By Phineas Baxandall and Jeff Inglis, September 26, 2014
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.