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April 26, 2005

Traffic Jam

I've been putting off commenting on Washington State's recently-passed $8 billion transportation package -- funded by a 9.5 cent per gallon increase and new weight-based vehicle fees -- until I could figure out exactly how I feel about it. I still can't. It's complicated.

In general, I like taxes on gasoline.  Gasoline carries many costs -- security, air and water pollution, climate-warming emissions, and the like -- that aren't captured by the market price.  Which means that, no matter how high the market price for gasoline goes, it's still not high enough to account for all the externalities. So in theory I should be in favor of a gas tax increase.

In practice, though, it matters a lot how the money raised through a gas tax is used.  In Washington state, gas taxes are dedicated to roads and car ferries.  As a consequence, gas taxes in the state have tended to accelerate sprawling development at the ever-receding urban fringe -- in precisely the places where residents have to drive most.  So even though gas taxes increase the cost of gasoline, they've also, in effect, increased its consumption.

This time, however, some anti-sprawl advocates in Washington seem genuinely pleased with the transportation package, touting it as a "win."  They give three reasons:  the package focuses on fixing existing highways, rather than building new ones; it provides nearly half a billion in funding for non-car-centered projects such as bike and pedestrian investments, special-needs transit, and a safe routes to school program; and, while it does provide nearly a billion dollars to I-405, the money is flagged for managed (i.e., tolled) lanes that encourage carpooling and transit.

I'm a little less sanguine, though.  And not just because increasing highway capacity on I-405 may foster sprawl, but more because the package provides $2 billion for my pet peeve: rebuilding the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

I think that the city's preferred option for replacing the Viaduct with a tunnel -- which would cost $4.5 billion to replace 2.2 miles of highway, plus some work to reconnect the street grid -- is wildly expensive, especially given that transportation planners think that they could raise at most $100 million by tolling the facility.  (In other words, the tunnel's supporters think that it's worth 45 times as much as drivers themselves would be willing to pay for it.)  Construction is likely to cause serious disruptions from 2009 through at least 2016, and according to the Seattle P-I, during construction itself...

traffic will likely be shifted off the old structure onto downtown surface streets and onto Alaskan Way past waterfront businesses. A temporary bypass may be built between Broad and Pike streets.

Which of course makes me wonder -- if the Viaduct is so darn crucial that we have to spend $4.5 billion to fix it, how is it that the city thinks it can survive during constrction, with all of the Viaduct traffic forced onto city streets?

Now, really, a tunnel isn't the worst thing in the world.  By 2016 or so, Seattle might have a reasonably attractive waterfront -- though a high-speed highway nearby, coupled with a decade of neglect, may mean that not too many people will be inclined to live there. 

But what really gets me is this:  the $2 billion in state funding will disappear within two years if the region can't find the rest of the money to build the tunnel.  The state's just going to take it away, and spend it somewhere else.  So the region (mostly Seattle) is going to have to commit another $2 billion, at least, to lock in the state funds.  Seattle residents are already taxing themselves for the monorail; we're helping to pay for light rail; the state is phasing in a 14.5 cent per gallon gas tax; we're facing expenses for repaving I-5 and rebuilding the 520 bridge; and on top of that, Seattle is still going to have to come up with a couple of billion extra to pay for the rest of the Viaduct.

Here's the risk: with all of the expensive transportation mega-projects underway right now, there's a distinct chance that Seattle residents will balk at the cost of the tunnel -- which was the most expensive of the proposed designs for replacing the Viaduct.  But with $2 billion in construction money already on the table, the city may opt for one of the lower-priced options:  a surface highway, or simply rebuilding the existing structure.  Which would mean that Seattle would be saddled with a waterfront highway for the next 50 years, just as it had one for the preceding 50.

One hundred years of highway. Ugh.  I'd much rather have nothing than that.  It would be much better to use the $2 billion to replace the seawall, tear down the Viaduct, and invest in a plan to move people into and through downtown without a gold-plated highway. 

Any takers, Seattle?

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink


Hi Clark,

You ask a question I've been pondering for some time: How can the absolutely vital Viaduct traffic be dealt with for the *years* of construction on a tunnel, only if we're building a tunnel?

The tunnel option interests me because it's so obviously the wrong decision: Most expensive (and most likely to see huge cost overruns)? Takes the most time for construction? At risk next to a seawall in an earthquake zone expecting a massive quake? Let's do it!

There's a vein of denial here I find noteworthy. What to do with this ever-increasing traffic rushing through our green city? Hide it deep underground. Pump out the exhaust discreetly.

The tunnel is, from this perspective, an attempt to make the traffic congestion problem physically "just go away." Not that congestion will go away. It just won't be visible to traffic helicopters. I really do think when people picture the tunnel, this is part of its appeal.

In addition to being considerably more affordable, expanding surface roads has the benefit of keeping us aware of traffic, its benefits and its noxious effects. From where I'm sitting, it's like high blood pressure: not pretty, but definitely something you want to keep an eye on.

Posted by: Michael | Apr 26, 2005 5:55:14 PM

With apologies to Michael, I always wonder why people even bother thinking such thoughts. I mean, really- he visualizes the benefits of building more highways that are more offensive than the alternatives, so we can see the disadvantages? Not really in the same category as "visualizing world peace".

However, he well illustrates the modern nihilist thinking that, combined with the commercial interests and the rabid anti-taxers, bids fair to sink Seattle.

A little birdie told me that the numbers show the Viaduct is essential to the economy of Seattle. Right or wrong, that's what responsible people believe. So at this point it seems very likely the viaduct will be replaced in situ. Most of us know that gas will be $5 a gallon before this is finished, and the Viaduct is another fatted goose project like the stadiums always are. However, the powers-that-be will rebuild that highway, and the nihilist brigade will conduct their usual campaign of claiming that any "frills" are a big giveaway to Bill Gates, Vulcan, "the bureaucracy" etc etc- take your pic.

In what I can only describe as a sickly ironic twist, the best hope might be that the Port will realize what a screw-up it would be to rebuild the existing viaduct, and insist on the tunnel version.

Without analyzing the thing to death, the best option is to insist on a tunnel or nothing. Legislators are already vaguely aware that the new Narrows Bridge is a boondoggle. When the tolls kick in there are going to be some angry people. It's time to start reining in the out-of-control highway department.

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 27, 2005 5:45:03 AM

No apologies necessary, serial catowner, unless it's for implying that I'm a modern nihilist. On the other hand, I can't stop laughing about that, so never mind. I may update my blog title to reflect this rather dramatic image.

However, I do want to clarify that I don't actually find highways ugly; I find traffic congestion noxious. My benchmark for my preference is the aesthetic-enough Embarcadero in San Francisco, which I frequently walked along when I lived there. Many, many people happily drove along it at the same time, slowed from freeway speeds enough to enjoy the sights.

I would disagree that the Viaduct, in itself, is essential to the economy of Seattle. It's just a transportation structure. Other transportation structures can be considered so long as they meet the service requirements which are deemed essential. My sense is that there's more than one little bird involved in the debate over what precisely is essential, though.

I'd like to see more discussion of these "essentials" actually, and less of people's structural preferences (including my own). It seems unlikely, if we can't agree on what the replacement needs to do first, that we'll end up building something that accomplishes what needs to be accomplished within the framework of available resources.

We may even discover that rather than tackle every need with one megaproject, it would make more sense to address the interests of freight, I-5 overflow commuters, and waterfront visitors with separate transportation solutions. But, full disclosure, I'm a cock-eyed optimist really, not a modern nihilist. Much as that tickles me.

Posted by: Michael | Apr 27, 2005 1:16:10 PM

When I hear the debate over the viaduct, I am struck by the analogy to San Francisco's Embarcadero Freeway, which blemished that city's waterfront for thirty years. In the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which weakened the structure so much that it was closed immediately, the city tore it down and built a bayside esplanade that invites people to cross to the piers and docks, and reconnects the city to its waterfront even while passing large volumes of traffic.

Of course, drivers predicted traffic chaos and automotive arteriosclerosis as a result. But they were mistaken -- just as they were when the Central Freeway in the middle of SF was torn down some years later.

I don't have the precise statistics on average daily traffic volumes for the pre-1989 SF freeway vs. the Seattle viaduct. And there's a significant difference in that Seattle's viaduct is part of a through route, whereas the Embarcadero Freeway was a stub just 1 or 2 miles long (thanks to popular efforts which defeated plans to extend it through North Beach and the Marina District to the Golden Gate Bridge). But I wonder whether a similar solution might not work here in Seattle. (And could be accomplished for under $2 billion, I expect.)

Don't like to take your cues from Californians? Portlanders didn't need an earthquake to realize their waterfront freeway was a mistake. They tore it down in the 1970s (?) and replaced it with a riverside promenade (Tom McCall Waterfront Park) and a 4-lane boulevard.

Any thoughts about the relevance of these precedents to the Seattle case?

Posted by: Seth Zuckerman | Apr 27, 2005 1:45:56 PM

Well put Seth. Let me pile on as a Portlander wishing for the destruction of I5. Imagine the potential for that waterfront and revitalization of the Eastside, traffic be damned. Hopefully it doesn't take an earthquake for it to happen though.

Posted by: Ron | Apr 27, 2005 3:16:00 PM

Clark posted this, then promptly left for a week of well-deserved time off.

Seth: Clark did an article in the Stranger a year or two ago that argued for Viaduct removal, and specifically compared the viaduct with the San Francisco and Portland examples you mention. I'm too slammed to find the link right now, but it was a great piece of analysis. In fact, it helped to inpire the People's Waterfront Coalition, which continues to agitate for a viaduct-less, tunnel-less, waterfront for Seattle.

Posted by: Alan Durning | Apr 27, 2005 4:25:46 PM

You can get a sense of how out-of-control this road thing has become when the Port announces they are rebuilding a container terminal with a sixteen-lane entranceway. This is about a mile south of the ferry terminal.

If you don't put the viaduct underground, how are 16 lanes of truck traffic going to make it to I-5? (And did you know- it doesn't pay to reuse the containers, so they're just piling up all over America?)

I've got a strong suspicion that the Viaduct replacement will be rejected as insane- if not before it is started, then probably before it is finished.

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 27, 2005 5:34:11 PM

It is fun to speculate - I hope they get as far as tearing it down, then realize that due to incredibly high gasoline prices, less people are driving around, making the whole thing moot.

Not everyone believes gasoline will be expensive in the future, but I sure do...

Posted by: Jon S. | Apr 27, 2005 5:51:26 PM

Here's the link to Clark's article from "The Stranger," that Alan referred to:


Like Michael, I too am an optimist, and I think Clark might be also. And although I live in Eugene where we don't need to debate such things as gigantic viaducts vs. humongous tunnels, I did grow up in Seattle. Therefore, I share Clark's optimistic vision of Seattle's great transformational potential here.

To quote an inspiring paragraph from Clark's article in "The Stranger":

"Nobody can know exactly what the city would be like if the viaduct were torn down. But picture, just for a moment, the best-case scenario, based on the experiences of San Francisco, Portland, and Vancouver. After tearing down the highway, views would improve, and more city residents, tourists, and workers would spend time (and money) in businesses along the former road corridor. Over a few years, developers would move in to create new housing, office buildings, and stores, initiating a virtuous cycle of reinvestment. New residents and tourists would be attracted to downtown, supporting existing businesses and helping to create new ones. Street life would flourish as formerly disconnected parts of the city were reunited, improving commerce and connections among neighborhoods."

This brings to my mind one of my favorite quotes from Alan Durning:

A vicious circle, if inverted, can become a virtuous one.

Posted by: Michelle | Apr 27, 2005 8:21:44 PM