April 20, 2011 at 4:16 PM

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Forget the tunnel and reduce driving instead, Seattle report suggests

Posted by Mike Lindblom

The Seattle Department of Transportation has just released part of a new report by San Francisco-based consulting group Nelson Nygaard, about how to deal with spillover traffic if more than 40,000 daily motorists avoid a tolled Highway 99 tunnel. Mayor Mike McGinn, who opposes the project, said during a fall debate he was requesting the report.

The consultants restate a case for using surface streets, transit and Interstate 5 to replace the 58-year-old Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Their views include:

  • High rush-hour peaks suggest Seattle can replace the Viaduct with enough road to just serve mid-day demand, similar to a four-lane arterial. Commuters, a "captive market," are seen by the city as less valuable than shopping or freight deliveries. About 15,000 commute trips could be avoided through transit or "demand management" incentives, which typically include things like flexible hours, four-day workweeks or telecommuting.

  • Reducing road lanes would generate "reverse induced demand" -- people would adapt and drive less. Cities such as Vancouver, New York, Chicago and San Francisco that accept congestion, and invest in transit, cycling and walking, "have among the most vital urban centers in North America."

  • "Highway ramps are a primary cause of surface street traffic congestion in Seattle." Just as I-5 users queue on downtown streets, similar backups would afflict the Pioneer Square and South Lake Union neighborhoods at the tunnel ends.

Only the executive summary, not any detailed chapters on traffic solutions, was released Wednesday. The full report will be published Thursday, said the Seattle Department of Transportation.

The report already sparked some political infighting. In a letter to the City Council, Seattle DOT Director Peter Hahn says the state canceled meetings in March to discuss the findings from Nelson Nygaard. So Hahn is now releasing them to the Council and public.

"At this point, we are concerned that SDOT's role in reviewing and commenting on the [Highway 99 environmental impact statement] may have been terminated, or at least, significantly curtailed," Hahn's letter says. Last year McGinn resisted being an official "co-lead" with the state -- but now the state seems to be shunning a city request.

The state has signed a $1.4 billion contract in hopes of breaking ground in September. The tunnel project is backed by eight of nine City Council members, who contend that surface options would cause intolerable jams along the waterfront and nearby streets.

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