You can view this, metaphorically, in one of two ways. Option one: Nickels, having rounded up unprecedented council and institutional support, is an unflappable big-city mayor with bold ideas who will conquer the odds to transform our city.
Or, you could read it this way: With the microphone gaffe forcing the mayor to shout just a little too loudly, above the rain as anti-tunnel protesters waved placards behind him, the mayor was on the defensive before his plan even got underway.
The Alaskan Way Viaduct is the most pressing issue facing the city. Damaged in the February 2001 earthquake, the waterfront highway, which carries 110,000 vehicles a day, is in danger of collapsing. The problem is compounded by the failing, 70-year-old downtown seawall, which provides some of the viaduct's support. If either structure fails in an earthquake, the viaduct will likely collapse, causing potentially catastrophic damage, even in a relatively minor earthquake. Under Nickels' plan, the viaduct would be moved underground, spurring parks and redevelopment, with the help of $4.1 billion from still-unspecified state and federal sources.
Nickels--who wrote a lengthy editorial in the Seattle Times on Sunday, December 5, hyping the tunnel proposal --has seen staunch opposition on many of his other major initiatives, such as South Lake Union, Northgate, and lifting the University District lease lid. This time, however, Nickels is taking up the mantle for a vast coalition that includes most members of the city council, the Federal Transit Administration, environmental groups like People for Puget Sound, and state legislators like Democrat Ed Murray. All of them spoke at Monday's conference. One day earlier, the Times and P-I had both endorsed the mayor's plan.
The overwhelming support for the tunnel option has largely put to rest other ill-advised alternatives, such as rebuilding or retrofitting the viaduct, which would be unsightly and prevent the city from moving forward with waterfront redevelopment. (An anti-tunnel initiative, I-84, was filed on Monday; by prohibiting the use of public property on Alaskan Way for a tunnel, it would keep both rejected alternatives alive.)
Standing in the back of the crowd at Nickels' conference was one person who didn't get a hearing, or a free page in the Times; nor was she affiliated with the sign waving anti-transit reactionaries: a transportation activist named Cary Moon. Moon co-founded the People's Waterfront Coalition earlier this year to advocate a smart, visionary plan that would tear down the viaduct and replace it with improvements to arterials and surface streets downtown.
The Stranger has been impressed by Moon's proposal. We've written several stories this year with the intent of keeping her ideas in play even as the city and state rush forward to expand our highway system. As the Times and P-I kissed Nickels' ass last week, endorsing his plan and, in the Times' case, handing over a full page of editorial space. The Stranger felt compelled to give Moon some equal time. --Editors
In its myopic commitment to the automobile, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has convinced Mayor Nickels to throw his weight behind a costly tunnel option for the viaduct, pushing Seattle to anchor its future to the status quo of the past: highways. Nickels is pitching the tunnel as the best solution, one that satisfies every constituency. It opens up views! It lets cars zoom through downtown free of congestion! It makes new open space! It's good for the environment! We'll get the money somewhere! "Today we are making history. We will replace the viaduct and seawall with a tunnel that will move cars and noise off our waterfront and reconnect our city to its harbor," Nickels told the crowd on Monday promising to turn Seattle's "back door" into its "front porch."
This pro-tunnel enthusiasm needs to be tempered by some sobering truths: First, no city actually improves traffic by giving people incentives to drive. Second, Nickels' promise of open space dramatically exaggerates what will actually be an awkwardly shaped strip of park. And, perhaps most important, the money isn't on the way.
Fortunately, there's a cheaper solution that gives us a real park and improves traffic congestion by tearing down the entire viaduct, instead of just tunneling the 12-block portion between King and Pine Streets. It is an integrated system that would replace the viaduct with street improvements, transit incentives, and dense downtown development, combined with a rational surface roadway that will cost millions less than WSDOT's underground boondoggle.
The reality check on Nickels' plan should start with questions about financing. The funding that's needed to build the tunnel--an estimated $4.1 billion, though that amount is likely to increase as project costs escalate (earlier estimates priced a more extensive tunnel as high as $14 billion)--simply doesn't exist. With the federal budget deficit forecast at $374 billion next year, the government is cutting back everywhere; the age of federally funded megaprojects is over. That means most of the money for viaduct replacement will have to be raised through collaboration between local, regional, and state governments, with elected officials agreeing on a shopping list and budget for the most important transportation priorities. The seawall replacement and viaduct solution are just two of four or five regional megaprojects like I-405 and State Route 520 on the funding list. We can't afford to fund them all; pretending we can is disingenuous. At the state level, the budget shortfall is projected at $1.6 billion.
Even officials who support the tunnel, among them Secretary of Transportation Doug MacDonald and State House Transportation Committee Chair Ed Murray (D-43), acknowledge that funding for transportation in the state's current budget climate is tighter than ever. Immediately after speaking at Nickels' press conference, Murray left the podium, walked into the crowd of reporters and whispered, "You guys didn't ask the tough question. How are we going to raise the money? Remember, it took us 13 years to raise the gas tax. And look at what happened. Christine Gregoire, the Democratic candidate, ran attack ads on Dino Rossi for voting for that tax. That's the kind of climate we're in." Final approval for any funding package will likely rest on voters, who've rejected regional and statewide transportation taxes again and again.
But fuck it. Suppose Santa Claus exists and delivers the $4 billion. Is it worth it? Consider: Putting the viaduct underground will do little to accomplish the most enticing claim made by tunnel enthusiasts--"opening up" the central waterfront to create a green, walkable urban environment. Mayor Nickels says we'll accomplish all these goals with the tunnel. In his guest op-ed in the December 5 Seattle Times, Nickels wrote: "The tunnel creates a new waterfront... an interesting streetscape for merchants, pedestrians, joggers, bicyclists, neighborhood residents, and visitors from the city and region... Imagine hearing the cry of a seagull and the splash of waves instead of rush hour... a waterfront for all."
Hardly. The underground portion is just 12 blocks long, dumping traffic back onto an aerial viaduct at Victor Steinbrueck Park at the north end and King Street to the south. This is hardly the ideal city "front porch" that Nickels describes. Six lanes of freeway-speed surface traffic--plus four lanes of local traffic and two lanes of ferry traffic--will permanently cut off Pioneer Square from the water and abort the city's plans for Terminal 46, the northernmost cargo terminal at the south edge of the proposed tunnel, which some see as the site of a massive mixed-use redevelopment. Belltown, meanwhile, will still be cut off from the water, with a new aerial structure that will emerge from the tunnel and pass over Elliott and Western Avenues before diving back into the Battery Street Tunnel.
While we need open space downtown, the tunnel doesn't accomplish it. Instead, it creates an abbreviated park, with arbitrary borders, that kills nearly all the potential for creating habitat along the shore. The tunnel forces the seawall to be vertical and hard-armored, which serves as a death sentence for migrating juvenile salmon and cuts off human access the water's edge.
The third carrot that tunnel proponents like Nickels dangle is that an underground highway will improve mobility and reduce congestion for cars and freight through downtown Seattle. But more roadways will not solve Seattle's traffic problem. In fact, it's a backward approach. Of the 75 biggest cities in the U.S., two-thirds have fewer freeway miles per person than Seattle. In many cases, these are the cities with the least congestion. Generally, investing in more highways mean enabling more suburban sprawl and longer commutes, which means more and more people have to drive their cars to get anywhere in the city. Seattle has spent the last 50 years making driving convenient and other modes (transit, bicycling, and walking) inconvenient for nearly everyone. Yet, despite all this, replacing 100 percent of the viaduct's current capacity with a new roadway seems to be WSDOT's top priority.
The mayor is right to say that freight mobility is a vital issue for the economy of Seattle and the region. But the viaduct is only used for 4,000 to 5,000 freight trips a day --out of 110,000 total trips--and freight-only lanes on arterials or I-5 would easily accommodate them.
WSDOT's own data reveal the delusion of the agency's insistence on capacity replacement. The computer models WSDOT uses to predict future traffic flow are based on assumptions about driving behavior. One of these assumptions is that as the region's population grows, the demand for car trips will continue to increase as well. They project that if the viaduct is torn down and not replaced, I-5 will be gridlocked by about 2030. Sounds bad. But when you compare that to WSDOT's projection in which the viaduct is replaced with a tunnel, I-5 still reaches gridlock--9 to 13 years later. Why would we spend billion of dollars and waste our one chance to reclaim the central shoreline if it only buys us a 9-to-13-year delay? Buying larger pants doesn't mean you're losing weight--it means you've got pants that you can grow into. Let's solve the problem, not delay it.
But the bigger problem with WSDOT's model is that it doesn't reflect people's ability to adapt. For example, WSDOT predicts massive gridlock if the highway is not replaced. Real-world evidence, however, shows exactly the opposite. In a 1998 study of cities that reduced the capacity of their roadway systems, not one city experienced long-term traffic chaos or gridlock. When a reduction in highway capacity is planned and announced in advance, and when measures are taken to accommodate trips elsewhere, people adjust. San Francisco did it. And despite dire warnings of massive gridlock and a crippled economy, they liked the results so much they took down a second freeway.
The People's Waterfront Coalition (PWC), which I helped found with transportation activist Grant Cogswell and landscape architect Julie Parrett, advocates avoiding a new highway on our shore by improving our street grid and transit resources to accommodate the viaduct's existing traffic. Our solution is simpler, almost certainly cheaper, and based on decades of solid transportation research.
If the goal is to keep Seattle mobile, the best tool to fight congestion in urban areas is creating dense, walkable neighborhoods and linking them with convenient transit. Voters know this (witness the recent monorail vote), and all our planning documents say this. We can't build our way out of congestion; we have to keep promoting density, invest in transit, and make sure we have plenty of alternative routes to get where we're going.
Under the PWC's No-Highway plan, the viaduct would be torn down and replaced by a four-lane roadway. Elsewhere, the city and state would work together to improve and connect existing underused arterial streets like Dexter Avenue, Sixth Avenue, and Airport Way, distributing trips away from Highway 99 north and south of downtown. Meanwhile, our plan would improve traffic flow downtown by timing traffic signals, untangling bottlenecks, and fixing the "weaving" problems on I-5's downtown ramps. With light rail and the monorail, combined with better integration between the city's (soon to be seven) transit systems, more people would use transit instead of driving their cars. Freight priority routes between the city's two big industrial areas would move freight traffic off the viaduct and onto existing arterials, including an improved I-5. Finally, our plan would focus public investment on denser, more walkable urban villages, making it easier to live and work downtown--and eliminating the need for many to own a car at all.
Great cities are known for their great places--not their convenient highways. With the viaduct out of the picture, the downtown shore will be one of our most valuable public properties--civically, economically, and ecologically. A new urban shore, lined with parks, water and shore recreation, beaches, cafes, restaurants, mixed-income housing, and new development on adjacent properties: A revered place becomes its own economic generator.
Compare the two legacies we could leave: A city reconnected to the bay on which it sits, with civic spaces and smartly planned new development, or a new highway with a lid covering just 12 blocks of its length.
In the last seven months, we've built a growing coalition of citizens and organizations behind this solution. In October, when the city council held a public meeting to hear what people were thinking about the viaduct alternatives, 40 percent favored the No-Highway solution--more than supported either the tunnel or the rebuild option.
I think Mayor Nickels has underestimated how deeply Seattleites care about creating a sustainable urban future, and how many of us probably actually would prefer a simple and affordable solution to an expensive, complex megaproject. So why do project officials continue to ignore this potential solution that costs a fraction as much as the tunnel, avoids the costs and risks associated with megaprojects (Hello! Boston?), could make the whole system function better, and may offer a far superior economic payoff? Clearly, there is a poetic and powerful vibe emanating from the gray, hulking mass. Anyone tapped into the layered history of our city knows that the grit and decay of this place is a rare bit of this essence and soul left downtown. But the beast is dying; there's no reviving it. Let's say our goodbyes, have a wake, and close that chapter of our history forever.
Cary Moon is a landscape and urban designer and co-founder of the People's Waterfront Coalition. The PWC's No-Highway option won second prize in a national design competition sponsored by Metropolis magazine, called "Next Generation: Big Idea."