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Seattle voters are being asked to vote "yes" or "no" on two new freeways on the city's waterfront—a larger elevated viaduct (the option preferred by Governor Christine Gregoire, key members of the state legislature, and the Seattle public, if opinion polls can be believed) and a scaled-down, four-lane, cut-and-cover tunnel (the option that's still preferred by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, despite being declared dead by the governor earlier this month). A third option, tearing down the Alaskan Way Viaduct and investing in transit and improvements to surface streets instead of a new waterfront freeway, isn't on the ballot despite being (a) cheaper, (b) less disruptive, and (c) the most environmentally responsible option.
As people on all sides of the debate have noted, the March 13 vote will be a glorified opinion poll with no binding effect, whether voters choose the new viaduct or the tunnel—or neither. (Or both.) Because the two votes will be separate, voters can check yes for a tunnel and a rebuild, yes for one and no for the other, or no for both. At the moment, the most likely outcome appears to be that both will lose. And even if one option does emerge a winner, it won't be anything resembling a mandate: Gregoire has declared any tunnel dead on arrival; Nickels has made it clear he'll fight the rebuild "by any means necessary," including fighting it in court or denying city permits. The debate has boiled down to dueling sound bites—"Big Ugly" versus "Big Dig"—and voters are understandably confused.
Our endorsement: no to the moribund tunnel and hell no to the rebuild. By voting down both waterfront freeway options, Seattle voters can send a message that they want another choice: a smart, affordable, environmentally responsible solution that takes an optimistic view of Seattle's future.
By far the worse of the two bad choices the Seattle City Council has given us is a new elevated viaduct. Contrary to what has been reported in both daily papers, the new double-decker highway would be, on average, 71 percent larger than the current viaduct, not 50 percent—in large part because modern safety standards require wider lanes. At Washington Street in Pioneer Square, the existing viaduct is 54 feet wide and about 55 feet high. At the same spot, the new elevated viaduct would be more than 120 feet wide and almost three times as large overall, dwarfing the historic piers on one side of Alaskan Way and the historic buildings of Pioneer Square on the other.
The massive size increase would put 50 percent more of the waterfront in shadow and could lead to the demolition of many of Seattle's historic downtown and Pioneer Square buildings, dozens of which line both sides of Alaskan Way—some as close as 10 feet from the current viaduct. Seattle's cadre of curmudgeons, who usually scream bloody murder the second anyone suggests so much as renovating a historic building, seem to have no problem with this. Nor do viaduct supporters seem to care that a new viaduct would leave even less space for sidewalks and bike lanes. The same people who raised hell about the late monorail project's wider support columns also don't seem to care that a new viaduct would have to have significantly larger supports and thicker columns to withstand a major earthquake.
Many people who support a new elevated viaduct say they enjoy the expansive views of downtown that are visible on the way in from West Seattle. But if the viaduct is torn down and replaced, those views will be gone, the current 36-inch-high open guard rails replaced with a solid 32-inch-high wall and a 10-inch open rail—another casualty of modern safety standards. So unless you're driving an SUV or on a bus, those sweeping views will be lost. The new viaduct would also be significantly taller, blocking views of the water from downtown and further cutting off the city from its waterfront.
Furthermore, the process of actually tearing down the viaduct and building a new one will be destructive to waterfront businesses and disruptive to car and transit flow through downtown. Under the most recent plans for viaduct construction, the downtown portion of SR 99 would be completely closed for at least one year and would be reduced to two lanes in each direction for seven years after that. Part-time closures (on nights and weekends) would last between four and a half and seven years. The lengthy construction means the new viaduct wouldn't be ready for use until as late as 2020.
Perhaps the most damning thing about a new elevated viaduct is that it would defy the very principles enshrined in Seattle's commitment to meet or exceed Kyoto emissions standards. If we tear down our elevated waterfront freeway and replace it with an even taller, wider, more obstructive elevated freeway, Seattle will have abdicated the right to call itself an environmentalist, "world-class" city. Driving is the human activity most responsible for global warming—so if Seattle intends to cut its contribution to greenhouse gases, we have to become less car dependent. This is doubly true because most of Seattle's energy comes from clean hydropower; therefore, the most effective thing we can do to combat global warming is reduce the amount we drive. Moreover, a new double-decker freeway would create runoff pollutants from the 130,000 cars the city and state say we must accommodate.
So why would Seattle, a city that prides itself on being environmentally responsible, build a massive elevated shrine to the destruction of our environment? No city in the world is building a new elevated freeway; in fact, 85 cities worldwide—from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Sydney, Australia—are tearing them down.
So can we.
Pro-freeway Seattle hardliners always claim that Seattle is somehow exceptional—that our "pinched" geography necessitates two big north-south freeways through downtown; that people here won't ride transit because the weather sucks; that people here won't make big lifestyle changes because the city was settled by independent-minded Scandinavians; or simply that because we've never tried doing things differently, like switching from cars to transit, it'll never happen.
San Francisco is compact, too, and they have transit; Berlin has shitty weather, too, and they have transit; most of the people who live here aren't descended from Seattle's founders; and no city has transit—until it does. It's true, as transit naysayers claim, that Seattle has lousy transit; however, that's all the more reason we should invest in transit instead of giving up and building more roads.
Yes, people in Seattle fear change. But change is going to have to happen anyway. During construction alone, Metro estimates it will need to serve 21,000 new riders every day to stave off gridlock. The decisions we make today will determine whether those transit improvements become a way of life in Seattle or if transit here will continue to consist of an inconvenient, unreliable system of buses that only poor people ride because they can't afford to drive.
After all, there's only so much money to go around. A new elevated freeway would cost, according to current estimates, nearly $3 billion; factor in financing, inflation, and the inevitable cost overruns, and it will likely be much more. (The firm designing the new elevated freeway, Parsons Brinckerhoff, is the same firm that said Boston's Big Dig could be built for $2.6 billion—and that project is currently at $14.6 billion and climbing.) Imagine how much transit could be built in and around Seattle for $3 billion—how many buses we could buy or miles of light rail we could build for the money we're going to throw away on a waterfront freeway that will, as Council Member Peter Steinbrueck has pointed out, be gridlocked from downtown to West Seattle the day it opens if we don't start investing in transit now.
Mayor Nickels's four-lane tunnel isn't going to happen. House Speaker Frank Chopp says so, Governor Gregoire says so, and even onetime tunnel supporters like state representative Jamie Pedersen and state senator Ed Murray have said they now support the surface/transit option instead. Nonetheless, the mayor has continued to flog this pipe dream. While the new elevated viaduct is by far the worse of two evils, we're still voting "no" on the tunnel to send a message: We don't want the state and city wasting our money on another waterfront freeway. Any waterfront freeway.
No one knows exactly how much the four-lane tunnel would cost; Nickels claims it will be no more than $3.4 billion. But it's hard to put much faith in cost estimates that were cooked up over the course of a few panicked weeks after the state rejected Nickels's original six-lane tunnel. Both the Washington State Department of Transportation and the state's expert review panel have expressed a lack of confidence in the city's cost estimate, saying they have not had enough time to determine whether the $3.4 billion figure is reasonable.
Moreover, despite what the environmental groups that have endorsed the tunnel would have you believe, the tunnel is still just another freeway; it still preserves capacity for 130,000 cars, making it little better, from an environmental standpoint, than the elevated viaduct. A year ago, Nickels pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions in Seattle by 170,000 tons annually by "reducing Seattle's dependence on cars"; yet he continues to campaign for a freeway that produces that very amount every single year. By supporting a new downtown freeway, Nickels is ignoring the advice of his own Green Ribbon Commission, which wrote, "Only by driving fewer cars and fewer miles can we meet our Kyoto target." The mayor, like state legislative leaders and the governor, presumes that traffic volumes downtown will continue to increase indefinitely; however, a state study recently revealed that a toll of just $1 on a new tunnel would eliminate enough of the demand that we could get by without a tunnel.
Tunnel construction would be at least as disruptive, and possibly more so, as building a new elevated viaduct. According to the state, construction would shut down the viaduct corridor for at least three years, eliminating access to waterfront businesses and threatening the jobs of 37,000 maritime employees. And yet, despite the damage they will be dealt by construction, the mayor expects property owners from Denny Way to Spokane Street to cough up $250,000,000 in new taxes to pay for his tunnel. That plan is both an insult to waterfront businesses and completely unrealistic. Businesses on the waterfront will be lucky if they survive the long street closures during construction of either waterfront freeway option; asking them to pay for the privilege is only adding insult to injury.
Another thing no one is talking about is just how little of Nickels's "tunnel" plan actually consists of a tunnel. Like Nickels's original six-lane tunnel, this one would be just 13 blocks long, stretching from King Street on the south end to Pike Street on the north end. Unlike Nickels's original proposal, this tunnel would turn into an elevated viaduct right at Pike Street (directly in front of Pike Place Market) and remain elevated all the way to the Battery Street Tunnel. (The six-lane tunnel would have extended to Pine Street and would have been in a trench under Elliott and Western Avenues, rather than in the air.) No one at the Seattle Department of Transportation seems to know quite what the elevated portions of the tunnel plan would look like, but if they are anything like the new elevated viaduct, there is ample cause for alarm. At any rate, more than half of the mayor's tunnel consists of roadway that is elevated and on the surface, so calling it a "tunnel plan" is disingenuous. And who would feel safe driving through a tunnel with 11-foot lanes and no shoulders for cars to pull over in case of accident or emergency?
And there is, as we've written ad nauseam, a better way. Instead of spending our limited transportation tax dollars on more concrete for cars, we should be doing what cities across the country, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to San Francisco, to Portland, Oregon, to Chattanooga, Tennessee, are doing, with universally positive results: tear the viaduct down, implement all the surface-street improvements we're going to be doing anyway during the 9 to 12 years the viaduct will be closed for construction, and see if we can get by without it permanently.
King County Executive Ron Sims has already come up with a plan to improve access to downtown during and after viaduct demolition. It's a variation on the "thousand little things" Steinbrueck and others have proposed implementing immediately, before construction on any alternative begins. The proposal, which focuses on downtown and Aurora Avenue—the viaduct's northern extension, which is at surface level, complete with stoplights and crosswalks—would create all-day transit lanes, remove on-street parking, turn one-way streets into two-way streets to improve traffic flow, make several streets transit-only, and expand bus service to neighborhoods that currently rely on the viaduct.
Tearing down the viaduct would be more than just a symbolic gesture toward reducing auto dependency; it would give our city an incentive (and perhaps money) to come up with real alternatives to driving, alternatives that we might be able to afford if we weren't spending all our money building freeways. Building any kind of freeway on our waterfront, especially an elevated one, should be unthinkable at this time of rapid climate change and rapidly increasing congestion. There's nothing visionary about it.
On March 13, vote no and hell no.