Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct: King of the Highway Boondoggles

The Alaskan Way Viaduct, damaged decades ago, will be rebuilt as a double-decker highway, even though a transit-heavy alternative would have been at least as effective at reducing congestion. Photo: Rootology/##
The Alaskan Way Viaduct, damaged decades ago, will be rebuilt as a double-decker highway, even though a transit-heavy alternative would have been at least as effective at reducing congestion. Photo: Rootology/##

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.

With Bertha trapped underground, cost overruns could go into Big Dig territory. Image: U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group
With Bertha trapped underground, cost overruns could go into Big Dig territory. Image: U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

Shortfalls from tunnel tolls represent an additional financial risk: Soon after settling on the tunnel, the state cut its tolling revenue projections in half. State officials later suggested that further reductions in estimated revenue might be forthcoming. Together with other potential revenue shortfalls, some estimates projected that the funding gap could reach $700 million.

Since 2010, the financial risks of the project have only increased. “Bertha,” touted as the world’s largest tunneling machine, got stuck underground in December 2013 and is not expected to be able to resume work until March 2015 — and then only if precarious on-site repairs can be successfully completed. The project is also stuck in disputes over whether taxpayers or the project’s contractor must pay the estimated $125 million to repair the giant boring machine to get it going again, and in a lawsuit about whether the rescue operation should even be undertaken.

The expensive tunnel is not projected to improve traffic significantly compared with the rejected streets-and-transit hybrid alternative, a combination of a four-lane urban-scaled street on the waterfront, one additional lane on a nearby interstate highway, and hundreds of millions of dollars in improvements to city streets and area bus service.

WSDOT’s own statistics show that the tunnel, if completed, would likely increase traffic delays downtown compared with the rejected streets-and-transit plan. At best, the tunnel was projected to reduce traffic delays in the surrounding four-county region by only about 1 percent, compared with the rejected alternative; and those delays could have been further reduced by expanding transit service under the hybrid plan.

With the tunnel now stymied, some elements of the hybrid plan have been temporarily put into place to relieve congestion caused by the construction, and have even been extended to accommodate the construction delays. (Their ability to help is, however, hampered by the fact that other transit services in the community are on the chopping block.) According to WSDOT’s 2013 Annual Traffic Report data, traffic at one end of the Alaskan Way Viaduct was on the decline before tunnel construction began, and has since declined even more.

Even WSDOT acknowledges that the viaduct won't even carry as much traffic as the road is carrying now, while under construction. Image: U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group
Even WSDOT acknowledges that the Viaduct won’t even carry as much traffic as the road is carrying now, while under construction. Image: U.S. PIRG and Frontier Group

In the region, average daily traffic has dropped 23 percent, and transit ridership has leapt 42 percent.

If the tunnel is ever finished, and if a proposal to charge tolls on the tunnel goes through, the project will have spent billions of taxpayer dollars to attract fewer drivers than are using the existing roadways right now. Traffic projections for even the cheapest tolls are at least 8 percent and perhaps as much as 35 percent below what the traffic volume has become during construction.

While the money spent on the tunneling project thus far may never be recouped, state officials have an opportunity to revisit the scope of the project and select options that are less likely to cause financial and traffic turmoil.

Phineas Baxandall, senior policy analyst at U.S. PIRG, and Jeff Inglis, policy analyst at the Frontier Group, are co-authors of the report, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future.”

11 thoughts on Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct: King of the Highway Boondoggles

  1. One big advantage the tunnel does have, unlike any other alternative proposed, is being built with minimal disturbance to existing infrastructure. The ideas is one day we’ll be driving on the Viaduct, the next in the tunnel. Other alternatives required a 1-2 year closure of the waterfront thoroughfare and would have lead to significant impacts to traffic regionally. Maintaining capacity is critically important as transit gets stuck in the same vehicular mess as everyone else and we lack road capacity in every direction. Already, a single lane closure or accident has ripple effects on the commute for everyone in Seattle. Our subway won’t be open to seriously effective lengths until 2021 and 2023. We’re also replacing a major seawall at the same time in the same location to add complexity.

    The transit/hybrid option was to cost the same $3.3 billion as modifying I-5 through downtown Seattle would be difficult. Didn’t help that our governor at the time didn’t like this idea and now we’ve been screwed out of all the cool bus improvements.

    Not justifying our $3-4 billion albatross, but the issue is more complicated than “just a single highway”.

    And a good tidbit from that publication “The bored tunnel was not carried forward due to its high cost.” Oops…

  2. The Real Seattle Boondoggle,

    Apparently neither the PIRG nor the
    local media covering that story are aware of Sound Transits current plans for
    East Link. Anyone who was would surely conclude East Link dwarfs the Big
    Bertha boondoggle.


    Both will cost about $3 billion, but
    any similarity ends there. Tunnel construction will have a minimal
    impact on commuters or downtown Seattle. East Link construction will
    force all I-90 vehicles onto the outer roadways, increasing congestion there despite
    ST claims the added 4th lanes can make up for the loss of center roadway.
    It will also wreck havoc on downtown Bellevue and disrupt those living or
    commuting along the route.

    When complete, the 2-mile (3.2 km) tunnel will provide SR 99 commuters with
    four lanes of highway under downtown Seattle from the SoDo neighborhood to South Lake Union in the
    north. East Link operation will consist of one 4-car train every 8
    minutes, or 30 cars per hour, crossing into and out of Seattle. Assuming
    150 riders in each of the four 74-seat cars gives a total capacity of 4500
    riders per hour (RPH), about a third of the 12,000 riders ST promised voters in

    Instead of “the equivalent of up to ten lanes of freeway” in the DEIS, ST
    now promises 50,000 riders daily by 2030, with 40,000 coming from terminating
    all cross-lake bus routes at South Bellevue or Mercer Island light rail
    stations. Every morning and afternoon ~10,000 transit commuters will be
    required to transfer to and from trains at each of the two

    Those designing the stations were
    apparently unaware of this transfer. ST presentations at the 90% design
    status open houses indicate the Bellevue station was designed for 4500
    boarders. Presumably at least 1500 would come from the expanded parking
    facility there. Similarly, the Mercer Island station was designed for 2000,
    presumable many of who would be Mercer Island residents. The
    resulting “crowd” from the 10,000 bus riders inundating each of the two
    stations is hardly an attraction for anyone!

    The station “crowding” will be
    exacerbated by the lack of light rail capacity. At 4500 RPH it will take
    nearly 4 ½ hours every morning and afternoon to accommodate all 20,000.
    ST apparently has its own definition of “peak-commute hours”. Mercer
    Island residents and the ~10,000 bus transferees there will have an especially
    difficult access since all the light rail cars will likely be full well before
    they get to the station. As a result East Link will force cross-lake
    commuters to choose between driving into Seattle on a heavily congested
    (gridlocked?) outer roadway or riding a bus to a light rail station and attempt
    to get on an overcrowded light rail car.

    Not only is East Link a disaster for
    cross-lake commuters and those living along the route into Bellevue, its
    operating costs will create a “financial black hole” for the entire areas
    transportation funds. The problem is each light rail car costs
    $22.48 per mile to operate (per 2014 ST budget), or $90.00 per mile for a 4-car
    train. The 77-mile circuit from Redmond to Lynnwood and back will cost
    nearly $7000. ST plans call for 121 such trips each weekday costing

    Presumable the 40,000 bus riders will
    not be forced to also pay for East Link. Thus the only fare box revenue for the
    day will be from the 10,000 “non-transferees” or ~$30,000. As a
    result ST will be required to subsidize East Link with $810,000 to
    cover the shortfall. Assuming required weekend subsidies are half those
    level, East Link will cost $4.86 million weekly or $252 million annually.
    If the sixty ~$5 million light rail cars East Link will need are assumed to
    last 10 years, depreciation will add another $30 million annually.

    The bottom line is ST is planning to
    spend $3 billion on a transportation project that will gridlock I-90, devastate
    parts of Bellevue, and require an annual subsidy of ~$285 million to cover the
    short fall in far box revenue. All in hopes of increasing the number of
    transit riders from 40 to 50,000 daily. The reality is the hassle
    associated with transferring to and from trains at the two stations, and the
    lack of light rail capacity, will likely result in fewer rather than more

    The PIRG article concluded Seattle
    had little choice but to allow the tunnel boondoggle to continue. However there is still time to stop light rail and
    initiate cross-lake transportation that easily meets the area’s future
    commuting needs. Move non-transit HOV traffic to 4th lanes on the I-90
    Bridge outer roadway and divide the center roadway into two-way bus only
    lanes. Both could be done in a year. The 4th lanes will ease congestion
    for all cross-lake commuters, especially reverse commuters. The bus lanes
    will allow existing bus routes to be supplemented during peak commute by
    express bus connections between eastside P&R’s and downtown Seattle.
    The costs will be minimal and the additional riders attracted will reduce
    congestion throughout the east side.

    In conclusion, it’s way past time for
    those responsible for the areas transportation policies and the local media to
    recognize East Link gives a whole new meaning to the term “boondoggle”.
    Instead, the Sound Transit Board and the WSDOT show no intentions of doing so,
    the Puget Sound Research Council continues to provide tens of millions each
    year to support East Link construction, the Seattle, Mercer Island, and Bellevue
    city councils are well on the way to approving the permits ST needs for
    construction, and the Seattle Times and Bellevue Reporter continue to ignore
    the many references to posts on this blog detailing the problems.

    The entire area will pay a heavy
    price if this continues.

  3. Nah, The Big Dig eventually got finished. This thing’s never going to be completed. The only question is: how much money will get thrown away before they give up.

  4. To poke briefly at your East Link #s… The trains can run up to every 4 minutes (the floating bridge apparently is the limiting factor), and they go both directions (plenty of people make the “reverse”-commute from Seattle to Bellevue/Microsoft/Redmond).
    So, that’s (60/4) x 4 x 200 x 2 = 24,000 as a theoretical maximum capacity, double Sound Transit’s projection, though the Central Link ridership is well ahead of ST’s projections at the start of the project.

    This is as opposed to 2 freeway lanes operating at an ideal capacity (i.e., no congestion, and nobody ever stalls their car or hits anyone on the bridge) of 2000 vehicles each, so they can only equal the capacity of the rail if each vehicle has 6 people in it (and nothing ever causes any heavy traffic).

    So, I’d say that Light-Rail beats car-lanes handily, just in terms of getting people across the bridge. And furthermore, not everyone needs to go across the bridge. There will be plenty of people taking the line back & forth on the Eastside. And, when they get to where they’re going, none of those people will require a parking spot (building an underground garage can cost as much as $36,000/space, which greatly increases commercial & residential rents)

  5. I guess if you are so opposed to subsidies you would be more than happy to pay tolls on I-90 so it can cover it’s actual annual cost of operations and help to contribute to finishing the parallel route on SR 520? Once the tolls are in place your congestion concern becomes a non-issue.

  6. You can’t really compare a planned closure of a highway to an unexpected crash, though. New Jersey had to completely close the inbound lanes of the Pulaski Skyway, a major route to the Holland Tunnel into NYC. There were predictions of doom and massive traffic hell that never materialized once the closure went into effect. Why? Because people plan around it. They take transit or wait until non-peak times to travel. The same was true when the 405 in LA was closed for a weekend.

    In places that do have alternatives to driving as Seattle does, we just don’t need highways as much as we think we do. There is advantage to being able to avoid disruption, but sometimes a bit of short term pain is worth the money saved and improvement to the surrounding environment.

  7. The 405 closer was a pleasant surprise. Considered the busiest freeway in the US closed and no mayhem happened.

  8. Im usually against highway projects, but tunnels seem like a good thing to me since it gets cars out of sight.

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