It's Official: Downtown Traffic After the Multibillion-Dollar Tunnel Would Be Nearly Identical to Shutting Down the Viaduct and Doing Nothing
The Surprising News Inside the Gazillion-Page Environmental Impact Statement
Without the deep-bore tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, we'd "transform the waterfront into a choked boulevard." Without the tunnel, we'd "wreak havoc on city streets." Without the tunnel, we'd have "gridlock."
These are the talking points of Let's Move Forward, the pro-tunnel campaign that's asking voters to approve a referendum on the tunnel in August.
But are they right?
Short answer: no.
The day after the release of the final environmental impact statement on the tunnel, I'm sitting in a dull-gray conference room across from government officials. Below us is the elderly Alaskan Way Viaduct, cracked and crumbling away in a waterfront hospice. We're laboring through the same play we've all performed before: one reporter each from the Seattle Times, the Daily Journal of Commerce, The Stranger, and Seattlepi.com. Also in the cast: the guy from the Washington State Department of Transportation who talks a lot, the guy from the Federal Highway Administration who talks a little, and three female assistants who don't say anything unless one of The Men doesn't know the answer.
It is my job at these state-sponsored briefings to ask difficult questions—like "Is it worth the $4.2 billion price tag?"—and it's the job of Ron Paananen, director of the state's Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project, to pretend he doesn't know what I'm talking about.
That $4.2 billion bill includes roughly $3.1 billion managed by the state (for the viaduct replacement) and another $930 million managed by the city (for utility relocation). To pay the state's bill, the 1.9-mile, four-lane tunnel would charge a toll—making it the only tolled roadway downtown. The tunnel would also lack downtown exits, further reducing the number of users and diverting drivers to other routes.
I ask Paananen something like, "In the final environmental impact statement [EIS] released yesterday, it indicates that downtown traffic volumes will be equally bad on the waterfront, I-5, and downtown streets regardless of whether we build a $3.1 billion tunnel or close the viaduct and do nothing. So why is the tunnel the state's preferred option?"
"I don't really believe that is what the EIS says," Paananen says. "You may be picking out numbers that suggest that."
Am I just picking out numbers? Well, yes, to a degree. The report is so voluminous that you've got to pick out numbers—the numbers that matter.
The report has more pages than a Bible and sits on top of appendices A through X, including some appendices that come with over 250 exhibits. Printing it on paper would require the wood pulp of seven Amazon Basins. In all, the federally mandated definitive analysis of how this massive transportation project would serve our travel needs and affect everything nearby (streets, freeway lanes, historic buildings, archaeological sites, cyclists, pedestrians, poor people, ears, lungs, salmon, etc.) is thousands and thousands of pages (not even the state knows how many). The cost of researching and writing it was "in the $100 million range," Paananen says. And federal and state officials are required by law to use it, in theory, to decide whether to proceed with the $3.1 billion project.
Nobody will have time to read the whole thing before the Federal Highway Administration formalizes its approval within a month. The media briefing was held on a Friday, so the report hit with as little impact on news cycles as possible. However, the preferred option was changed between the draft report released last year and this final report, from an untolled tunnel to a tolled tunnel, so there are additional impacts to consider. I've read as much as I can, peppered the state officials who run the project with questions, listened to their evasive answers—and now I'm here to make sense of it for you. After all, you're the one paying the bill on this project and there's a citywide vote on the tunnel in August. You deserve a sense of what you're gonna be voting on.
Let me add that I'm not impartial: I was looking for information and conclusions that the Washington State Department of Transportation didn't highlight or suss out. The data are there; the state just doesn't connect the dots. If you want the Pollyanna analysis, read the state's press release that declares this will "increase mobility."
I don't trust the state's rosy analysis, and neither should you: The number one revelation from this report is that traffic along the downtown waterfront, traffic on I-5, and traffic on downtown streets will be almost identical whether we construct a $3.1 billion deep-bore tunnel or close the viaduct and build nothing. And that's not even talking about surface/transit/I-5—also merely called "surface/transit"—a proposal to optimize roadways and provide better bus routes to improve mobility. (For what it's worth, the report shows surface/transit/I-5 performs better or is on par with the tunnel by nearly every metric—and surface/transit/I-5 is cheaper.)
The prediction that a tunnel will save us from a "stalled city," as Governor Chris Gregoire claimed, is wrong. Using a data-driven model, this report shows that a tunnel is as bad for downtown thoroughfares as simply shutting down the elevated highway and cutting our losses. The claim that surface/transit/I-5 creates "gridlock," as pro-tunnel campaign Let's Move Forward keeps prattling, is also wrong. And this report proves it.
Traffic Forecasts: Comparing the Tunnel to Doing Nothing
The stack of information starts with a digestible 36-page summary—let's start there. Traffic projections for 2030 assume all drivers using the tunnel will have to pay a toll ($9 round-trip at rush hour), because the legislature decided in 2009 that $400 million in tolling was required to pay for the project. As you can imagine, and as the report confirms, most drivers who currently use the viaduct will divert to surface streets to avoid those tolls, causing "traffic to shift to I-5 and city streets."
Daily traffic along the central portion of the waterfront—north of Seneca Street—with a tunnel would be 25,700 vehicles. If we close the viaduct and do nothing, that number actually drops to 25,300 vehicles a day. Likewise, there would be 100 fewer cars per day north of Pine Street on the waterfront if we did nothing. Again, the selling point for a tunnel has long been that it will protect us from swarms of vehicles clogging the downtown waterfront. But that's clearly not what the state found. The only place along the waterfront where traffic is lighter with a tunnel is south of King Street, where traffic is 20 percent lower. But that's both south of downtown and south of the tunnel (and the tolls).
To show we're not just "picking out numbers," let's look at I-5. Governor Gregoire has insisted that failing to build a tunnel "creates literally a parking lot on I-5." But what do the state's data show? In 2030, after the tunnel has been open for 15 years, the tunnel would result in 281,000 vehicles a day on I-5 north of Seneca Street, while closing the viaduct and doing nothing would result in only 0.8 percent more traffic, or 283,200 vehicles. South of SR 520, traffic would drop by 0.04 percent if we did nothing. Just south of the I-90 interchange, traffic volumes would be higher on I-5 if we did nothing, but by only 1.8 percent. These differences demonstrate that the tunnel does not, in fact, buy us an unfettered I-5. It will be jammed regardless.
Now let's look at the tunnel's impact on surface streets in the downtown grid. If the tunnel opens on time in 2015, nearly two-thirds of the vehicles that currently use the viaduct (approximately 70,000 of the 110,000) will switch to surface streets and other routes. The state used that estimate in a preliminary report last October, but for its final report has switched to measuring effects on traffic in 2030 instead of 2015 (I'll explain why later on). How will the diverted traffic from the tunnel affect downtown? These are vehicle volumes in crossing various streets, comparing the tolled deep-bore tunnel to, again, closing the viaduct and doing nothing:
• Thomas Street in South Lake Union: 15 percent more traffic with a tunnel.
• King Street in Sodo: 0 percent difference.
• Seneca Street in Capitol Hill: 0 percent difference.
• Seneca Street downtown: 11 percent less traffic with a tunnel.
This last instance is the only case I found where a section of downtown bore significantly fewer vehicles with a tunnel than with closing the viaduct and doing nothing. Ten percent less traffic on Seneca Street is something, but it's only one of roughly a dozen gauge points, and it's scant improvement considering the $3.1 billion price tag.
As the state points out, the tunnel's advantage is that it facilitates an additional 38,000 to 45,000 vehicles a day under downtown (or 57,000 vehicles by 2030, if WSDOT's prediction of increasing traffic holds true, despite reports that traffic is actually declining). Bypassing downtown in the tunnel would save drivers—those who can pay the $9 rush-hour tolls—from the snarl of traffic up above. However, the tolled tunnel is among the worst-performing options of everything the state studied.
The 38,000 to 45,000 vehicles a day under downtown is roughly the same added capacity as one ordinary four-lane street. In other words, the state estimates the tunnel will carry about as many cars as 15th Avenue West, Montlake Boulevard Northeast, or Fairview Avenue North. That's not much capacity considering that $3.1 billion could, for instance, fund light rail to West Seattle and Ballard (Portland's entire light-rail network was built for $3 billion; its current 7.3-mile extension will cost $1.5 billion). Speculation aside, it shows that Governor Gregoire's repeated threats that failing to build these extra four lanes would result in complete downtown gridlock don't hold up. Now that we have hard data, the truth is that traffic on most downtown streets and on I-5 would be just as bad whether we built the tunnel or just closed the decrepit old viaduct and cut our losses, and some parts of downtown and I-5 traffic would improve without the tunnel.
Tolls: $9 Round-Trip
The tolls would be highest when people most want to take the tunnel—rush hour. The cost would peak at $4 northbound and $5 southbound. The state acknowledges that's too expensive for some drivers.
"While toll payment, by definition, would account for a higher proportion of a low income individual's monthly income, this alone does not constitute a high and adverse disproportionate impact," the report finds. Why not? "The analyses of the equity of tolling concluded that the effects would not be disproportionately high and adverse because there would be viable options for avoiding the toll either through alternate routes or by switching to transit."
In other words, the impacts on the poor are acceptable because they can take another route or ride the bus.
What is acceptable for the poor is, apparently, intolerable for everyone else. When Governor Gregoire encountered a question about any surface-street-improvement-plus-transit alternative to the tunnel, she called it "social engineering to push people to get out of their cars." But "social engineering" is totally acceptable if drivers are poor. On top of that, King County Metro is about to lose 600,000 bus service hours (unless the county council or voters take the unlikely step of passing a new $20 car-tab fee this fall). So there will be even fewer alternatives available.
Disgustingly, the pro-tunnel campaign leads its website with a photo of a Metro bus and states, "The project includes more frequent bus service to and from downtown." In fact, the project includes zero transit funding. The pro-tunnel camp's claims prompted Seattle Transit Blog to declare that the campaign was telling "a complete lie."
An earlier draft version of the state's report was blunt in saying that tolling "could have the potential of a disproportionately high and adverse effect on some low-income populations, especially those without access to transit or who are dependent on their cars." But that line was removed from the final document.
The project needs scaled tolling to meet its financing obligations because "a flat toll rate"—one that isn't higher at rush hour than any other time—"would not achieve our objective in financing the project," Paananen says. However, if voters pass Tim Eyman's Initiative 1125 this fall, all tolls must be even across the board. The state lacks a financing plan if that initiative passes.
New Problems They Can't Afford to Fix
The extra "several thousand vehicles per day" on downtown streets caused by tolling are unworkable and require some mitigation. "WSDOT has acknowledged that an acceptable long-term tolling solution should be sought to minimize the amount of diverted traffic," the report says, and a chapter dedicated to mitigation lays out those strategies. They include refining the tolling scale, giving transit priority, placing a "restriction on other modes of travel," optimizing right-of-way on city streets, and, most obviously, funding "enhanced transit services and vanpools." If you've ever heard of the surface/transit proposal, that basically describes it.
Paananen was asked twice: How much would that mitigation cost? He didn't know. Where would the money come from? "We have no specific source identified for a specific mitigation project," he said.
Follow the logic here: The state is saying the traffic diversion is so great that it needs mitigation for the project to be viable. But mitigating it will cost money (it has no idea how much), and there's no money in the budget for that mitigation. So without the money for what is essentially surface/transit/I-5, they don't have a viable project.
One other proposal is to seek additional revenue from a source other than tolling. That, of course, seems unrealistic; the legislature in 2009 capped its spending on the project at $2.4 billion and required another $400 million from tolling. In January 2010, Governor Gregoire told a forum hosted by the Associated Press, "We have a budget and we're going to live within that budget. That's all there is, there ain't no more." So, uh, the state seems like it's sticking with that budget. Even if it clearly won't work.
Comparing the Tunnel to Surface/Transit/I-5
Nobody is actually suggesting tearing down the viaduct and doing nothing—that would be ridiculous. Accommodations must be made for the cars, the trucks, the buses, the bicycles, etc.
The surface/transit/I-5 option would tear down the viaduct, optimize capacity on downtown streets, add another northbound lane on I-5, and fortify transit service. The city and state studied this in 2008 and, at the city's insistence earlier this year, the state included further analysis in its latest report.
If we implemented surface/transit/I-5 [ST5], vehicles would bunch up at the north and south ends of downtown, but once they passed those points, they would flow more freely inside the city's core. The peripheral congestion would "effectively meter the volume of traffic" into the central business district, the state says. "This metering, combined with the expected redistribution of traffic outside the downtown area, yields reasonable level of service." Added vehicle capacity on Second and Fourth Avenues would also grant more capacity on downtown streets. "The analysis shows that travel times for representative trips within downtown Seattle would be similar, or in some cases shorter" with ST5 as compared to the tunnel.
Furthermore, the state studied traffic in dozens of downtown intersections and dished out grades ranging from A to F. The result was that a tunnel resulted in 25 intersections with a perfect grade, while ST5 resulted in 32 intersections with a perfect grade. Likewise, ST5 had only 16 intersections that received an F grade, while a tunnel produced 19 intersections with an F.
A report this June by Nelson\Nygaard, a transportation analysis commissioned by the city, explained that the worst intersections in the present year are near highway on-ramps and where downtown's grid systems meet. Thus, the firm predicts, a tunnel would exacerbate problems because "higher volumes of traffic are projected to access downtown with fewer on and off opportunities than currently provided, funneling traffic onto a small number of surface streets."
Admittedly, for travel times along several key routes, the tunnel performs the same or slightly better than ST5. For instance, trips from West Seattle to the central business district in the morning would be three minutes slower with ST5. (But during the evening rush hour—when the viaduct now clogs with southbound traffic—ST5 would actually expedite commuters from downtown to West Seattle five minutes faster.) More glaringly, trips that begin at Woodland Park in North Seattle, enter downtown, and exit out the other side to the stadium district would take 9 to 17 minutes longer with ST5 than with a tunnel, depending on the direction and time of day. As described by the state, for trips that have to pass all the way through downtown and out the other side, "travel times would increase substantially" compared to the tunnel. For this reason, the state refused to study the ST5 plan in the amount of detail required to build it.
However, there are some glaring flaws in the state's ST5 analysis, which raises questions about whether dismissing it on this one flaw makes sense. Take this one, for example: The state didn't consider how trips would distribute to other parts of the city. "They did not include facilities east of I-5 [such as the north-south arterials that run up and down the city] and therefore do not capture traffic that may redistribute to these roadways," the state says.
Lacking this consideration, the state's model assumes that drivers would take the same, inefficient route through downtown, no matter how bad the traffic, whether it's rush hour or not, and also wouldn't switch to transit. But most damning, the state assumes that traffic will increase, as will density, despite trends that show Seattle traffic dropping despite a growing population. (Gas costs are rising and a younger generation is less likely to own a car.) Such misrepresentation of the facts casts doubt on whether the "need" for a bypass highway downtown is real, if traffic will be as bad as the state claims, whether people would use roads in the patterns it forecasts, and whether delays of these north-south trips are as bad as it says. Finally, it's entirely possible that the one problem the state cites—the problem with north-south trips bypassing downtown—can be alleviated some other way, like offering a specific transit route or increasing street connectivity along a specific alignment, without building a $3.1 billion tunnel.
To be fair, if we're arguing that traffic with ST5 won't be as dire as the state predicts, naturally, the congestion resulting from the tunnel may also be less severe. But all things being equal—comparing apples to apples in the state's report—ST5 still performs better than the tunnel in some ways.
In essence, the state has dismissed ST5 for having one type of slower trip, even though it outperforms (or is equal) on other metrics and costs about $1 billion less. But not only did the state fail to study it in the detail required to execute the project, the analysis of ST5 begins on page 445 of appendix W (buried so deep in the report that no ordinary citizen would ever find it). All things considered, ST5 is a viable alternative. The legislature could switch much of the funding allocated for the tunnel to ST5 (gas tax funds are eligible to pay for any part of it except the transit service itself), thereby completing the project and bringing down the old viaduct just as soon.
Granted, ST5 would not result in a replacement highway. And while that prospect makes highway engineers gasp—they build highways, that's what they do—the least we can hope for in an educated, environmentally conscious city is reckoning with the possibility that a city's vitality is not measured by its miles of freeway. If the data are against a freeway—the data being the cost and the usefulness of the project, not even addressing the common responsibility to reduce carbon emissions—then we should be smart enough to not build a freeway we don't need.
Pro-tunnel campaign Let's Move Forward has riffed that the ST5 option is actually the "surface-street gridlock" alternative that would "transform the waterfront into a choked boulevard and [lock] downtown in traffic." The group has been running ads that say "Sick of gridlock?" and that suggest the tunnel will relieve it. In fact, as the official study now shows, the tunnel—not ST5—is associated with more severe downtown congestion, longer waits at more traffic lights, and longer travel times at the end of the day for the West Seattle commuters who use the viaduct.
The State's Dishonest Traffic Projections
Amost as notable as what's in this environmental impact statement is what's not in it. As I mentioned earlier, the draft of this document forecasted traffic in 2015 and in 2030, but the final report only examines traffic in 2030. "Traffic volumes increase over time, so the use of 2030 rather than 2015 tends to result in higher traffic volumes for all alternatives," explains a tolling memo in the report.
In other words, the state says more people will use the tunnel in 20 years because traffic is on the rise. Traffic projections from the state show vehicle miles traveled in the city rising about 360,000 vehicle miles between 2005 and 2030 (around 15 percent). But the problem here, as has been well documented, is that traffic in Seattle and on its freeways is actually declining—people are taking fewer trips, consolidating trips, and using other modes of transportation. Traffic in Seattle dropped by six percent per capita from 2005 to 2010 (while overall volumes also dropped slightly), and traffic in King County followed a nearly identical trend over the previous decade. In a July 13 article, the Sightline Institute busted the state for the faulty traffic estimates that have been used to bolster the case for a new, wider 520 bridge, the other highway megaproject in Seattle. The state predicted in 1996, in 2002, and again in 2011 that traffic on 520 would increase steadily, by roughly 10,000 daily vehicle trips each decade. What's actually happened? Traffic has gone down steadily for the past 15 years. "Given that the models have proven so stubbornly and preposterously wrong about traffic volume trends, it's hard to believe that they have much of value to say about future traffic delays," wrote Sightline's Clark Williams-Derry.
Picking 2030 as the snapshot and basing the case for the project on a faulty projection is a dishonest attempt to cast the tunnel as more useful than it really is.
Also missing are reasonable comparisons. The point of issuing an environmental impact statement, as Paananen explained in that big gray conference room, is to "explain why a bored tunnel is the preferred alternative." So which alternatives did the state compare the tolled tunnel to? An untolled tunnel, a cut-and-cover tunnel, and an elevated structure. Unfortunately, those are all options that are off the table for various reasons. There's no official side-by-side comparison to ST5, which WSDOT said in 2008 would improve mobility, before the state found itself in thrall to the unions and engineers who persuaded it toward the tunnel. Without a side-by-side comparison, the state is being intellectually dishonest. It's comparing the tunnel to essentially no other option.
What to Do if You're Outraged
There are many details of this project that I don't have room to get into (dive into the whole thing at www.alaskanwayviaduct.org). But the key point here, as environmental-law attorney David Bricklin pointed out, is that the environmental impact statement is the pinnacle study required by environmental law that mandates an honest examination of options before picking a solution. It's not a mere gesture to be expressed or red tape to be ripped off before bureaucrats do whatever they want.
WSDOT has claimed the time for debate about whether we will build a tunnel is over (even though making the decision before this report is considered would be illegal). It has promoted politically advantageous information while obfuscating information that could compromise support. And the backers of a pro-tunnel campaign for a ballot measure next month have tried to gain support using lies like the unsupported promise that the tunnel will relieve gridlock.
The decision to spend this much money on a project that will have decades of impact on the city's future should be made with our eyes wide open. Tunnel critics and supporters should demand that highway officials shoot straight about what this EIS really shows. Even project backers want to stand behind their project, after all. The Federal Highway Administration is soon expected to authorize the state to proceed; then the state can issue permits and begin digging. Between now and then, however, Seattle voters get to decide if this report shows a product they want to buy. If they decide it doesn't, they can reject Referendum 1 in the August 16 primary. The measure asks voters if the pro-tunnel city council—and the council alone—can give the state authority to begin digging. If voters reject Referendum 1, the tunnel is no longer a done deal.