This guest post is by Scott Bernstein, chairman of the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership and a board member for the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.
In 1976 a colleague at Northwestern University returned from Seattle with a tome marked “Seattle 1990.” It was your utility’s analysis of alternative energy futures, first-ever for a city. It asked, rather than a multi-billion dollar expansion of the Washington Public Power System, why not help energy-users reduce their demand? Your Council voted on 7/12/76 to pull of the plug on WPPS. Council Member John Miller proclaimed, "The heart of the matter can be stated in two sentences. It costs too much. And we don't need it."
That decision put Seattle on-the-road to a sustainable future, saving billions of dollars and launching a set of high-wage, low-waste industries that are the envy of the world. It also inspired Americans across the country to follow a similar path (including me).
Then in 2001, the Nisqually Earthquake shook the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and leaders had to decide whether to rebuild, replace with a tunnel, or downsize the waterfront artery into a normal urban street with boosted transit and street connectivity improvements. After years of arguing, your governor, mayor and county executive agreed to choose a sensible solution together. Those of us watching from afar are dismayed to see the tunnel is on the table, and the surface/transit option is not. A tunnel doesn’t give Seattle what it deserves, and you still have a choice. Here’s why:
First, the tunnel proponents project growing traffic, but all measures show traffic declining. At the metropolitan level, the Federal Highway Administration shows a 13 percent decline in daily vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) per capita, from 25.5 in 2000, to 22.1 in 2008. In King County, total annual on-road VMT per-household dropped 11 percent from 2000 to 2009. And Seattle DOT finds daily traffic in Seattle dropped 6.25 percent from 2000 to 2009, despite growing population; the net effect is 14 percent decline per capita.
Second, proponents state that economic growth requires new capacity, but growth occurred in the face of declining traffic. From 2000 to 2009, Seattle Gross Metropolitan Product per-household rose from $125,208 to $142,419, a net increase of 14 percent.
Your region is producing more while driving less, which is the right path to economic sustainability. One reason this works is that a large fraction of people in Seattle and King County enjoy urban form—small block sizes, high density of intersections per square mile—and location efficiency, meaning the accessibility that results from proximity, connectivity and choices in how to get around.
As good as the economy is to you, it could be even better—and it needs to be.
From 1999 to 2009, household income increased $1,108 per month, but combined housing and transportation costs increased by $808, leaving the average citizen just $300 to pay for increased food, medical, retirement, and loan expenses.
Driving is becoming increasing unaffordable for more and more people. In your region the price of gas rose from $1.71/gallon in June 2000 to $3.89 currently. Apparently two-thirds of viaduct travelers would take other routes to avoid the proposed toll on the tunnel.
Now more than ever, it’s essential that metro regions focus on affordability, which they can do by increasing transportation choice, and providing more local street connectivity, and supporting compact neighborhoods.
Spending an extra billion in the opposite direction doesn’t make sense.
Third, government performance + public support +investment outcomes go hand-in-hand. A decade of polls tracking reasons why people vote to tax themselves for local improvements reveals that citizens want a deal that delivers and an implementer they can trust. Polls recently released by Hart Research for the Rockefeller Foundation and by Fairbank Maslin Maullin & Metz Public Opinion Research & Strategy find declining support for projects implemented by state and federal agencies, compared to support for implemented by local and regional projects. This is a principle reason why 80 percent of local ballot initiatives for transportation pass. And it’s not just any old transportation that wins; overwhelmingly, these referenda are aimed at funding mass transportation and local street improvements. There was a reason that the votes were “no” and “no” in the 2007 vote on the viaduct and tunnel.
Fourth, the tunnel costs an extra $1 billion for no additional return. Given competing uses for funds, is spending an extra billion really worth it?
The positive economic impact of viaduct removal and waterfront redevelopment there will be the same, with surface/transit or the bored tunnel.
The surface/transit option probably does better by the metric of property value creation, which occurs when both local and regional accessibility to jobs and activity centers increases. The surface boulevard has more connectivity (more intersections compared to the sparse number of connections to an underground expressway) and more transit connectivity, whether by bus, electric bus or street railway. It therefore adds more value to existing properties in urban neighborhoods.
Job creation for the bored tunnel is questionable at best. A recent federal study compares impacts of stimulus spending in Washington using WSDOT data. It shows that of $625 million stimulus funds apportioned to the state for transportation, 9,459 jobs were supported by $490 million for highways. Another 6,083 were supported by $135 million in transit investment. Note that the transit investments supported 2.33 times as many jobs per dollar expended. More importantly, these numbers put the proposed 480 jobs for tunnel construction to shame.
Fifth, you don’t want to lose your world-class reputation for addressing energy and climate change. WSDOT’s proposed tunnel enables growth in car traffic while degrading transit access. Deciding to privilege bypass capacity over transit and local access would damage the reputation earned by your region. Sixty percent of your city’s greenhouse gas emissions come from tailpipes; this means reducing VMT is key to meeting your climate and energy goals. Seattle has the attention of national & international scorekeepers, who don’t look kindly on a region that spends scarce dollars to support more traffic.
Seattle was the first city in the country to require citizen participation in local planning; to take traffic-calming to scale; to have a free downtown transit zone. Choosing the surface option now is an investment that will pay dividends well into the 21st century. Green-light the surface, red-light the tunnel.