I’ve been reading a great deal about the proposed Downtown Tunnel lately.
I think it’s painfully obvious to anyone reading the debates that both sides tend to, how shall I say this … exaggerate. I think it goes without saying that the deep-bore tunnel will neither destroy Seattle, nor will it solve all of its transportation woes. Each side has advocated its position with the passion of a defense lawyer before a criminal court, and objective reason has been sentenced to death each time.
With that being said, I would be remiss if I did not state my own case to the best of my own ability. Indulge me if you will:
I am a Downtown Seattle resident, a Seattle taxpayer, and a registered Seattle voter. I am also staunchly anti-tunnel.
I know, and I think you do to, that five years after the tunnel is completed, we’ll be considering the next road project. As long as the private automobile remains the primary means of transit in Seattle, the road monster will need to be fed ever-escalating portions of taxpayer flesh. If you build roads, they will come. In spades. Then, you will need to build more roads.
The current generation of car drivers will beget another generation of car drivers who will beget another generation of car drivers and so on. If you think traffic in King County is bad now, just wait until we lay down even more asphalt.
A multi-billion dollar deep-bore tunnel makes no more sense than giving drugs to an addict. It will postpone the pain of withdrawal for awhile, but it does not help solve the long-term problem. Next year, the habit will be bigger, more expensive, and harder to kick.
As a long-term transit solution, the private automobile is simply not sustainable. At least not in a large, growing city like Seattle. I realize that we are not Manhattan, or even Chicago, but Seattle’s core is dense and popular enough to support $4/hour parking, a rate which exceeds either of the aforementioned cities.
Given its isthmus geography, Seattle cannot support new surface roads. This is why our newest roads are being built over water or underground at great expense to everyone. We have no place left to put them.
What happens in 40 years, though? What happens when we need yet more roads to curb the newest gridlock problem? Do we build another tunnel? Another bridge? Do we follow the lead of Los Angeles who built road after road, yet still has freeways masquerading as parking lots?
Let’s face it, if road building could solve traffic problems, then Los Angeles would have the shortest commute times in the world. It doesn’t, though, and the reason it doesn’t is because it devoted the majority of its transit infrastructure to the personal automobile.
Now, I realize that Seattle has a very large number of California transplants, especially in our suburbs and outlying neighborhoods. These same people complain about the weather 8 months out of the year because it’s too cloudy/wet/cold/whatever. With all due respect to these folks, I hate LA. Ditto for San Diego, Phoenix, Vegas, and every other southwestern US pseudo-city. Seattle is far too good for that kind of endless sprawl which is perpetuated by moneyed special interests and the politicians who love them.
Instead of pouring dollar-after-dollar into transit projects that we know will eventually end in gridlock, we need to put those resources into alternate projects. Be that bicycle infrastructure, an emphasis on motorized two-wheelers, pedestrian projects, more ferries, more buses, or more trains, we simply need to allocate the $2 billion in tunnel funds to something more sustainable.
What of the drivers, though? What happens to them if we don’t build the tunnel? Will Seattle die off due to mass abandonment by drivers who crave more accomodation?
It seems unlikely. After all, parking has doubled in the last two months and it’s still hard to find street parking in many inner areas. I-5 is still congested, as is every Downtown street during rush hour.
For the sake of argument, however, let’s say that it happens. Let’s say that Californians, Texans, East Siders, and other suburban drivers get fed up with the city and decide to stay in their respective locales. What happens to Seattle?
You know, it’s hard to talk to long-time Seattle residents without hearing them opine about the old days. Simpler times, gentler times, and let’s face it — much, much cheaper times. It was easy to buy a house for a fair price, rents were affordable, and you could drive from one end of town to the other in 15 minutes … even in rush hour.
Even if wages were to decrease due to the abandonment of some corporate interests, the cost of living would inevitably follow, resulting in a return to a more stable, more local economy.
If you were to tell someone born in 1950’s Seattle that new residents would be driven away by the failure of the tunnel, those people might run down and strap themselves to the front of a bulldozer just to turn the fantasy into a reality.
So, this leaves the question. Who is the deep-bore tunnel for?
Is it for inner-Seattle residents? The residents of Downtown, Belltown, Pioneer Square, First Hill, Lower Queen Anne, and Western Capitol Hill? Probably not. Most of us don’t drive to work anyway, and those of us who do probably don’t take the Viaduct, which the tunnel would replace.
Is it for inner-Seattle businesses? Maybe. Then again, when potential customers are driving under you at 50Mph, how much money can they possibility spend at your store?
Is it for residents of Ballard and West Seattle? Possibly. Then again, these people live where they live because they actually like some distance between themselves and Downtown. Being able to get to or through Downtown in 20 minutes instead of 23 minutes is probably not worth $2 billion to the majority of them. Especially if they are going to be on the hook for cost overruns. These Seattleites probably wouldn’t mind if we shed a few residents either.
Is it for suburban dwellers? To some extent, probably. The majority of the recent anti-bike rhetoric comes from those who see bicycling as a foreign concept. An activity befitting only hippies and Europeans. In the suburbs, the automobile is the centerpiece of daily life. People drive to work, to school, to the store, to the park, and all points in between. This being the case, any money not spent on this mode of transit is frivolous and wasteful. $2 billion for an automobile tunnel, however, just makes good fiscal sense. A faster trip from SeaTac to Shoreline means less time commuting and more time at home. Who wouldn’t want that?
Is it for moneyed special interests? Of all of the possibilities considered, this one makes the most sense. Christine Gregoire wants a tunnel. I mean, she really, really wants a tunnel. How often does Gregoire drive through Downtown Seattle, though? The City Council wants a tunnel too. They really, really want a tunnel.
Why, though? Why do the politicians all desperately want a tunnel?
Do they think it will help inner-Seattle residents get to work? Are they that concerned about shaving three minutes off of a Ballard commute? What is the reasoning behind their passion for the tunnel?
Alas, all one needs to do in order to answer this question is to take a quick look at who else wants the tunnel. Go ahead, take a look for yourself:
Remember, these are just the groups that have agreed to be listed on the website. The list is by no means exhaustive. Even on an abbreviated list, however, you can still spot a large number of interest groups. Were you to dig a little deeper, I believe you would find that most of these groups donate to political candidates, and the more money they make, they more money they give.
In my opinion, we now know why our elected officials want the tunnel.
What of the average Seattle resident, though? Do we want the tunnel?
I don’t know the answer to this question. I can’t even hazard a guess. I do know that tunnel supporters tried to deny us a vote, which means that there is at least a chance that we don’t want it.
I know that, between now and August, these same people will do everything possible to convince us that we need one. They will flood newspaper comment sections with insults about our Mayor (McSchwinn anyone?), they will take their campaign to Wikipedia, and they will fan the flames of a supposed “car vs. bike war” in every media outlet that will have them. Since big donors tend to be big advertisers as well, they will certainly have no shortage of press.
Despite their efforts, I will vote “no” anyway.
For the reasons given above, I hope you vote “no” as well.
Thank you for listening.
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