when the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel will be complete. And if it does ever come to fruition, the tunnel may make downtown traffic even worse than it already is. SDOT projects that about half the tunnel’s traffic–nearly 50,000 cars per day–will be diverted onto Downtown streets as drivers try to dodge tolls.

Meanwhile, here on Capitol Hill, we’re witnessing a renaissance of investment in sustainable transit. Preparations for a streetcar line from Pioneer Square to Cal Anderson Park are now “substantially complete,” according to the project’s website, and service should launch sometime in the next few months. The First Hill Streetcar, as it’s called, will run every 10-15 minutes and is expected to serve more than 3,000 rides daily. The price tag for this project? $134 million. That’s less than just the tunnel’s runover cost: contractors now say they need an extra $188 million on top of the project’s original budget. And unlike the tunnel, our new streetcar line is ready on schedule.

Then there are the bicycles. Part of the aforementioned streetcar project included the installation of Broadway’s new protected bike lane, a two-way strip of green extending from Howell to Yesler. The lane is shielded from auto traffic by parked cars and weighted obstacles that have been described as “blue Cheetos” and “giant smurf poops.” SDOT says that as the weather has warmed, rides along the bikeway have jumped up to more than 450 per day, the lion’s share of which are commutes. This number would probably be a lot higher if the city boasted a safer and more comprehensive bike infrastructure: a 2012 study in Seattle’s doppelganger, Portland, found that more than half of the city’s residents were interested in biking but held back by safety concerns. (Kudos, by the way, to Capitol Hill Seattle blog for their coverage of the bike lane project.)

So let’s compare the tunnel to Capitol Hill’s new, green transit. Cost? At first glance, they’re about even: the tunnel costs more than 31 times as much as the streetcar/bike expansion, and is designed to serve about 33 times as many travelers (not counting carpool passengers). But when you consider the actual cost of owning a car, the picture changes. The annual real operating cost of owning a car is a little over $8000, compared to about a thousand dollars per year for an unlimited transit pass and about $300 per year to maintain a bike. In other words, the true cost of the tunnel as a mass transit solution is vastly greater than its sticker price, because hidden costs for fuel and vehicle maintenance are passed on to drivers.

Keep in mind that this is only counting the immediate, monetary cost of the tunnel. The preceding calculations say nothing about how taxpayer dollars are being spent on a project that is only useful to people with cars. The tunnel is useless to Seattleites who don’t want or can’t afford an automobile, effectively excluding the poor from part of our transportation infrastructure. Nor does the above consider the environmental costs of automobile pollution, which range from lung disease to global warming (the latter of which may or may not collapse civilization within our lifetimes). Forty percent of Seattle’s greenhouse gas emissions come from motor vehicles. That’s more than building and industrial energy usage combined, and is 10 percent higher than the national average. We are the reason the polar ice caps are melting.

In an ideal world, the prospect of killing our own grandchildren via pollution would be sufficient motive to ditch the tunnel and invest in green transit. But since we live in a society which measures time in business cycles, here’s another incentive: profit. According to city data, retail shoppers who arrive by bicycle spend an average of 25 percent more than shoppers who arrive by car. Shoppers using public transit tend to spend slightly less than car drivers, but that can be partly accounted for by class: people who can afford a car can also afford to go shopping.

From a short-term, budget-oriented perspective, it’s not clear whether the tunnel project is worth saving at this point. It may be experiencing a minor hiccup, or it may be a bottomless sinkhole for time and money. What is clear is that it was a bad idea in the first place. Even if the tunnel is successfully completed someday, its effects will include snarling traffic jams, aggravated pollution, and prohibitive usage costs for travelers. The kinds of solutions we’ve recently seen on the Hill, and will soon see more of as the city launches its bike-sharing project, are safe, reliable, cost-effective, and clean. Moreover, they work just as well facilitating regional travel as local, as the Sounder train and Central Link light rail demonstrate. Seattle can do better than a giant traffic tube, and our elected officials should at least consider the option of cutting losses and abandoning the project.

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