The deep bore tunnel will do what?!?

In case you haven’t had the opportunity to read any of the articles highlighting WSDOT’s data from the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) (herehere,here and so on), we’ll provide our own “brief” take of the recently released FEIS with an emphasis on why the bored-tunnel project doesn’t improve conditions for bicyclists – hence our position on Referendum 1.  More specifically, I will illustrate how the bored-tunnel makes bicycling less safe and desirable in Seattle, reduces transit performance, puts more traffic on Seattle’s waterfront, and at $3+ billion, makes investments in bicycling, walking and transit and unlikely reality. But before we get into the wonky data, let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

Get a cup of coffee and read on.

The bigger picture

One of the primary goals of the Alaskan Way Viaduct project, as stated in the FEIS, is to provide capacity for automobiles, freight, and transit to efficiently move people and goods to and through downtown Seattle. Meanwhile, the entire Introduction Chapter makes no mention of nonmotorized modes of transportation – and upon further examination of the data related to the preferred alternative (bored-tunnel), it is clear that this is not a project that aligns with Seattle’s vision of becoming an environmentally sustainable and less car-dependent city. Here are a few examples of Seattle’s commitment to these concepts:

Since motor vehicle emissions are the single largest source of climate pollution in Seattle, the City must do even more to provide climate friendly transportation choices such as public transit, biking and walking— and to encourage greater use of those alternatives.  Seattle Climate Action Plan (2006)

“The Comprehensive Plan calls for Seattle to continue to be a national leader in environmental  stewardship.” Seattle Comprehensive Plan

“The vision of the Pedestrian Master Plan is to make Seattle the most walkable city in the nation, and the plan includes four goals to meet that vision.” Seattle Pedestrian Master Plan

Unfortunately, the Alaskan Way Viaduct project is about capacity – capacity for automobiles.  And while Cascade is not inherently opposed to providing automobile capacity, we are opposed to projects that make conditions worse for bicycling, walking and taking transit and ultimately less desirable than driving a car.

The even bigger picture

Can someone remind me why Seattle is even considering rebuilding an urban freeway in an age of global warming and severe public health crises (mostly linked to physical inactivity)?  What makes Seattle so unique that we can’t follow some of the other national and international leaders in demolishing an urban freeway and replacing it with aggressive Transportation Demand Management (TDM) strategies and investments in bicycling, walking and transit?  The reality is that Seattle isn’t thatunique – we canfollow San Francisco, New York, Portland and Seoul – and like the others, we would live (and probably longer) to tell about it.

Case study snapshot

  • Embarcadero, San Francisco: The urban freeway that once carried 60,000 vehicles per day was torn down and replaced by a surface boulevard designed as a Complete Street. A streetcar line runs along the Embarcadero serving more than 20,000 people per day and bike lanes provide dedicated space for cyclists with signals timed for a bicyclist speed. Today’s Embarcadero carriers 26,000 cars per day.  Overall, the impacts of this freeway removal were positive: San Francisco’s tourism industry grew significantly, transit ridership increased and traffic volumes decreased. (View Streetfilms Here)
  • Seoul, South Korea: The Cheonggye Expressway, which traveled through the city center and carried approximately 168,000 cars per day, was demolished and replaced with a 3.6-mile linear park and a stream that was brought back to life.  The park is bordered by new two-lane and one way streets.  During the 15 months after the park was opened, it experienced 90,000 visitors per day. (Read Grist's coverage)
  • The Big Dig, Boston: In Boston, the Central Artery served more than 200,000 cars per day.  The elevated freeway was demolished and replaced with an underground freeway (much like Seattle is about to do), at a cost of $15 billion, 3 times over budget.  The high cost of the tunnel resulted in the elimination of some of the planned mobility improvements, including a new rapid bus line.

These case studies are further explained in the City of Seattle’s Urban Mobility plan here.  In reference to the “Big Dig” project, the report states “In some ways, Bostonians were asked to make a choice between freeway capacity and increases in non-auto travel.”  My question to this is, what choice does Seattle want to make?

I would prefer my future grandchildren not to look back on our generation and say, "What were they thinking?  Seattle had a golden opportunity to transform the city and instead they reverted back to a line of thinking that was prominent in the 1950’s. What a disappointment."

In Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan, the ancient Native American proverb Every decision must take into account its effect on the next seven generationswas used to describe the City’s commitment to sustainability.  Unfortunately, this vision is not reflected in the preferred Alaskan Way Viaduct alternative (the deep bored-tunnel). Building and burying and urban freeway with the capacity to carry nearly 100,000 vehicles per day will take us drastically off course from this sustainable vision. We are long-past an era of building mega–highways; it’s time to focus our priorities on encouraging sustainable modes of transportation, rather than continuing to facilitate automobile-dependency. It’s time for Seattle to be the leader it has touted itself as, a leader in sustainability, climate protection, social justice and transportation choices.

There are two key arguments of the Let’s Move Forward campaign that continue to rise to the surface:

  1. The bored-tunnel project is funded
  2. The project has been debated for long enough – AKA, let’s move forward!

From my perspective (and I imagine some can agree), these arguments have nothing to do with the implications of the project itself.  It’s basically saying, “we don’t care what the data says, let’s just build it already.”  Are these really the right reasons for investing several billion dollars in a project that does not align with our future vision for the city of Seattle? Of course we have to address the potential for earthquake damage, but let’s not force a tunnel though the heart of Seattle just to do something or because we’ve talked about it long enough. Let’s step back and think about the real implications of this project.  For this, our best bet is the objective data we have at our fingertips:  WSDOT’s FEIS.

Let’s talk data

As you’ve probably heard, the numbers are in.  Now granted, nobody wants to bet their life on a traffic model, but it’s the best we have.  Otherwise, we subject ourselves to the… “I just think” statements.  For instance, “I just think traffic is going to be really bad downtown.”  Hmmm, well if we want to take that route, then I would say, “I just think we should rely on something objective if we’re going to spend several billion dollars on it.”  Ok, moving on.

So, we will use the state’s own traffic projections to support our position.  Unfortunately, the state did not analyze the Surface/Transit/I5 option (but Dan Bertolet did) and therefore we can’t compare this option with the deep-bored tunnel using the state’s data.  However, the state did analyze a “no-build” alternative.  By “no-build” I mean, tear the viaduct down and do absolutely nothing.  While I can’t say for sure, I think most people would agree that by improving transit, efficiency and capacity on I-5, and surface streets, the outcomes would be far better than the ‘no-build’ option.  But because we don’t have the data to make that claim, we’ll just focus on the deep-bored tunnel vs. the no-build.

We will also use the data from the tolled deep-bored tunnel, as this is how the state has committed to funding the project.  We can assume that tolls will be around $8-9 for a roundtrip during peak commute hours.  To put this into perspective, let’s say you are a daily commuter who would like to use the bored-tunnel – are you ready to commit over $2,000 to it every year?  Doubtful. As a result, the State estimates that there will be 36,000 less vehicles a day using the bored-tunnel than in a non-tolled scenario. While some of these vehicles and trips will dissipate or travel at different times, a significant percentage is projected to divert to the streets of downtown Seattle.

Quote from FEIS: “Vehicles would divert from SR 99 when tolling is implemented.  For example, diversion from SR 99 under the Bored Tunnel Alternative with tolling is forecasted to be approximately 39 percent of daily vehicles compared to the Bored Tunnel Alternative without tolling.”

What does this mean for bicyclists?

The chart to the right illustrates several data points – all taken from the FEIS.  The two key takeaways from this graph are this: (1) In the tolled bored-tunnel scenario, traffic volumes in 2030 will be higher than they are today and higher than in the viaduct closed scenario (at the count locations selected by the state, comprised of SR 99, I-5 and local streets); and (2) In the tolled bored-tunnel scenario, vehicle volumes on SR 99 will be substantially lower in 2030 than they are today.  For instance along the central waterfront section of SR 99, vehicle volumes are projected to be 57,100 as compared to today’s value of 98,500. What does this mean?  Well, by doing some quick calculations, we see that with the tolled bored tunnel alternative, there will 15 percent more vehicles (57,000 per day) than today on city streets and I-5 passing through Seneca St.

In other words, in the tolled bored-tunnel scenario, the number of vehicles using city streets will be substantially higher than it is today, which will negatively impact bicyclists.

Let’s look at it from another perspective: Intersections.

Intersections are the number one safety threat to bicyclists given the increased potential for conflict.  And simply put, as more cars travel through intersections, the less safe those intersections become for bicyclists. The state’s FEIS reported the intersections that are currently congested during the peak hours (see image to the right).  The State then projected the changes at the intersection-level in terms of congestion in 2030.  The following image shows the change between 2015 and 2030 in congestion levels at intersections given a tolled bored-tunnel scenario.  This is overlayed on the bicycle route map that was included in the FEIS (which fails to include some of the existing bike routes).   In addition to the increases in congestion along bike routes, there will be increases in congestion throughout the downtown core –making bicycling and less safe and desirable mode of transportation.

Quote from the FEIS:Under all three build alternatives, tolling would affect the level of service (LOS) at selected intersections in the project area.  Some ramp volumes are expected to increase.  As a result, key intersections along alternate routes are expected to experience increased delay.  Traffic volumes on alternate routes, including Alaskan Way, Second Avenue, and Fourth Avenue, are expected to experience the greatest increase, although the increase would vary with the alternative.

…The Bored Tunnel Alternative (tolled) is expected to result in increased delay at more intersections in the north area than the central or south areas.  Of the 34 intersections reported, 19 would experience a change in delay; 15 intersections would experience increased delays due to tolling.

Comment: Unfortunately, Alaskan Way, Second Avenue and Fourth Avenue (the streets expected to experience the greatest increase in traffic volume) are the key bicycle routes through downtown Seattle.

But wait, I thought Alaskan Way was supposed to be a bike-friendly street?  Won’t that be improved for bicycling?

Well, let’s take a look. For starters, in all scenarios analyzed in the FEIS, Alaskan Way will carry significantly more vehicles than it does today (more than double – see chart).

Quote from FEIS: If the build alternatives were tolled, daily vehicle volumes on Alaskan Way are expected to increase by several thousand vehicles per daycompared to the non-tolled build alternatives as drivers divert from SR 99 to avoid paying tolls.

…Under the Bored Tunnel Alternative, Alaskan Way is expected to carry more vehicles than it would under the other alternatives because it would be the primary access route from SR 99 into downtown from the south, and it would accommodate traffic to 15th Avenue via Elliott and Western Avenues.  Direct access to Elliott and Western Avenues would not be provided under the Bored Tunnel Alternative, which is expected to result in congestion along the roadway, particularly near the Seattle Ferry Terminal at Colman Dock, without further improvements to Alaskan Way.

Meanwhile, just closing the Viaduct would actually result in fewer cars along the central waterfront than in a tolled bored-tunnel scenario (see graph to right)! In other words, our waterfront street will not be any better off with the bored-tunnel, until you get south of King St., which is outside of the central waterfront project area.  Moreover, the bored-tunnel project includes no provisions for bicyclists on Alaskan Way.

Quote from FEIS: In the central waterfront area, the Tolled or Non-Tolled Cut-and-Cover Tunnel Alternative offers the most improved conditions for bicyclists due to the combination of removing the existing viaduct, adding dedicated bicycle lanes on the surface street, and providing a wider pedestrian/bicycle path than currently exists along the waterfront. The Tolled or Non-Tolled Bored Tunnel Alternative would also remove the viaduct, which would provide opportunities for improved bicycle conditions in the future; however, improvements to Alaskan Way along the central waterfront are not proposed as part of the Tolled or Non-Tolled Bored Tunnel Alternative and will be designed and implemented by the City as part of the broader Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall Replacement Program.

Well, given the $3+billion pricetag, the bored-tunnel must be better than doing nothing at all, right?

You’ve probably seen all the headlines stating that the bored-tunnel is essentially equivalent to tearing down the viaduct altogether – so we won’t focus too much time on that.  However here are a few additional key takeaways from the FEIS:

Quote from FEISExhibit 5-7 shows that vehicle volumes would be substantially lower across all three screenlines with the Viaduct Closed.

Comment: And?  Isn’t this a good thing?

Quote from FEIS: Among the alternatives, the Viaduct Closed would have the lowest VMT in the Seattle Center City. VMT is lowest with the Viaduct Closed because there would be less roadway capacity in Seattle.

Comment: again, isn’t this a good thing, reducing Vehicle Miles Traveled?  Actually, come to think of it, isn’t this a state law?

Last but not least, transit.  The bored tunnel will improve transit performance, right?  Not exactly…

Now granted, we are a bicycle organization.  But it goes without saying that bicycling and transit go hand in hand.  And further, if our streets are too congested to ride a bike, we sure hope transit will be a desirable alternative.  In addition to increased transit travel times, the deep bored- tunnel plan has no dedicated funding for transitimprovements.

Quote from the FEIS: Transit travel times are compared in Exhibit 5-32. If the build alternatives were tolled, slower transit travel times would be expected for transit traveling on Second Avenue, Fourth Avenue, and to and from West Seattle.

Comment: Keep in mind, the tunnel will be tolled.


From our perspective, which is largely based on the data from the FEIS, the bored-tunnel project does not offer a solution that improves conditions for bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users.  Of course neither does the “tear down and do nothing” approach, and this is not what we are advocating for.  We are advocating for a solution that moves Seattle in a sustainable direction and creates bicycle, pedestrian and transit-friendly communities.  The bored-tunnel project is an incredible cost which may come at the expense of improvements to other modes of transportation.  We encourage you to VOTE NO on the Referendum 1 – it’s time to stand up for the future of Seattle.