Archive for February, 2012
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