Seattle is a leader. Whatever we do, heck, we do it better than other cities. Football Super-bowlin'? Yup. Nirvana grunge-mashin'? Totally. Building an overpriced and impractical freeway that's decades out-of-step with traffic trends despite a forest of red flags warning us not to? You bet, son.

  • Image courtesy of US PIRG

That we, Seattle, are a national model of bad freeway planning is a cornerstone of a report issued today by US PIRG, the United States Public Interest Research Group. It's posted here. Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future, which also names 10 other "projects that may no longer have a compelling transportation rationale," begins by carefully arguing that Americans are driving less.

"The total number of miles Americans drive is lower than it was in 2005, while per-capita driving has fallen by 7 percent in the last nine years," say authors Jeff Inglis and Phineas Baxandall. Among the reasons for driving drops: the highest transit ridership in more than 50 years, a millennial generation that's less interested in owning a car, carsharing, ridesharing, and bike-riding.

In the Seattle region, daily traffic has dropped 23 percent on average while transit ridership is up 42 percent. Still, the report continues, "States continue to spend tens of billions of dollars on new or expanded highways that are often not justified in terms of their benefits to the transportation system."

The golden child at the top of a list of examples: a project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a 2-mile underground freeway, which has a baseline cost of $4.2 billion dollars (accounting for state, city, and port contributions). The state has acknowledged the project runs a 40 percent risk of cost overruns, and only a fraction of viaduct drivers would use the tunnel.

Not only that, the tunnel project is at a standstill—the drill has been broken since last December—and the state is skeptical the drill will resume digging by a March 2015 deadline. Meanwhile, revenue estimates from tolling needed to pay for the project have dropped, and about $125 million in overruns are in dispute, which could to a lengthy court battle and more costs—all creating the very situation that was predicted years before drilling began.

"If the tunnel is ever finished," the report intones, "and if a proposal to charge tolls on the tunnel goes through, the project will have spent billions of taxpayer dollars to attract fewer drivers than are using the existing roadways right now."

Dear elected officials who backed this project: You are national leaders.