By Geov Parrish, March 18, 2014
It’s not Bertha’s fault. All she’s ever wanted is to spend her life doing simple, boring things.
But life’s not that simple, especially when her work is managed by people as incompetent as they are greedy. And when the project they’re managing involves using technology unproven for the task of carving out a 1.7-mile tunnel behind a crumbling, old seawall and through fill soil and a century’s worth of the accumulated tunnels, pipes and utilities of a major city — the sort of mess now facing Seattle is pretty well inevitable and predictable.
Now, only 1,000 feet in to a 9,000-foot tunnel, Bertha has a work-related injury: broken seals directly caused by overwork from a contractor being pushed to finish the job as quickly and cheaply as possible. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and the contractor overseeing excavation, Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP), won’t even give a specific estimate of when she’ll resume her burrowing until some time in early March. For now, they’ll only say it’ll be “months.”
These are the same folks, remember, who spent two months telling the public Bertha was “stuck” and that she’d “hit a pipe” when that wasn’t the problem at all. It wasn’t until early February that they finally acknowledged that Bertha, was not, in fact, stuck: She was broken — and had been since December. It’s not entirely clear why the public should trust any tunnel pronouncements coming from WSDOT or STP.
And the tolls
Meanwhile, the commission charged with determining the proper tolling structure for the new state Route 99 tunnel really is stuck. A portion of the $3.8 billion needed to pay for the tunnel was supposed to come from tolling once the tunnel opened. But it turns out that tunnel proponents wildly overestimated what motorists would pay.
Now, with two years of experience with a tolled SR 520 bridge — an arterial that has half the previous traffic, even though it’s much more difficult to take an alternate route to than SR 99 — tunnel planners are realizing that most motorists will just take their chances with Interstate 5 or the surface streets through downtown instead. The commission hasn’t been able to find a toll low enough that the projected rider numbers — let alone the revenue numbers — work.
And now the project will cost much, much more. It’s not clear where that money will come from, either. (Though, as a guess, “us” is likely the correct answer.)
Opponents of the tunnel scheme predicted all of this. That plan was first priced at $1 billion, then more “realistically” budgeted at $3.8 billion and now likely to cost much, much more. Nobody knows how much more, only that every day of delay adds to the price tag.
No promises kept
When, after a decade of dithering, elected officials and downtown business got the tunnel option pushed through — including winning a ballot measure that mostly reflected how sick the public was of the whole debate, at a point where officials were saying the tunnel would be built regardless of the vote’s outcome — a whole lot of reassurances were made: promises and projections about price and overruns, about timeline, about traffic and revenue, about the viability of the technology.
Now, with the vast majority of the work yet to be done, we already know that none of these things are playing out as promised. And, in retrospect, the objections to the cheaper, faster alternatives seem faintly ridiculous.
Remember the primary objective to turning Alaskan Way into an at-grade thoroughfare and park? It was the gridlock that would supposedly be caused in downtown streets. It turns out we’re getting that anyway, at many more billions of dollars cost, and without the public-transit capacity.
None of these problems mattered four years ago to the real estate developers who are, as always, the primary beneficiary of huge civic projects in Seattle, and none of them matter now.
The tunnel was never about moving people and goods in a cost-effective way, any m
ore than the latest “fix” to the “Mercer Mess” was about improving the daily gridlock in South Lake Union. (It hasn’t — it’s made the gridlock worse, just as traffic engineers warned. But if you don’t mind the carbon monoxide, it’s prettier.)
The tunnel project has already done wonders for waterfront real estate values, which was the whole point. The city and WSDOT could abandon the tunnel project right now and build the at-grade option, and it would still likely save billions (and get done sooner).
But no city or state officials are even talking about the possibility of doing that. When it comes to maximizing real estate value on the backs of taxpayers, no price is too high to pay — just ask Paul Allen.