« Gray Is Good | Main | The Heat Is On »

February 09, 2005

Tunnel Vision?

A while back, the Seattle city government decided that it wanted to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct--the seismically vulnerable aerial highway that cuts off the city's downtown from its waterfront--with a tunnel. But what neither the city, nor anyone else, has decided is how to pay for the tunnel, which the state estimates could cost more than $4 billion.

So far, the city government's strategy seems to be something like this: the city will cobble together a billion dollars--from city tax coffers, from the Port of Seattle, from potential tolls on the new tunnel, from a real-estate improvement tax, and from wherever else it can scrape together some cash. And then the city will convince someone else--the federal government, the state, King County, and/or neighboring counties--to pick up the tab for the remaining $3+ billion.

My question:  does anyone else think this is just wildly, wildly implausible?   I'd love some responses from someone, to help correct my thinking if I'm wrong.

First, some numbers. If Seattle residents had to fund the 2.1 mile Viaduct project by themselves, the per-person costs would be prohibitive: $4.1 billion amounts to about $7,000 for every man, woman, and child in the city, or $28,000 for a family of four. Seattle city residents are already ponying up quite a bit to pay for transportation projects -- through gas taxes and the monorail levy, among other sources.  Adding such a big tax hit to city residents would probably be enough to whip even mild-mannered Seattleites into an anti-tax furor.

So the city must be hoping to convince Seattleites that someone else will pick up most of the tab. If you can get a little money from enough other people, even a $4 billion project could become reasonably affordable.

That's the theory, I guess. But that's just not how I think things will play out in the real world:  it seems to me that it's very, very tough to extract lots of tax money from one place to give it to another place.

Obviously, it can be done: this excellent report by the Tax Foundation showed that some U.S. states consistently subsidize other ones. New Jersey, for example, only got 62 cents in federal spending in 2003 for every dollar in federal taxes its residents paid out.  In general, the northeast, upper midwest, and west coast states subsidize the generally poorer and more rural states of the south and intermountain west. (Washington, by the way, gets only about 90 cents in spending for every dollar in US taxes it pays.) If Alaska and North Dakota can get on the federal gravy train, why not Seattle?

But it's pointless to argue about whether Seattle can somehow finagle its way onto the receiving end of federal largesse. Washington's senior senator, Patty Murray, went so far as to declare Seattle's hope of securing $1 billion in federal transportation funds for the Viaduct "very, very impossible."  In today's budget and political climate, don't think for a moment that the feds are going to kick in more than a fraction of the project's cost.

The situation is much the same in state politics: it's hard to see how Seattle is going to convince the rest of the state to give it a $3 billion handout. City officials can talk all they want about how the Viaduct is a state priority. But for people (& politicians) who rarely drive on the Viaduct, that kind of talk tends to fall on deaf ears. People are reluctant to subsidize projects they never see, and politicians never want to raise taxes if their constituents won't get a share of the action.

The result is that, even though transportation taxes are cycled through Olympia, for the most part they return to the regions that paid them. Like salmon, transportation taxes tend to return where they were spawned.

Take a look, for example, at this table of county-level payouts from the "nickel fund"--the transportation fund created in 2003 through a 5-cent hike in the state gas tax--compared with population:

County Share of
Share of
"Nickel Fund" outlays
King 29% 33%
Pierce 12% 16%
Snohomish 10% 18%
Spokane 7% 6%
Clark 6% 6%
Kitsap 4% 1%
Yakima 4% 2%
Thurston 4% 3%
Whatcom 3% 4%
Benton 3% 2%
Skagit 2% 4%
Cowlitz 2% 1%

The payouts for a given county's transportation projects are pretty proportional to the actual population of that county.  King County, for example, accounts for 29 percent of the population of the state, and 33 percent of the outlays from the nickel fund.  Overall, Puget Sound seems to get a little more from the nickel fund than it pays in -- but not enough for a similar statewide financing scheme to net Seattle more than a few hundred million dollars towards the Viaduct.

So if the city is searching for someone else to bail them out, they should probably forget about convincing some other part of the state to fund most of the cost.  Maybe they can squeeze out a little bit.  But nowhere near $3 billion.

That still leaves a few possibilities for the city to turn to: the Puget Sound Regional Transportation Improvement District and King County (Seattle's county) come to mind.  And the Seattle metro area is big enough to take some of the sting out of the cost of the Viaduct: spread out among all King County residents, for example, the Viaduct goes from $7,000 per capita to only $2,400.

But the same issues that bedevil funding at the state level come into play here too.  There are lots of other transportation priorities in Puget Sound.  Politicians on the eastside of Lake Washington want to add more lanes to I-405; that's slated to cost over $10 billion.  The 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington is, like the Viaduct, near the end of its life; replacing it would cost $2 to 3 billion. The concrete of I-5 is crumbling, and the state says it's going to need major repairs soon -- add another $2 billion or so.  The list of costly-but-high-priority transportation projects in greater Seattle goes on, and on, and on, (scroll down the link to see projects listed by county) running into the tens of billions of dollars. (And recall, the expenses I tallied are on top of the $3 billion or so that the region's residents are paying for the monorail and light rail.)

No doubt, there are many people in greater Puget Sound who would be willing to pay more taxes for new roads. And there are many who could be convinced that the Viaduct is one of the highest transportation priorities for the region. (I'm not one of them--I think that the city would probably be better off without the Viaduct--but that's another story).

Nevertheless, there probably aren't that many people on the eastside of Lake Washington, or Tacoma, or Everett, who'd be willing to pay a significant chunk of change for a road they never drive on, when they believe they have more urgent priorities closer to home.

That means that the only way to pay to replace the Viaduct would be in a package that would raise the taxes of everyone in the region enough to give them the feeling that they're paying for their own local project. So a regional funding package to pay for the Viaduct is likely to include, in addition, projects for the folks east of Lake Washington, for the folks North and South of Seattle, and for the I-5 commuters. The money would be spread around the region--and certainly not all be funneled into a single megaproject in downtown Seattle.

But now, we're back to where we started:  essentially, a regional transportation package would still mean that Seattle residents are picking up most of the tab for the Viaduct, since taxes from people in other parts of the region would mostly pay for projects near them.

So to me, the question of who else is going to pick up the tab for the Viaduct is pretty clear:  Nobody.   Nobody's going to ride to the city's rescue.  If the city of Seattle wants to rebuild the Viaduct, Seattle residents are going to have to pay for the bulk of it.

And that means that city's desire to find "someone else" to pay for the Viaduct really just boils down to this: they want "someone else"--a combination of the state, the county, and regional transportation district--to raise Seattle residents' taxes by about $3 billion, more or less.  That way, city officials can claim credit for implementing their Tunnel vision, but pass off the blame for the cost.

So, please -- am I missing something here?  Is there some magic pot of money that I'm overlooking? Like Seattle, I guess I need a little help figuring all this out.  Comments welcome.

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink


No, you're not missing anything, except the proclivity to ignore the white elephant standing in the living room. The age of federally funded megaprojects is OVER, but that news is sinking in very slowly. As the odds of raising the money to build a new highway get longer, I think leaders will take a second look at more affordable alternatives, like the No-Highway solution advocated by the People's Waterfront Coalition (which I helped launch.) The good news is that the silver lining -- a downtown shore freed from the death grip of highway planners -- couldn't be lovelier.

Posted by: Cary Moon | Feb 9, 2005 2:18:42 PM

Regarding your comments about funding for the preferred alternative coming from state sources, I'll offer a reminder.

The viaduct is formally known as "SR 99," that is to say that it is a state road and of immense regional importance. While it is true that Eastsiders may not wish to pony up the fund to help pay for the fix, I'm sure they are fully interested in the roadway's continued use in transporting commerce throughout the region (read: Port of Seattle).

What this means is that the state is responsible to come up with the share of funds that would replace the viaduct with a similar structure (another monolith by the waterfront with equavalent capacity) and Seattle proper would raise the additional funds--$1 billion. Difficult, yes. Impossible, I hope not because I doubt there is any other option to get the waterfront back

Posted by: Matthew | Feb 9, 2005 8:48:21 PM

You point out a national issue (notice I said "issue" not "problem.") Todd Littman in his paper "The Future Isn’t What It Used To Be: Changing Trends And Their Implications For Transport Planning" (vtpi.org) points out that road projects don't provide the return on investment they did in the 50's and 60's and are getting more and more difficult to build. Transportation, along with defense, is one area where we've refused to budget, that is, plan in accordance with expected revenues. We keep huge "plans" for highways to the sky with no hopes of funding two-thirds of them.
It is high time for us to become realistic and recognize that the public is paying just about as much as they are ever going to pay and it is just enough to maintain the inefficient and sprawling system we have, not to rebuild it nor expand it.

As for facilities like the Alaska Way Viaduct, I prefer the Embarcadero approach: let it fall down or tear down the derelicts and don't replace them. Something like 60% of the traffic literally disappears. People don't make discretionary trips or change their lives to fit the new reality.

Even Don Young (Alaska's pro at pork) hasn't ever delivered a $3 Billion project.

Let's see this as a great opportunity to talk about delivering "access" to the public at less cost to them personally and to public coffers. Recognizing that moving everyone around constantly in expensive, fuel hogging contraptions is the most inefficient way to deliver this service is the first step.

Posted by: Rex Burkholder | Feb 9, 2005 9:10:41 PM

No, you're not missing anything. Seattle city management hasn't done a very good job of explaining why they believe the tunnel is necessary in spite of its staggering cost. From where I sit, the whole thing looks simply ludicrous, and I can't see why anyone continues to propose it seriously.

Posted by: Mars Saxman | Feb 10, 2005 8:26:53 AM

Rex - thanks for the heads up about the Todd Litman study. I'll be sure to look it over.

Matthew - I definitely see your point. The state may step in with a a bunch of money, especially since Seattle-area legislators hold key positions in Olympia. And, in fact, the state has already committed $177 million from the nickel fund for the Viaduct. Of course, the city is counting on at least half a billion more, and possibly with declining prospects at the federal level, much much more.

But I don't think that contradicts my point. Sure, "the state" might pay, but it will get that money mostly by taxing Seattle-area residents. I don't see any way around that. I think that's especially true, given that the ports of Bellingham, Tacoma, and Everett would be delighted to pick up the slack if activity at Seattle's port wanes.

So that means that Seattle residents ought to stop thinking that "the state" will pay -- sooner or later *we* will. L'etat, c'est nous.

I want the waterfront back too. But given the cost of the tunnel, I think the smartest strategy is *not* to buy into the idea that we absolutely have to replace the traffic capacity on the Viaduct. Let monorail and light rail, once they're completed, help replace the Viaduct's people-moving capacity; and find a solution to maintain freight access; but I don't want to assume that city residents should pay $2-$4 billion to build a highway to move cars through downtown -- especially when drivers (according to one city estimate that I've seen) wouldn't pay more than $100 million for the privelege of using the rebuilt highway.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Feb 10, 2005 10:07:04 AM

I've always been baffled as to how such an awful place-wrecking structure ever got in the first place. It was 1950s-think I guess. The waterfront is a place that would benefit financially (real-estate values, business values) and otherwise (vibracy, public space w/ awe-inspiring views) from the lack of such an eyesore, earsore, and generally dank and seriously dangerous piece of urban furniture.

Many cities are moving in the direction of improving waterfronts and re-rescuing them from bad highways and/or post-industrial blight, and making them great new public amenities. San Francisco took down the abovementioned quake-damaged highway; Portland got rid of a riverfront highway and replaced it with a wonderful esplanade. What were the "traffic impacts" I wonder? (Readily manageable, I'm guessing).

More examples -- New York City has just built 8 or 10 miles of bikeway/waterfront pathway all along the west edge of lower Manhattan. Along the waterfront side of Chicago's Lake Shore Drive, for 20 or so miles including the downtown core there is a magnificent park and path. Vancouver BC has a paved path along major stretches of dense urban waterfront. Minneapolis/St. Paul also has a riverfront path and park.

It would be instructive to do a comparative study of these versus modern, urban examples of 1) waterfront tunnels and 2) waterfront viaducts. Boston comes to mind as an eample of a tunnel project done at great cost. What are the results, good, bad, or indifferent? What are some viaducts? Miami? Cincinnati? Cleveland? Am not as well-versed on those, but then, they're not as inspiring as places. But anyway -- Seattle shouldn't do its thinking in a vacuum -- there are lots of examples, good and bad, of how urban waterfront has been re-developed.

Posted by: Emily | Feb 11, 2005 9:51:07 AM

"Recognizing that moving everyone around constantly in expensive, fuel hogging contraptions is the most inefficient way to deliver this service is the first step." Rex Burkholder |
How about the surface roads to the railway areas and others AROUND the area that exist now, and perhaps a shallow sub-surface HIGH SPEED light rail people mover? Seattle has long built to accomodate automobiles to it's own detriment. I am tired of hearing Seattle whine about Seattle's automobile problems. They have refused to take care of the problem for long enough. Tear the damned thing down before it falls down and DO NOT replace it...

Posted by: Joe | Feb 21, 2005 9:02:40 AM

Rex Burkholder falls short in explaning what's wrong with 'moving everyone around in fuel-hogging contraptions'.

We have to question the development model that creates cities with a built-in need for long-distance travel. The 20th Century practice of 'separate zoning', (jobs over there, services another place, institutions set up high, vast tracts of sprawl housing), disables local economies. The traditional commute from suburb to urban core grows, adding reverse-commuting and cross-county commuting. People are driving anywhere and everywhere to meet needs.

No fuel efficient car, no transit system, can stop the overwhelming growth of travel-demand and traffic while Big Business continues to build single-purpose neighborhoods, communities, commercial centers and townships. That which we have built is economically dysfunctional, but good for car sales.

Only by reducing the demand for commuting, can traffic be reduced to the point where thru-travel on Hwy 99 can be handled on I-5. Because Seattle's light rail and monorail projects are designed to serve downtown-bound commuters, commuting will continue to grow beyond their capacity, making the investment moot.

Posted by: Art | Feb 25, 2005 12:52:33 PM

I must clarify my contention that Seattle's Link LRT and Greenline Monorail will operate beyond their capacity: their capacity will be overwhelmed 'only' during the rush hours. But in the off-rush hours and in the reverse-commute direction, they will be underutilized, resulting in objectionably high operating subsidy. Deal with it. Sound Transit won't.

Posted by: Art | Feb 26, 2005 12:36:29 PM