A recent report by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future,” examines 11 of the most wasteful, least justifiable road projects underway in America right now. Here’s the latest installment in our series profiling the various bad decisions that funnel so much money to infrastructure that does no good.
Seattle’s aging Alaskan Way Viaduct is a crumbling and seismically vulnerable elevated highway along the city’s downtown waterfront. After an earthquake damaged the structure in 2001, state engineers decided that the highway needed to come down, but the question of how (and whether) to replace it sparked nearly a decade of heated debate. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) rejected calls to replace the viaduct with a combination of surface street and transit improvements, choosing instead an option that would result in more capacity: boring a mammoth tunnel underneath the city’s urban core. At 57 feet in diameter, it would be the widest bored tunnel ever attempted, with the full project carrying an estimated cost of at least $3.1 billion and perhaps as much as $4.1 billion.
Digging a double-decker tunnel was always the riskiest option for replacing the viaduct. The tunnel carried a high risk of going over even its exorbitant budget. In 2010, WSDOT acknowledged a 40 percent chance of a cost overrun, with a 5 percent risk that overruns could top $415 million.