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Originally published April 21, 2011 at 9:32 PM | Page modified April 21, 2011 at 10:18 PM

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Tunnel report suggests more tolling around region

Tolls on a future Highway 99 tunnel would cause so many drivers to instead choke downtown Seattle streets that a solution just might require regional tolling, concludes a new report for the city's transportation department, which also recommends fully studying the surface-transit option promoted by Mayor Mike McGinn.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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Tolls on a future Highway 99 tunnel would push so many drivers onto downtown Seattle streets that regionwide tolling might be needed to keep them using the tunnel, according to a new report for the city's transportation department.

But the consultants from Nelson/Nygaard are really pushing for a political upheaval leading to some combination of surface streets, more transit, Interstate 5 — and less driving — instead of the new highway planned to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

The tunnel was approved by both the City Council and state Legislature in 2009 and has the support of eight of nine current City Council members. But that hasn't stopped the debate, with Mayor Mike McGinn pressing his opposition to the tunnel. He ordered the new study last fall to look at the traffic impacts of the tunnel.

"Thirty years ago, the idea that smoking in bars and public buildings would be banned, and we would recycle over 50 percent of our waste, would be dismissed as fantasy. Today, many people find it similarly difficult to conceive of a future with less driving or different preferences for personal mobility," said the report, issued Thursday.

Nelson/Nygaard says the so-called surface-transit option, favored by McGinn, wasn't really given a fair shake in state studies. Instead, the state compared the tunnel to either a "no build" option or an unpopular six-lane roadway that would turn quiet Western Avenue into a three-lane northbound route near historic Pike Place Market.

A fresh analysis might add 16 to 30 months to environmental studies, the report says.

That sort of delay would surely infuriate highway supporters, some 10 years after the Nisqually earthquake weakened the Viaduct.

If the will exists, a surface-transit alternative could be delivered by 2015, same as the tunnel timetable, the report says. "However, this would require a significant change in direction and consensus support from agency leadership," says the report from the San Francisco firm.

Gov. Chris Gregoire chose the tunnel option in early 2009. By then, more than $300 million in taxpayer funds had already been spent for engineering studies, administration, publicity and real estate.

Washington state Department of Transportation has signed a $1.4 billion tunnel contract with an international consortium to break ground on the tunnel in September. But first, an environmental-impact statement must be completed.

The entire viaduct replacement, including a big Sodo interchange and new waterfront roads, is worth $3.1 billion, not including a new sea wall, utility lines and parks.

Two anti-tunnel ballot measures have enough signatures to go to voters but will be challenged by City Attorney Pete Holmes and tunnel supporters in court next month.

Nelson/Nygaard points out that the state already tolls several highways, including the carpool lanes of Highway 167 and the eastbound Tacoma Narrows Bridge. It will toll the entire Highway 520 floating bridge this summer, plans for high-occupancy or toll (HOT) lanes on Interstate 405, and is talking of tolling Interstate 90.

The state's own studies predict that more than 40,000 drivers, perhaps 50,000, would take other streets instead of paying $1 to $4 to drive Highway 99 depending on the time of day.

The new report doesn't go in-depth about the idea of regional tolling, nor does it say specifically how it might work, which roads might be tolled or how much tolls would cost.

The pro-tunnel campaign immediately argued that the findings were crafted to fit McGinn's agenda. On Wednesday, the city had released a report summary suggesting a four-lane arterial would be sufficient to replace the viaduct, if leaders could shift peak commuter trips to transit, or by shifting workplace schedules or locations.

"I think what you see in the report that went out [Wednesday] is a philosophical document, a world view, an ideology," said Alex Fryer, spokesman for the pro-tunnel Let's Move Forward campaign.

That campaign points to a January meeting of City Council, during which Nelson/Nygaard executive Tim Payne reported that without a tunnel, there could be twice as many cars on downtown streets, based on state models.

"He made a pretty strong showing [that] a surface option would be much worse," said Councilman Tom Rasmussen. In particular, Rasmussen worries about thousands of trips pushed east of I-5 to places like First Hill.

City emails, obtained by Let's Move Forward through a public-records request, show Seattle DOT Director Peter Hahn requesting in January that Nelson/Nygaard "explain this more thoroughly and avoid the facile conclusion that surface option is twice as bad as the worst [Highway 99 toll] diversion case."

Hahn also acknowledges that to some extent, "there was going to be more traffic on city streets with the surface option — it's not like I-5 and huge transit were going to make it all disappear."

But the final report is optimistic that at least 15,000 car trips can be eliminated through better transit and commute-reduction incentives. Nelson/Nygaard suggests a $100 ORCA transit-card subsidy per month for downtown workers and the addition of bus-rapid-transit lines for the Delridge and Lake City areas in addition to three westside routes already planned.

"We know it requires transit," said Rasmussen of the tunnel program. "We're already working for more transit in Olympia now."

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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