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Why We Should Stick To Our Consensus For A Deep-bore Tunnel

Original Article

I served on the Alaskan Way Viaduct Stakeholders Committee that studied options to replace the Viaduct. After conducting 16 meetings and hearing from 23 expert witnesses, a large majority of the stakeholders recommended further review of, or outright support for, the deep bore tunnel. The stakeholders also studied the “surface option” favored by City Council candidate Mike O’Brien, and then the group rejected the surface option because it was simply not viable.

In a recent article for Crosscut, O’Brien inaccurately reported the outcome of the stakeholder process. I’d like to set the record straight.

I was asked to participate in the stakeholder process as a representative for freight. Other stakeholders represented a diverse cross section of our community including retailers, neighborhood representatives, civic activists, environmentalists, and organized labor. The deep bore tunnel emerged as the preferred replacement option because it was by far the best choice both for those of us who view the Viaduct primarily in economic terms (such as moving goods, customers, and employees) and for those who prioritize the environmental and urban design benefits of removing the Viaduct from the central waterfront.

The deep bore tunnel best serves the economy because, assuming Mother Nature cooperates, the present Viaduct will remain operational while the deep bore tunnel is designed, bored, and built. This will protect freight and commuter traffic flows on both State 99 and Interstate 5 throughout most of the lifetime of the project. This through capacity is essential for those who depend on retail traffic moving into and throughout the city as well as those of us who work in maritime trades, aerospace, and related industrial sectors that depend on the SR 99-Interstate 5 corridor.

Traffic flows will be disrupted near the end of the project while final road connections are made to the tunnel, but planners say this disruption will last months, not years. Upon completion, planners predict the tunnel will handle about 80,000 vehicles per day compared to the 110,000 that now use the Viaduct. Most of the other traffic will be served by new road improvements and improved transit service.

With most Viaduct traffic absorbed into the tunnel, it will be possible to tear down the Viaduct and open up the city’s central waterfront while also maintaining decent capacity for through traffic in and around the city. The tunnel won’t be cheap, but no Viaduct replacement option would be. The expense of the undertaking also needs to be put into a broader context.

According to city and state tax records, the industrial business sectors that rely on the SR99-Interstate 5 corridor generated more than $60 billion in gross business revenue in 2006. That represented about half the industrial output of the state of Washington. Many say we should view the Viaduct as a 50 or 100-year decision. Multiply $60 billion by 50 or 100 times and the underlying value of the deep bore tunnel option becomes clear because of its unique capacity to keep our regional economy rolling while the Viaduct is replaced, and afterward.

O’Brien’s surface solution failed to gain majority stakeholder support because it could not come close to meeting the economic needs of the people who live and work in our city, region, and state. It would also fall far short of physically accommodating the vehicles that now rely on the Viaduct. The resulting traffic jams of idling buses, cars, and trucks downtown and on I-5 would overwhelm any civic or environmental benefits that might be gained by tearing the Viaduct down. O’Brien’s hope that public transit could handle the overload might be more realistic in cities with robust underground or elevated transit systems, but it is a pipe dream in a city like Seattle that relies on at-grade bus and rail systems.

It has been nearly 10 years since an earthquake forced us to consider what to do about the Viaduct. O’Brien’s attempt to revive the surface option threatens to take us back to the political gridlock that mired this issue until the citizen stakeholders agreed, by a large margin, to put the deep bore option on the table.

Once put forward by the stakeholders, the deep bore option was embraced as the preferred option by the Governor, Mayor, and the King County Executive. It was then adopted by the state Legislature with bipartisan support from both sides of the Cascades following a thorough and vigorous debate.

Design challenges remain with the deep bore option and some of them are daunting. But they pale besides the problems that would result from O’Brien’s surface option.

John Odland is chair of the board of the Manufacturing Industrial Council. He can be reached at editor@crosscut.com.