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We can do better things with our new downtown tunnel

Source photos from WSDOT and Chris Dube
An underground concert venue would be way cooler than a car tunnel. Source photos from WSDOT and Chris Dube

WSDOT was able to bore a little further than 1,000 feet before Bertha ground to a halt, 60 feet below downtown Seattle. That was December 6.

A month and three weeks later, the tunnel boring machine has not moved an inch. That got me thinking: Maybe this is a blessing. Since it’s pretty much certain that this project will go way over it’s $2 billion budget (that’s just the tunnel portion, not the waterfront and viaduct removal part), maybe this is a chance for us to take a step back and reassess our options. How much is this tunnel really worth to us? After all, we haven’t spent all our money yet. If we stop now, we can cut our losses.

And hey, all is not lost. We’ll have a space 54 feet wide and 1,000 feet long under downtown. That actually sounds like a totally awesome opportunity for a fantastic and perhaps even iconic urban space.

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How amazing would it be to have a truly underground concert venue (see photo above)? Or how about a museum or events center? The new Seattle Underground right next door to the old one. Maybe the extra revenue from tourism draw and door prices could even pay the state back for some or all of what it has already spent on the project?

And they have spent a lot, both in terms of cash and in terms of physical risk to workers. Crews have lowered a worker from the surface down a vertical shaft to the front of the machine and sent workers into an air-pressurized bubble inside the front of the cutter head. In order to do this, they had to pump thousands of gallons of water out of the city’s water table to lower the level below the boring machine. This likely caused the still-used viaduct to sink a fraction of an inch.

From all this, we have learned that the machine hit a steel pipe that was put there by state crews and then apparently forgotten. It also hit some plastic, and it hit a boulder 3.5 feet in diameter. While it can handle boulders bigger and smaller, 3.5 feet is its Achilles heel.

The state will not discuss how much this delay has cost, but it is pretty hard to imagine the project is still on budget. And even if they get the machine moving again, it has 9,000 feet to go. I wonder if there are any more 3.5-foot boulders in its path.

It is perfectly reasonable, to stop now and rethink this tunnel. As cost overruns loom, we need to figure out whether the supposed economic benefit of the tunnel will ever catch up to it’s rising price tag. If not, let’s make lemonade from this $2 billion lemon.

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17 responses to “We can do better things with our new downtown tunnel”

  1. Phoebe

    Yes! TUCK THE FUNNEL! We need to back out & stop the madness/waste/Bertha now! Seattle (King County or Washington State) can not afford this ridiculous endevour/traffic jam/2 lane detour to Mercer street. Where do I sign up to contribute to an organized opposition to stop construction of the tunnel? Sign me up!

  2. biliruben

    Given that they are planning a surface highwayanyway, I think that, given flat to declining traffic for a decade, we can live without two highways on our waterfront.

    I am pretty sure we can live with none, if we have a billion lying around that we can invest in transit, ped and bike infrastructure to make Seattle the bestest city ever!

    1. Glen

      Absolutely biliruben. It is not possible to overstate the potential impact to the livability of downtown Seattle if we had spent just 25% of the tunnel budget on improvements in transit, ped and bike access. The other 75% could have been spent adding some additional capacity to I5 (we’re already adding the capacity to I405).

  3. Andres Salomon

    It would make a fantastic supervillian lair!

    1. SashaBikes

      HA! ^^^^THIS!!!

  4. Gary

    What’s really terrible about this tunnel is that Seattle Link needs another tunnel. Yes you heard me right, yet another big hole in the ground to pour money. But once the East Link comes on line, all the buses are going to be moved to 3rd Ave/4th/2nd Ave. And yes some will be gone, like the 550 because they are replaced by East Link.

    BUT: If we want a line from Ballard to West Seattle, that means more trains, and the current tunnel will be at planned capacity.

    So to the tunnel advocates… yes dig a dam tunnel, but move it up the hill, and run it under 2nd Ave for Ballard/West Seattle Link.

    This one is stupid.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Yes, I’m not against tunneling in general. A light rail tunnel is a lot smaller than this one, and there’s a lot more precedence for success. And, of course, a light rail tunnel is a better transportation investment. As seen in this image, just one light rail train can hold an entire traffic jam: http://www.seattlebikeblog.com/2013/12/05/why-seattle-must-invest-in-protected-bike-lanes-and-transit-in-one-moving-gif/

      Of course, a car highway can hold a traffic jam, too. They do all the time!

  5. I looooove this idea!

  6. biliruben

    My mind is starting to churn.

    “X-Games – Subterranean!”

    “Mothra descends, terrorizing parasailers, kayakers and alki beach volleyball. Suddenly, Godzilla crawls from his long slumber beneath the town he has sworn to defend…”

  7. Joseph Singer

    This tunnel had “big dig” and its problems written all over it from the outset. It was a bad idea from the start. Maybe we need to just cut our losses and abandon it in favor of some more sensible project like doing a surface arterial.

    1. Gary

      We’re already building the arterial. What we should build is the means to not need to drive in the first place. I.e. Bike lanes, light rail….etc

  8. battleofseattle

    The waterfront is already becoming a mess. The surface construction is confusing at best. The “bike detour” shifts daily and try as I may I can’t find many signs to shift me along with it. It looks like we are winning more parking spots at the cost of runners, walkers, and cyclists actually enjoying what should be a peaceful natural backdrop.

    1. Jayne

      Ok, yeah, it sucks and it’s ugly and a stupid waste of money, but come on, pay attention and have a sense of personal responsibility. I ride through there maybe once or twice a month and it’s really not that confusing of a route. I agree that it’s a piece of shit thing to do to what should be a gorgeous piece of waterfront but really.

  9. […] going to join the moral-high ground freshly shoveled in by Tom over at the Seattle Bike Blog. In a post Thursday morning entitled “We can do better things with our new downtown tunnel,” he’s calling for […]

  10. Ted Q

    I couldn’t agree more with the tunnel being a massive waste of money. I work on the waterfront just south of Bertha’s insertion point, if you will. Every day when I ride (or drive) to work, I can’t help but imagine the amount of traffic that will be diverted onto Alaskan Way (because of the tolls.) I believe it will make Alaskan unbikable. And I can’t even begin to fathom how much money is being spent every single hour in that gong show of a dig…it is insane. I can’t believe that “we” are actually doing it. It is the last possible place I want my tax dollars going…to fund an underground highway that is being dug…about half the time?

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