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Why Seattle should stop waiting for the tunnel and tear down the viaduct now

A modern day Mike Mulligan. Inspired by CarFreeDays.
A modern day Mike Mulligan. Inspired by CarFreeDays.

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.

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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.

A replacement highway is already planned on the waterfront.
A replacement highway is already planned on the waterfront. We don’t need the tunnel.

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.

At its widest point, the planned surface "boulevard" will have a massive eight lanes.
At its widest point, the planned surface “boulevard” will have a massive eight travel lanes. At minimum, the street will have six lanes.

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.

This Mercer underpass of Aurora is scheduled to open next year.
This Mercer underpass of Aurora is scheduled to open next year.

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.

Source photos from WSDOT and Chris Dube
Source photos from WSDOT and Chris Dube

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.

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43 responses to “Why Seattle should stop waiting for the tunnel and tear down the viaduct now”

  1. Allan

    I was wondering if they could not just scrap Bertha and build a pair of smaller tunnels to do the job, using old technology that works. By the way, a number of years ago while we were still thinking about what to do, the French completed a viaduct that was 1200 feet high and spanned an entire valley. I was wondering why it seemed so much easier to get something done in France.

    1. bill

      France: Stable geology. See the Pont du Gard, ca two millenia old.

      Smaller tunnels probably wouldn’t be easier, because the supreme problem is the unknown fill being bored through.

      The problem with killing the tunnel now is repaying the billion or so that was borrowed and has already been spent. If the tunnel is finished there will be tolls to repay the bonds (cue toll rate controversy). If we kill the tunnel, the state can either default on the bonds, which will make it impossible for Washington to sell bonds for other purposes for the duration of living memory, or the state can repay the bonds out of the general fund, directly siphoning money away from other uses. The best of the bad choices is to finish the thing.

      1. Ghost of Ivar’s

        1) Cancel the tunnel
        2) Build a multi-modal surface boulevard
        3) Toll the general purpose lanes of the surface boulevard and I-5 to repay the tunnel bonds.

        Will this happen? Not likely, because City Councilmembers know it would be politically hazardous to their careers, regardless of how hazardous the viaduct becomes to public safety.

    2. Mike B

      1) Twin-bored tunnels need a certain amount of room in between them, so having 2 separate machines might not be possible with the amount of room available.
      2) To build a 2-lane road in a single-bore tunnel would require a machine with a diameter of about 40′. That’s still a large TBM. This was recently done in Miami for their port tunnel. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Port_Miami_Tunnel
      3) Building in air is much easier than building in dirt
      4) TMB’s are proven technology that works. But, most TMB work has been done with much smaller diameter. Link tunnels, for example, are about 21′, which is a very well proven size.

  2. eli

    You could do a contest for how many years/billions of dollars it’ll have to go over until the public starts asking questions like this in the mainstream, and then look back at it 3 years later. ;)

  3. Peri Hartman

    I kind of like the idea of tearing down the viaduct sooner. But, for the long term, I think it’s important to build the bypass tunnel (I’m not going to discuss why, here).

    There is a big difference, though. Tearing down the AWV now would mean dumping a lot more vehicles on the surface, which would cause a disruption and change to commuting habits. People would adjust and find new ways to get about. Then, when the tunnel opens, all of a sudden there’s extra capacity, perhaps including a bus-only lane in the tunnel.

    On the other hand, tearing down the AWV after completion of the tunnel would mean a loss of capacity at that point with no future for extra capacity and little possibility of adding a bus lane in the tunnel.

    1. It will be a long time, if ever, before any transit agency wants to run any downtown-bypassing route in that corridor, let alone one with enough service to put bus lanes there. It’s not just that there isn’t and can’t ever be any place to stop in the tunnel. A regularly scheduled bus in the tunnel would have to be on Aurora as far north as the Aurora Bridge. Then past the south portal it either exits near the stadiums (for maximum unreliability) or continues without stopping until… West Seattle? Burien? The airport?

      And this particular bypass tunnel will be nearly as goofy for cars as it would be for buses. The vast majority of through traffic uses I-5, not 99, for reasons the tunnel can’t change (the slowness of 99 north of Green Lake, its isolation south of downtown, the difficulty of “turning left” from Aurora most places, and the difficulty of moving east-west between I-5 and 99 all the way from about N 145th to the Spokane Street Viaduct, some of Seattle’s defining transportation difficulties). So it benefits a fairly narrow group of drivers.

  4. Mark

    While we are abandoning tunnels, let’s also fill in the Battery Street Tunnel early (as is planned when/if the Bertha Tunnel is complete) and re-build the street grid from Denny north to the Aurora Bridge (officially, the George Washington Memorial Bridge).

  5. Wells

    The alternative Box Cut-Cover/Tunnel/Seawall in the FEIS documentation was ready for public review in 2006, but was kept under wraps until 2009. Many other cut/cover tunnel options, before and after the 2007 voter referendum were studied though they required complete removal of the AWV beforehand and were thus “more disruptive” to build. Wsdot was gambling voters would approve their elevated viaduct replacement monstrosity by concealing the ‘least disruptive’ cut/cover tunnel option. Wsdot and Sdot rigged the studies AND the 2007 voter referendum.

    The Box Cut-Cover Tunnel/Seawall is still possible. The completed 1000′ segment of bore tunnel can be directed to this cut-cover/seawall portal and finish near Pike. This tunnel option displaces the least traffic onto surface streets and maintains existing access on Western/Elliott in Lower Belltown, a suitably ‘commercial’ corridor, rather than redirect traffic through ‘residential’ Queen Anne on Mercer Street and ‘dangerously steep’ Mercer Place hill. The new Mercer Underpass is a noisy pollution dump that pedestrians will avoid.

    Lastly, The Box Cut-Cover Tunnel/Seawall provides a sturdy seawall, a veritable earthquake barrier, and the means to sensibly monitor and control groundwater flows. The proposed seawall replacement (drill-fill sea fence) will actually compound the hazards of settling that existing and increased groundwaters present to vulnerable buildings above the entire length of the bore tunnel. If the bore tunnel is completed, Seattle will lose the waterfront and everything west of 4th Ave. Good riddance.

    1. Gary

      The problem with the box cut/cover tunnel is that when the sea rises a couple of feet, which it will, the tunnel will flood.

      On the otherhand that will function like a giant gutter to postpone the flooding of the surface street.

      1. Wells

        Flooding of either tunnel would occur at the portals. Barriers that raise their height can be constructed to prevent flooding. Maximum sea level rise is expected to be about 20′, not enough to reach the existing seawall height. The Box Cut-Cover Tunnel/Seawall is a massive structure that can withstand this worst case scenario. Nyah.

  6. RDPence

    Whatever happened to Cary Moon, the local landscape architect who was advocating for a “surface alternative” several years ago? She was leading that effort through the People’s Waterfront Coalition, but their website no longer exists. Now that history is beginning to prove her correct, she needs to resurface and re-engage.

    1. Wells

      Last I heard, she was appointed to serve on the Waterfront Committee. And from what I see of that project, her opinion may not be having any affect. The new design is pretentious crap.

  7. Retain the upper level of the Viaduct for use as an elevated park just like NYC’s world-class High Line. That’s where regular people will get their views. Tear down the Viaduct and the only views will be from luxury condos.

    1. Cheif

      You should visit the downtown waterfront sometime instead of just driving past on 99. There are plenty of great views aside from condo windows or distracting drivers speeding past in their bubbles.

      1. Eric Shalit

        Cheif: You completely misunderstood my comment. Please re-read it and see the link below it.

      2. Cheif

        No I didn’t. I’m quite familiar with the high line park. You are incorrect when you say “Tear down the Viaduct and the only views will be from luxury condos”. Maybe you should take your own advice and try reading a little more closely in the future.

    2. Josh

      Advocates of the tunnel said the Viaduct “cuts off” the waterfront from downtown, so it needs to go.

      An eight lane surface street will feel so much more connected….

      1. Andres Salomon

        Yeah, we need to do something about that surface street; it’s ridiculous. Folks from Central Seattle Greenways and Madison Park Greenways have pushed really hard and made great progress on WSDOT’s 520 plans. I wonder if people with free time who feel passionate about SDOT’s proposed waterfront highway can do some similar pushing and advocacy.

      2. Tom Fucoloro

        I agree: http://www.seattlebikeblog.com/2013/07/11/updated-waterfront-plans-lay-out-more-bikeway-street-design-details/

        Without the tunnel, it’s size might actually make a little more sense (with the tunnel, it’s simply ridiculous). It’s definitely not the waterfront I would like to see, but I get that there are a lot of motor vehicle trips on the viaduct that do need to go somewhere. Perhaps it’s a compromise?

      3. James

        A 6 or 8 lane surface street would be so much more useful than a highway as it would be connected to the grid at each intersection instead of being a something somebody can bypass downtown on by flying on through. Bypassing downtown is one of the tunnel’s main criticisms. A real street with bike lanes and well controlled intersections would be better for all users, pedestrians included. I was a surface street proponent back in the day but resigned myself to envisioning the waterfront with a tunnel. Now the whole idea of a tunnel seems doomed and a surface street, while chock full of cars, seems like the smartest way to go. Time to pull the plug.

      4. JohnS

        Andres, many of us have been working on the ‘surface boulevard’ for years. There are many, many complicating factors (including State Ferries’ demands to use street space for car storage for Colman Dock, among others) that make it very, very difficult to get a good design. The process has also been far more opaque than the 520 process. I am quite certain that if the tunnel is finally given up for dead (as I firmly believe it should be) the energy will come back to the surface street conversation again. Right now it’s almost on hold.

      5. Wells

        In reply to JohnS who writes, “Many have been working on the surface boulevard. There are complicating factors including State Ferries demand/need to use street space for car storage/queue for Colman Dock.”

        The completed segment of bore tunnel can lead to the Box Cut-Cover Tunnel/Seawall and finish at Pike, as I’ve stated on this string already. However, the bore tunnel highway decks are far enough below the level proposed in the Box Cut-Cover that a short 3rd deck could be constructed atop for a limited amount of parking space.

        Look closely at photos of the excavation pit and note the water stains on the sides of the cement bore pillars. This shows how seawater and inland fresh water) will unavoidably make its way between the seawall replacement using this same faulty technique. The Seawall plaza as proposed will have to be rebuilt. Alaskan Way boulevard only needs to be 4 lanes plus medians and left turn lanes at a few intersections. I’ve long proposed 2-lane ‘frontage road’ east of Alaskan Way with islands between for the streetcar line. This configuration reduces the number of intersections from 13 to 9 and allows motor vehicle access between it and Western without having to get back into the thru-traffic of Alaskan Way. The City has had the design since 2002, but they’ve never given it a fair review nor assessment. Grace Crunican was fired from her previous position at Oregon DOT for violations of ADA federal mandate and State Code on projects she oversaw during her tenure. I warned Seattlers not to trust her, but she can be a charmer.

      6. Peri Hartman

        Wells: have you tried other approaches to getting traction, such as Seattle Transportation Choices?

        It seems your idea has merit, though I’m sure there are a number of trade-offs, as there are with any proposal.

    3. Kirk

      The main reason to pull down the viaduct is that it is one of the least stable structures in the United States. While leaving it up to be a park and an awesome bike path would be nice, I don’t think it is possible…

    4. Tom Fucoloro

      Or at the very least, keeping the Seneca ramp as a little elevated park could be awesome: https://goo.gl/maps/6HzeH

      The new road needs to go where the viaduct currently stands, so keeping the main structure is not possible, I’m pretty sure (plus, you know, earthquakes).

    1. Nathanael

      The difference is that the High Line was in *good* condition. Because it goes through a bunch of buildings, its structural foundations were maintained in order to keep the buildings in good shape.

      The Alaskan Way Viaduct needed to be torn down years ago. It’s failing.

  8. Daren

    Has anyone thought about this potential alternative? Should the tunnel be stopped dead, could the rest of the budget or some other funding source provide a connection to the surface? Whether it be new surface road or elevated structure? Just food for thought.

    1. One of the ideas for “viaduct replacement”, called ” surface/transit/I-5″, called for building a surface street in the 99 corridor, enhancing transit in that corridor (both infrastructure and operations, particularly south of downtown), and focusing through-travel considerations on some projects involving I-5, where most of the through-traffic actually is. It was the right plan then and it’s the right plan now.

    2. Gary

      The state has already sold the bonds to finance the tunnel. So “rest of the budget” was spent. What we are now looking at is the cost of the lawsuit for stopping and the cost to do something different.

      Unless there is some radical new leadership, or a building falls, they will just keep digging.

  9. Dave

    One of the times I’m very happy to not live in the Seattle area. I visit a few times a year; will not be surprised if it takes ten years to resolve the whole thing. We will be lucky if Pike Place Market doesn’t end up sinking into a ditch before this is all done.

  10. Stardent

    Drilling small bore tunnels is routine now. In fact, we have had several of them in the works or completed recently. It would have been smarter to bore a smaller, guide tunnel first before putting Bertha to work. This would have (a) preserved the access to the front of the machine, and (b) reduced the amount of soil to move and consequently the amount of grit that can dull the cutters. It would have been more expensive to begin with but the cost would have been predictable and the project would have been on time.

  11. Doug Bostrom

    Any civil engineers contributing to the discussion here?

    I’m a major fan of Tom’s but the OP’s factual claims and speculation are infected with opinions that are the subject of legitimate debate.

  12. Allan

    Picture this…Rush hour, a holiday weekend, it’s Friday evening and traffic on the viaduct is stalled in both directions. The extra weight and further sinking causes a collapse to begin in one section. It goes down but not alone. Further sections follow from both ends of the downed section until the entire viaduct has fallen with thousands of cars on it. Than just as the dust settles, Pike Street Market begins a long slow slide, dissolving as it falls into the wreckage. Sunlight is blotted out by the dust and all is covered by a deep dark fog. The city has called for help from Portland, Vancouver B.C. and the Army. As they begin to arrive a tall building near the already bored portion of the tunnel begins to lean perilessly towards the wreckage. Every hospital within 300 miles is taking survivers. World news media gives it 24 hour coverage. Three days later the first of 10,000 multi million dollar law suits is filed against the city for gross negligence in allowing the continued use of the viaduct. Six months later real estate taxes are trebled and sales tax is raised to 20%.
    Ok, raise your hands if you are for closing and tearing the viaduct down now.

    1. Dave

      Wow, you paint a vivid picture!

      1. Allan

        I hope the vivid picture encourages closing the viaduct soon.

    2. Nathanael

      Well, only one detail: the state would be the lawsuit target, because it’s the state which refuses to close the viaduct. The state would then claim sovereign immunity.

      The uncontrolled collapse of part of the viaduct could, indeed have the effect of a small earthquake, which could cause the collapse of multiple buildings and additional parts of the viaduct.

      1. Allan

        Hmm, if I had read your post about the story before I wrote the story I could have done it better, that’s for sure. All the buildings could have fallen down, the state would refuse to pay, leading to the collapse of the insurance companies and eventually the entire worlds economy and the world would return to the stone age and everyone would die except a few hardy neanderthal types. I think we should tear it down before that happens.

      2. Dave

        The city of Portland is making some mild, timid attempts to gain control of some surface streets that are state highways the better to improve conditions for non-motorized travelers on them. We should watch that space.

      3. Dave

        So, the state of Washington and city of Seattle are willing to endanger thousands of lives and risk billions of dollars in property damage and dislocation just so they won’t inconvenience some drivers who use the viaduct habitually?

  13. Allan

    Is anyone held responsible for all this. If we were in China and the viaduct fell all those responsible would be taken out and shot. If this were Russia, they would be sent to a Gulag in Siberia. Here they will have to say “I’m sorry”?

  14. […] I’m sure you all are sick of hearing about how terrible the 99 tunnel project is. I’m sick of writing about it! But it just keeps getting worse. At this rate, I can’t imagine how any other project in the nation has any hope of unseating it for the 2015, 2016 and 2017 Streetsies. Well, unless we wise up, stop waiting for the tunnel and remove the viaduct now. […]

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