While we here at Seattle Bike Blog have been very much against the Highway 99 deep bore highway tunnel all along, it was mostly because it is too expensive for what we were going to get. Basically, by investing in transit, I-5 capacity and active transportation, we could tear down the viaduct and have no need for the highway tunnel, initially anticipated to cost $2 billion.
But while the boring machine to be named Bertha was to be the widest such machine ever constructed, I did not actually doubt the tunnel could be built. People have built some crazy things, after all.
But now the state has admitted that after traveling only 1,000 feet, Bertha is broken. The machine will not be able to move until at least summer, and I am not the only person who has lost faith in the machine’s ability to complete its journey. Right now, there is surface space to dig a hole down to the machine for repairs if needed, but what if it breaks down underneath the downtown core or the viaduct?
But even assuming Bertha is fixable and capable of continuing on its now-massively-over-budget journey, there is another recent revelation that should ease people’s fears about removing the viaduct without first digging the tunnel: The state already plans to build a surface highway on the waterfront, even if the tunnel is built. Once people get a look at how wide this surface highway is, any fears that there will not be enough space for cars should be eased:
We argued strongly against this waterfront highway (what planners call a “boulevard”), essentially saying that if the tunnel highway were built, then there should not also be a highway on the waterfront. But if the tunnel project is scrapped, perhaps the planned design for the waterfront highway could be an acceptable compromise.
Simply put, the tunnel will not generate enough economic activity to justify its initial cost estimate. Now that massive overruns are essentially certain (I’m not looking forward to the argument over who will pay them), there is no question that the tunnel will be a giant money pit for our city and state.
At a time when the Seattle area is doing so many things right, let’s not make a mistake so big that it drags us down.
How much money are we talking about? Well, I made a graph to put some of the Seattle area’s transportation project costs in perspective. The scale of the graph is huge, but it’s not arbitrary: This is how tall the graph needed to be in order for the cost of one mile of protected bike lanes to have visible pixels:
Right now, Bertha is in a place where we could dig down and remove the machine. This is a blessing for a project surrounded by omens. Let’s pull it out of the ground, return it to Hitachi (its maker) and try to recover as much of the remaining tunnel budget as possible. Even if we only recover a quarter of the budget, that’s roughly equivalent to an entire year of King County Metro service (which, I remind you, is facing cuts).
Mayor Ed Murray has already announced that the city will move ahead on its needed seawall replacement project. Likewise, the state can move forward with the viaduct removal and waterfront reconstruction without the tunnel.
In fact, maybe that should be the game plan moving forward: Tear down the viaduct, rebuild the waterfront and reconnect the street grid with the planned surface highway. Leave the tunnel how it is and see how things go without it. If traffic is simply too bad, then we can restart digging where we left off and build the tunnel. If it’s not too bad, then we just saved an astounding amount of money, which will be available to the state for other needs.
And hey, the 1,000-foot tunnel we’ve dug so far need not be a waste of money entirely. There are cooler things we can do with that space: