Who’s Gonna Get Stuck With the Bill for Seattle’s Highway Tunnel Misadventure?

The bill's about to come due for Seattle's costly tunnel boring boondoggle. Who's going to pay?
The bill's about to come due for Seattle's costly tunnel boring boondoggle. Who's going to pay?

Three years behind schedule, Bertha, the boring machine carving out a gigantic underground highway beneath downtown Seattle, poked through the end of its tunnel this week. After a spectacular breakdown early in the boring journey, the highway tunnel project, originally slated to cost $3.1 billion, is now expected to cost at least $4 billion when all is said and done.

Who’s going to pay? Seattle residents never embraced the highway tunnel — they voted against it in 2007, then were cajoled by project boosters into voting for it four years later. But they may have to pay for the overruns, as Republican state lawmakers try to pin those costs on the city of Seattle [PDF].

Doug Trumm at the Urbanist reports on the risk that the city will end up eating the excess cost of a project it never needed:

From the outset of the project, the popular opinion of replacing the Viaduct has been met with skepticism. In 2007, Seattle voters were presented with an advisory vote on competing Viaduct replacement options: elevated and tunneled. More than 100,000 voters turned out to register their widespread rejection of both proposals with 70% against the tunnel and 55% against an elevated version. This was in spite of civic leaders like Mayor Greg Nickels pushing the tunnel and years of public campaigning for replacement. But that didn’t stop backers of the tunnel — Governor Gregoire, the Downtown Seattle Association, the Port of Seattle, and waterfront interests — from turning the levers in favor. Only after another four years of campaigning did this Seattle brain trust materialize a low-turnout win in 2011 on a non-binding advisory vote for building the tunnel.

Billed as a way to reconnect Downtown Seattle to its waterfront, what wasn’t made clear at the time was that the new tunnel would not remove the need for a wide surface-level highway. Since then, the auto-focused surface highway plan has come into focus and it’s unlikely to create an especially pleasant experience for pedestrians or bicyclists. With ferry queuing lanes on the new Alaskan Way, the replaced road will balloon out to nine lanes wide.

The other elephant in the room — elephant also being the symbol of the Republican Party — while exurban Republicans bill the Viaduct replacement as a local Seattle project, in reality it will be used by motorists from across the region. The project has no Downtown exits showing that it’s a project allowing travel through Seattle rather than serving typical trips within the city itself. And while the total daily traffic counts on Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) right-of-way has been flat for years, much of the increased freeway congestion (WSDOT right-of-way) is linked to suburban sprawl and long commutes. Residents of Seattle increasingly use transit, which has allowed transit to absorb much of the trip demand from the city’s rapidly growing population. Our population has grown by more than 100,000 people since 2004, but SDOT’s daily traffic estimate is lower today than it was in 2004. Seattle itself doesn’t need the increased capacity that the tunnel and surface highway together provide; if anyone does, it’s the suburbs.

Trumm’s full post is worth a read — it’s a great account of the politics that foisted this damaging highway project on the city.

More recommended reading today: Greater Greater Washington breaks down new Census data showing that sprawling metros are seeing faster population growth than more compact regions. And NextSTL breaks down the vote in St. Louis to expand transit and reject a sports stadium.

9 thoughts on Who’s Gonna Get Stuck With the Bill for Seattle’s Highway Tunnel Misadventure?

  1. “After a spectacular breakdown early in the boring journey, the highway tunnel project, originally slated to cost $3.1 billion, is now expected to cost at least $4 billion when all is said and done.”

    If only our over-runs were by such a small percentage in New York.

    “The other elephant in the room — elephant also being the symbol of the Republican Party — while exurban Republicans bill the Viaduct replacement as a local Seattle project, in reality it will be used by motorists from across the region. The project has no Downtown exits.”

    If that doesn’t show that what is going on is a tribal war, I don’t know what is. After a few decades of talking about cities and those who live in them as welfare parasites, we now have a whole new set of weasel words. Their needs are national needs, because they are part of the nation, while others should pay up because they are not, and pay for their “local needs” too.

  2. People said they “will never” use the tolled SR520. Today it’s carrying as many vehicles as it did the day before the tolling started. Time is money for most people; the new tunnel will be full within six months and they’ll have to adopt variable tolling to keep it from being swamped.

  3. Also, not to put too fine a point on it, but without the twenty largest cities, the national GDP would be only half what it is now.

    We pay for our own services many times over and provide a significant portion of the services that Boobus Domesticus receives.

  4. Anybody who wants to make this a Republican vs Democrat issue doesn’t know what they are talking about. The former very liberal mayor fought tooth and nail opposing this project. But it was pushed through because every alternative wasn’t very good. That said, the rural heavily Republicans tend to demonize anything for the urban wealthy liberal city of Seattle, even though it’s citizens more than pay far more to State coffers then it gets back. This project was done to make one of if not the prettiest waterfront in America and maybe the world a livable space. The dumb thing is the toll. There are too many ways to avoid this tunnel.

  5. That’s a good point, depending how “better” the “better free alternatives” actually are. At 8:00 PM I’ll agree that the tunnel will be pretty darn empty except possibly for buses and trucks.

    But at 4:30 on a Friday game-day afternoon…….? Cha-CHING!

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