Opinion

Is Seattle’s Big Bore a budget-buster? | OPINION

My pet traffic-peeves are getting out of Marysville and getting through Seattle. Planners claim that replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel will help relieve the Seattle issue, though at an astronomical cost. Something has to be done, as any traveler of the Viaduct will confirm. We can only hope that with the economy in a slump, the State and Feds will be able to come through with expected support.

Financial commitments, like for the high-priced tunnel, are hatched in good times. Take demolition of the King Dome — which was flattened to leave citizens holding the bill for twenty years of remaining mortgage payments. Two votes of the people had said, “Don’t do it!” But with city coffers gorged on happy-times revenues, planners were too busy hatching grandiose schemes to listen to the people.

As things stand, Seattle lacks resources to plug potholes or maintain parks. Yet Mayor McGinn and the Council are poised to go ahead with the Big Bore, at a total project cost of about $4.2 billion the most expensive option for replacing the shaky Alaskan Way Viaduct. The project was sold to Olympia during a cheerier economic backdrop that reflected the old tune, “On a clear day you can see forever.”

Monster projects normally reach fruition after their sponsors leave office. The bills, however, end up in the same hands. Ours. So it’s reasonable to wonder if circumstances of these times might militate against completion of the tunnel project. With every budget line-iem on the table in D.C., funding is uncertain, even with Washington’s Senator Patty Murray co-chairing the federal budget axe. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Today’s realities should enable us to look at past pork-projects with a fresh eye. Everett’s naval base is nice and its architecture is attractive. But is it affordable over the long pull? Just asking that question sets vocal patriots’ teeth on edge, except for we geezer-vets who lived out our enlistments in un-fancy barracks and Quonsets that served up through the 1980s. Recall that the existing Bremerton Naval Yard was rejected though it was a qualified contender for the carrier port. Then ask, are appropriations for foreign wars more important than funding for education, medical care and mass transit? We need to get our priorities straight.

Planners of the Big Bore had at least three options, limited access surface lanes, stacked lanes similar to the present viaduct and a tunnel. They picked the most expensive option with reason. Its big advantage is that it leaves part of a valuable two-mile strip of Seattle’s surface available for commercial development. Some claimed that surface traffic might still roll through the zone with underground construction underway (doubtful). Seattleites’ views of Elliot Bay wouldn’t be compromised by elevated roadways. But when you get right down to what tipped the balance toward tunneling, near the top was powerful backing that counted on cashing in on holdings that will benefit from the tunnel plan.

On the downside, travelers’ impression of Seattle will be limited to the walls of a two-mile burrow, not an exhilarating view of Elliott Bay. When I was very little, my family passed through Seattle just before the last fleet of square-riggers was removed from Union Bay. I’ll never forget looking down on those soon-to-be ghosts of the era of sail. What a sight! Harbors with ships coming and going are meant to be seen, not just used.

Tunneling brings up some undeniable issues. Aside from the extreme ends, introducing access and egress lanes is challenging. Though planners claim that a tunnel would offer more seismic security, a really big shake could misalign sections of the tunnel rendering the entire thing useless. Remember, the tunnel will lie below water level.

Four, or even three years ago, planners thought they were on safe ground opting for the Big Bore but economic conditions have changed enough to call for a reappraisal. Of $4.2 billion needed, $2.8 billion in the tunnel budget is supposed to come from federal and state coffers. Given current line-item slashing at those levels, smart money is betting that the tunnel project is going to come up short by at least that $2.8 billion.

Nevertheless, engineering is largely complete. Japan’s Hitachi-Zosen has been chosen to supply the boring machine. The commitment of people in high places is firm enough to launch the project against a daunting budgetary climate of smoke and mirrors. The Big-Bore option, at least at it’s beginning, is a done deal. Except paying for it.

It became too late to pull the plug when a wrecking machine tore into a ramp in south Seattle on Friday, Aug. 12, marking the beginning of the end for the Alaskan Way Viaduct. But at least planners showed they have their priorities straight in announcing the patching-in of a temporary ramp to avoid disruptions during baseball season.

Comments may be addressed to robertgraef@comcast.net.

 

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