The megaproject to repair the delayed downtown highway megaproject has been delayed. Again.
The tunnel project team had their shot to build the tunnel before the viaduct was torn down. They blew it, and now the viaduct is sinking beyond previously-stated safe limits.
We can no longer wait for the tunnel. State and city leaders need to start work on tearing down the viaduct, shoring up the seawall and building the planned surface boulevard the region needs to keep people and goods moving.
We do not need the tunnel highway. It was an appealing idea to many that the tunnel be in operation before the viaduct is demolished, but it no longer seems wise to tie viaduct teardown work to the endlessly delayed tunnel schedule. We’ve run out of time. The viaduct must be torn down or it is going to come down on its own.
“The Council’s top priority is the safety of the public,” Councilmember Jean Godden said Monday during a meeting about the Alaskan Way Viaduct Project. Godden is chair of the special committee on the project. WSDOT’s Tim Moore ballparked his confidence in the viaduct structure at 95 percent. That other 5 percent? Earthquake fears. But this gamble is less like rolling dice and more like Russian Roulette: The best way to win is to stop playing.
The Bertha saga gets worse and worse, and it seems ever more likely that the highway tunnel will never be completed. And it definitely will not be completed without millions or maybe billions more taxpayer dollars, and no governing body is eager to step up and volunteer the money.
But worse, as the project continues to sit stalled underground, the Alaskan Way Viaduct and some nearby buildings are sinking. The waterfront double-decker highway was already one tremor away from collapsing, possibly taking dozens of lives with it and damaging historic buildings and vital parts of the city’s working waterfront. Now it seems work to repair Bertha could potentially do the same thing.
The highway structure has now sunk more than half a foot since the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, further than officials originally said is safe. 1.2 inches of that sinking happened in the past month, apparently due to a massive water removal effort needed to dig the repair pit (project leaders told the City Council that retrofits to the viaduct mean the half-foot sinking limit is no longer accurate, and they think the structure is safe). Workers have reached the 80-foot mark in the pit, but need to get to 120 feet before the repair process can begin.
While any money still remains in the state’s project budget, we need to invest in work we know we absolutely need: Demolish the viaduct and build the new surface
boulevard and seawall. The tunnel is an add-on, not a mission-critical element.
That surface road — which is more like a surface highway than a city street — will provide downtown access for many of the trips that currently exit the viaduct downtown. The surface street will also provide vital freight access and will be constructed along with a stronger seawall that is needed to protect downtown in the next earthquake. This is not work we should put on hold while the tunnel crews try to figure if they even can restart the massive tunnel machine.
But how will we handle all the traffic?
That’s a good question, and people who depend on the viaduct to get around will likely be understandably worried about traffic headaches without the viaduct. But traffic studies suggest that the tunnel will not even be useful for most trips traveling on the viaduct today.
With the passage of Prop 1 in Seattle, extra funding could improve transit service needed to provide people with other options to get around without driving their old viaduct routes. More transit funding would be needed, certainly, but Prop 1 is a start.
After years of tough construction, the city’s Mercer project is scheduled for completion within the next year. This project cost hundreds of millions of dollars and is designed to make it easier for people to get to and from I-5 in the north end of downtown, helping people coming from Elliott/15th and Aurora who want to bypass downtown Seattle.
The tunnel is designed only to be a downtown bypass. Anyone who exits or enters the viaduct downtown today will use other routes whether the tunnel is finished or not. The remaining through traffic (about 47,000 vehicles at today’s levels) will then have the option of either taking the waterfront boulevard or I-5. That might mean some extra minutes on some through-city trips, but it’s not a fate so terrible that we should take giant risks to avoid it. Many motor vehicle trips into the city center are going to take longer whether the tunnel is completed or not.
And, of course, many of today’s car trips will simply disappear or shift as people adapt and find new ways to get around. This happens every time a major highway change occurs, and it will work even better if the highway change comes with more and better transit service. The significant walking and biking improvements planned for the waterfront remake will also help alleviate stress on the transportation system by providing people more options and connecting regional bike routes and trails into the city center.
But what about all the money we already spent? #reBertha
I get that this is a hard call. A lot of government agencies have already sunk a ton of cash into this tunnel project, and there are all kinds of contracts signed and promises made. I’m sure that no matter what, this is headed to the courts for some terrible legal fighting (the tunnel partners have been there before).
Perhaps it is possible that the tunnel team can get things figured out, fix the machine, and finish the tunnel. The highway tunnel could then open whenever they finally get there. But we should no longer wait for that day to tear down the viaduct.
If they can’t figure out how to fix the problem, then all is not lost! If we see that traffic is not so bad with just a surface boulevard, then we can save whatever cash is left by cancelling the tunnel. Think of the period after the opening of the new surface street as a real life test of whether we need a tunnel or some other solution at all. Maybe some improvements to I-5 would be enough. Or maybe some better transit to West Seattle and Ballard would do the job. Likely, a mix of those approaches will be needed.
If the tunnel doesn’t work out, we will have a crazy 1,000-foot tunnel-to-nowhere in downtown that could become a pretty unique public space. Maybe we turn it into a museum or events venue. It could be Seattle’s new Underground right next to the historic one.
But whatever happens, let’s not wait for the tunnel any longer. We don’t need it, and Seattle has lost trust that they can deliver it anytime soon. So let’s move forward and let the project team try to catch up if they can.