Archive for February, 2012

In Other Shocking News…

By • on February 28, 2012 at 9:34 pm

You may not have noticed, but Seattle added a convenient, fast new commuting route over the Christmas holidays.

When the Evergreen Point floating bridge on SR 520 began tolling in late December – up to $3.50 one way during rush hour, plus a $1.50 surcharge for people without the state’s “Good to Go” electronic pass, or about $1,600 a year for a weekdaily rush hour commuter–traffic plummeted. What was formerly a parking lot for several hours a day became a highway where people travel at 65 mph, well over the posted speed limit, even in the thick of rush hour. It’s extremely convenient–if you’re wealthy enough to afford it.

And, judging from the traffic studies by the State Department of Transportation (SDOT) as well as the obvious light volume, a lot of people feel like they can’t afford it. Traffic volumes were down on SR 520 from 40 to 50 percent in January. Most of that traffic shifted to the I-90 or to SR 522 around Lake Washington’s north end.

Because bids for construction of the new SR 520 bridge came in below estimated costs, the reduced volume, and lost revenue, doesn’t immediately threaten funding for the new bridge. (Funding for segments in the Montlake and Portage Bay approach on the Seattle side, however, is still about $2 billion short.)

The downtown tunnel is not so lucky.

Apparently taking some lessons from the dramatic verdict being each day rendered on tolling by the thousands of people avoiding SR 520, SDOT this week quietly reduced its estimate of tolling revenues for the downtown tunnel by half, from $400 to $200 million. SDOT buried the new estimate in a House Transportation Committee budget released late last month.

What does it mean? In short, it means critics of the tunnel, including Mayor Mike McGinn, were right, and tunnel proponents were cooking the books. With tunnel tolls estimated at up to $4 for a 1.5 mile tunnel, myriad alternative routes (unlike SR 520), and with the bulk of current Alaskan Way Viaduct traffic coming to or from downtown (which the new tunnel does not service), SDOT’s new guess seems plausible–if not an understatement. If SR 520′s traffic was halved when the alternatives require going several miles out of one’s way, what of a stretch of downtown that may only take a few more blocks and five or 10 extra minutes to traverse on surface streets?

The bottom line is that preposterously few people will be using the new tunnel for an infrastructure investment of, at minimum, $4 billion. That was one of the major criticisms of tunnel opponents. Another was the uncertain funding, and now there’s a $200 million budgetary hole where overly rosy tolling revenue projections once sat.

SDOT says it’ll make up the shortfall by shifting federal funds from other state projects. But there will surely be political pressure from the legislature to ensure that the money is diverted from other Seattle area projects–underscoring the argument that the overpriced tunnel project sucked up capacity that was needed for other critical local infrastructure projects, some of which don’t rely on spewing massive amounts of additional greenhouse gases into the air.

The revised DOT volume estimate is also an early vindication for Mayor McGinn’s concerns about cost overruns. Construction of the tunnel itself is still a year away, and already the assumptions of a budget prepared to strong-arm politicians and the public into supporting it are unraveling.

Many critical decisions still need to be made regarding the tunnel, not the least being what the actual tolling structure will be, and what Seattle’s downtown waterfront will look like after the viaduct comes down. Those decisions need to be made with an understanding that the tunnel is not a transportation project.

It’s being administered by SDOT, sure, but like so many of Seattle’s transportation megaprojects (Mercer Mess, anyone?) the reason the tunnel was conceived and approved in the first place was as a real estate development scheme, in this case for Seattle’s downtown waterfront. The fact that so few people will now actually be using Seattle’s brand new infrastructure toy is, in this context, of almost no concern. Neither is the inconvenience to Seattle drivers and transit riders of a tolled tunnel and (in all likelihood) even more clogged downtown surface streets.

No, what matters here, at least for the folks (many from the downtown business community) who willed this tunnel into being, is that over a mile of prime waterfront real estate is about to become far more valuable. The rest is collateral damage. But how and whether that damage is mitigated–whether tolls are at least semi-affordable, whether transit routes are increased to accommodate some of the people who can’t or won’t pay the tolls, who pays or the revenue shortfalls and construction cost overruns, and whether the newly accessible waterfront becomes a showcase for the public or a private, condo-lined playground for the rich–is still critically important. We’ll be hearing a lot more about this tunnel in the months and years to come. Eleven years after the Nisqually earthquake, depressingly enough, the controversy has just started. –Geov Parrish

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We have a winner

By • on February 26, 2012 at 4:44 pm

…in the contest you didn’t even know you were having, for the best inadvertent Santorum headline.

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Occupy Fort Lawton in 2012?

By • on February 25, 2012 at 12:25 pm

As Occupy Spring approaches, and the internal bickering that has dragged down Occupy Seattle during the past few months appears lately to be settling down, an opportunity for OS to organize around a potential proactive project has recently emerged. Crucially, this project would involve housing for Seattle’s homeless population, and thus would be one way that OS could regain the focus on economic inequity that was the initial spark that ignited the Occupy Wall Street movement back in September.

As reported yesterday at seattlepi.com, Fort Lawton, the historic Seattle landmark that was the site of the March 1970 direct action occupation by Native Americans that led to the creation of Daybreak Star Cultural Center, is officially closing today after 111 years as a U.S. military operation. What will happen to the land if and when the military sells it back to the city?

A decision on selling the property to the city remains in the Army’s hands. City officials have proposed a redevelopment plan that includes building housing for the homeless, which has been controversial with Magnolia residents.

This is an obvious opportunity for Occupy Seattle to regain its footing and get proactive as Occupy Spring approaches. Fort Lawton is already known for one positive and productive social justice occupation. Will Spring 2012 bring another one?

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Nature & Politics: Time on the Cross with Rick Santorum

By • on February 24, 2012 at 9:42 pm

Surely Rick Santorum is the most fanatical Christian to run for the Republican nomination in the modern era, maybe any era. Next to him Pat Robertson, billionaire founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, who ran for the nomination in 1988, has the tolerant, glassy-eyed bonhomie of the late Dean Martin. Robertson has always been in [...]

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More bad news for Romney

By • on February 18, 2012 at 3:47 am

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The system makes me sick

By • on February 18, 2012 at 2:21 am

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There’s an app for that

By • on February 18, 2012 at 2:11 am

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What are women for?

By • on February 17, 2012 at 10:48 am

That’s the question asked in this piece of truly offensive chin-stroking misogyny by a wingnut named James Poulos. The very question implies that half of humanity isn’t really human at all, but is a tool, billions of identical appliances notable solely for the function(s) for which they are used by humanity’s other half. And by specifying women rather than females, you get one guess what Poulos thinks their sole function is.

The only tool in the piece is Poulos himself. Sadly, he never examines what men are for, let alone what Poulos himself is for. He’s certainly not a very useful tool. Mostly, I suspect, his function is to induce other people to bang their heads against walls. This is what our supposedly serious political discourse is reducing itself to.

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The arena deal is DOA, but not for the reason you think

By • on February 16, 2012 at 7:32 pm

So Mayor Mike McGinn, various city council members, and hedge fund gazillionaire Christopher Hansen got in front of the microphones this afternoon and finally unveiled some of the details of the plan the city has been cooking up for eight months to build a new basketball/hockey arena in SoDo.

So much attention is being paid to the financing of the deal (by people who are normally skeptical of such arrangements) and to the prospect of getting new pro teams (by sports fans) that almost nobody is paying attention to the huge caveat in all this: Hansen said today he doesn’t put a shovel into the ground until both the NBA and the NHL agree to locate teams here.

Let me blunt about this. Unless that stipulation changes, everything else about this deal is window dressing, subject to change–and Hansen isn’t likely to change his stipulation without additional financial incentives. That would drop us right back into the public financing muck this deal is meant to avoid.

Neither the NBA nor the NHL is about to expand. Relocation from another city is pretty rare – it only happens about every 5-6 years in a given league. Relocation of both winter sports (or any two sports at all) to the same city at the same time has never happened in the history of North American major men’s pro sports. And both leagues have other cities (Kansas City, Anaheim) with arenas already built that Seattle is competing against for any relocated team. Lastly, of the four major team sports, Seattle is by far the largest market to have only two pro teams – but it would be one of the smallest to have teams in all four leagues. It’s not entirely clear Seattle has an economy strong enough to make both the NBA and NHL want to come and compete not only with the Mariners and Seahawks, but with each other, for corporate, broadcast rights, and ticket and merchandise dollars.

Getting both leagues to agree to move a team to Seattle at about the same time isn’t impossible – but it’s damn near close. It’s encouraging that things have gotten thus far, and that they’ve figured out a model supposedly using essentially private financing. McGinn deserves credit for that. But as outlined today, this deal isn’t happening. The details don’t matter unless both the NBA and NHL play ball, and soon. Don’t bet on it.

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Reclaim Our History: Feb. 16-29

By • on February 16, 2012 at 2:25 pm

February 16, 1878: Missouri Congressman Richard “Silver Dick” Bland’s leadership encourages Congress to return to the minting of silver coinage, which had been discontinued in 1873, and was largely–and mistakenly–blamed for the financial panic of that year. The controversy over the use of silver and gold to back US currency would continue into the 20th [...]

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