Our Own Big Dig
This cautionary tale about waterfront tunnels, written by Boston urban designer Thomas Oles, ran in this month’s Belltown Messenger. In it, Oles convincingly compares Seattle’s proposed Alaskan Way Viaduct tunnel to Boston’s disastrous Big Dig, noting that the transportation engineers who designed that monstrously expensive (and notoriously leaky) waterfront tunnel have recently acknowledged that “tunnels-surprise-will do nothing to reduce congestion, that traffic has already reached the levels predicted for the end of the decade.”
Now I learn that what I fled in Boston is about to happen in Seattle, even involving some of the same actors. And cost overruns, graft, and faulty construction in Boston? Not to worry, right?-these are the products of corrupt East Coast political machines, of politicians with Italian names and friends who can get your legs broken. This is so much feel-good, back-patting Northwest pabulum: Large tunnel projects invite corruption and almost always run over budget and past completion date, and our local politicians are just as corrupt even if their personal style is more yoga-and-hiking-boots. To an ignorant observer it might seem the viaduct proposal is designed to assure that the project fails as spectacularly as possible while giving the most meager public benefit, continuing the proud lineage of transportation debacles-the bus tunnel, Sound Transit, and the Monorail-in Seattle over the last two decades.
In many ways the tunnel, with road capacity not at issue, is even more egregious than the Central Artery Tunnel: For the sake of 100,000 cars that could be carried on a series of large city streets or a shoreline boulevard like the universally admired Passeig de Colom in Barcelona, the Viaduct “solution” will create a 180-foot-wide new rip in the city at its south end in Pioneer Square, as well as leaving a piece of elevated expressway-historic preservation Seattle-style?-for tourists at the Pike Place Market.
In the face of all their obvious shortcomings, there must be some other reason why officials and planners love tunnels-and, for that matter, subterranean parking. Really. it is not a matter of faster trips to the airport, or more cars, or greenbelts, or any of the rest of it. What tunnels do for us is this: They mask the physical and moral ugliness of what Margaret Thatcher called the “Great Car Society” by pandering to our nostalgia, by sustaining our illusions of urban cleanliness and order. They are like the modern toilet designed to let us forget that we shit.