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Seattle still doesn’t need a downtown car tunnel, but crews deserve a victory lap today

Seattle Bike Blog has been opposed to the downtown car tunnel since this site started in 2010, and we still are. It’s an enormous investment in unsustainable transportation that will likely make downtown and South Lake Union traffic worse. It’s a massive greenhouse gas generator with very little utility for transit and no utility for walking and biking. It’s the exact opposite of how we should be investing in our downtown and our region.

That said, credit where it’s due: I didn’t think they’d make it.

Yes, it is years late (the tunnel should have opened to traffic in 2015, according to the schedule when it broke ground) and has racked up big cost overruns (the total is still uncertain, but Seattle Tunnel Partners has filed a $480 million claim and WSDOT has already noted a $149 overrun of its own). But even a dedicated tunnel opponent like me can note that the engineers and crews on the ground have accomplished something that is at least remarkable from a technical standpoint.

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So, congratulations to the team. Take a victory lap. You earned it. Whether I like the project or not, today is historic.

The failures of this project were political, and the failures include the opposition who did not built a strong enough vision and coalition to compete with the tunnel. The tunnel was political magical thinking where everyone supposedly wins: “We’ll just bury the traffic!”

But that’s not how traffic works. This project will certainly change where and how the traffic problems occur, but it doesn’t provide a way for people to get where they’re going without a car. Traffic is too many people driving.

So politicians who supported it, you’re not off the hook. That includes Mayor Ed Murray, who was a major booster of the tunnel in the state legislature.

We need to make sure the traffic from the tunnel portals do not destroy transit reliability, bikeability and street safety in South Lake Union, Lower Queen Anne and Sodo. Unfortunately, mitigation of harm is the best we can hope for now that the tunnel looks like it will actually happen.

We also need to continue fighting for a waterfront that prioritizes city life over the movement of traffic. The surface highway on top of the tunnel highway looks like it’s still on track to go through, but I haven’t given up hope that strong leadership can shake up those plans and make sure the people get the waterfront we were promised.

The highway era in Seattle is far from over. We keep digging deeper into that car-dependency hole. This car tunnel is not a gift to future generations, it is a disaster.

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9 responses to “Seattle still doesn’t need a downtown car tunnel, but crews deserve a victory lap today”

  1. PSJ

    Tom, you are very gracious in your recognition of “job well done” to those people who have worked hard to make the tunnel a reality; and you stated very well where the process went wrong.

    Thanks for your continuing advocacy around making Seattle the best city possible. You’re an inspiration.

  2. Joseph Singer

    So, instead of the viaduct we will now have a waterfront freeway. Seems fair.

  3. Mark Smith

    I was in Seattle today. Too many cars, the viaduct is horrible for enjoying the waterfront and….Too car centric. The coolest places in Seattle don’t prioritize cars.

  4. Stuart Strand

    I look forward to driving my electric Leaf through the tunnel in 2019 on my way to south sound destinations. Hopefully among lots of trucks and other traffic diverted from surface streets.

    Now that it’s a done thing, how about a chance that it might be open to bikes for a ride before the general opening. I’d love to ride it down and back for the one time.

    1. A lot of local trucks heading to the Port won’t use the tunnel because they’re coming from Interbay and there’s no good connection; a lot of regional trucks won’t use the tunnel because they’re coming from I-5 and there’s no good connection. Basically nobody that uses surface streets today will be “diverted” through the tunnel, but a lot of people that use the viaduct today will be “diverted” to surface streets. But we knew all that when the thing was proposed. May they all get soaked on parking and resolve never to drive downtown again.

  5. Southeasterner

    Where we absolutely have to be vigilant as cyclists is making sure they actually build the waterfront bike trail. We go to meetings, attend open houses, call our representatives to approve and fund necessary bike infrastructure but ever more frequently we are seeing those promises dissolve as funding is diverted to other priorities.

    We can’t take it for granted that the trail will be built and if there are further cost overruns, as expected, it could easily be the first part of the waterfront project to be cut back and replaced with parking (as many property owners are now pushing for).

  6. Gary

    The tunnel also had it’s roots in the failure of the Monorail expansion project. We who worked for it saw the future growth and realized if we could get the people out of their cars from Ballard to West Seattle there would be less need for the viaduct and then when it came down it would not need to be replaced with equal car capacity.

    So you can blame Mayor Greg Nickels for that, and the downtown real estate mogul who financed the 5th vote to kill the project. (If it’s easy to get from downtown to elsewhere then the price of an office space has less value downtown.

  7. Conrad

    They saw daylight but it’s not as if the troubles are over. We will be squabbling over who pays for it, forever. It won’t solve our traffic problems. It remains a bad idea, and the people that supported it need to be reminded of that, especially when it is election time.

  8. Doug Bostrom

    Eventually we’ll get to surface tolling but we’ll need to learn the hard way.

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