While recent events have toned down the civic debate about the tunnel – mayoral candidate Mike McGinn conceded he won’t try to block it if elected, while his opponent, Joe Mallahan, has supported the tunnel all along — it’s still not yet a resolved issue. And I have become ever more convinced that if no tunnel were dug that the virtual elimination of this important highway corridor through our city would be disastrous.
My two main areas of greatest concern relate to economic vitality and the street-level environment.
Historically and globally speaking, all major economic powerhouses are located at key crossroads or transportation convergence points, be they waterways, railroads, highways or a combination. Seattle is a textbook example of this phenomenon. No one can deny that the roots of Seattle’s historic economic success story lie in its pivotal location. Whether going back to 1851 when the founders realized that Elliott Bay was a potentially new “New York Harbor” for the West Coast, or returning to 2009 with Seattle as the midpoint of a north-south, over 100-mile-long metropolitan area, our city’s location has been a preeminent determinant in making it the center of one of the most prosperous and economically viable metropolitan areas in the country.
In short, transportation is a key attribute to any economically viable region, yet our region’s traffic congestion has begun to hinder our economic viability. Seattle-area traffic congestion ranked ninth worst in the nation last year, while we ranked only 15th in population. Freight mobility has become a key issue for the region’s industrial sector..
Let’s face it. No one has a crystal ball here – neither the dyed-in-the-wool surface-streets supporters, nor the diehard tunnel supporters. Those in favor a streets-only solution believe that the consequent reduced capacity and increased congestion will somehow naturally regulate the traffic flow, weeding out that percentage of current motorists who could switch to transit and/or choose alternative routes or times. Those of us in favor of the tunnel worry that the resulting traffic congestion and increased travel times may severely hamper our economic vitality. The questions that occur to me as I contemplate the notion of severing one of our region’s transportation lifelines at the downtown Seattle choke point are the following:
· If surface-street traffic congestion were to reach day-long gridlock conditions, as I fear, what ultimate effect would that have on freight mobility and the general movement of goods and services that serve our economic vitality?
· In the face of a future of endless gridlock along the erstwhile Highway 99 corridor, would businesses related to the Port of Seattle and downtown Seattle locations, especially, seek other locations to base and/or conduct their business? Would they accelerate the tide of industrial business loss from Seattle to the suburbs?
· Would we gain the dubious distinction of becoming one the top-five worst metros for regional traffic congestion?
As an economic development professional, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fielded inquiries from folks about the region’s infamous traffic congestion, so I can’t even imagine the perception we’d receive with even worse traffic.
And lastly, even if the city’s or region’s economic vitality would not be at any peril, the urban designer in me shivers at the potential future of downtown’s pedestrian environment with the majority of Highway 99’s vehicle traffic dumped onto our surface streets. Today, especially in the p.m. peak hour(s), First, Fourth and Fifth avenues are at virtual gridlock. And some of the steep side streets (especially where the larger office buildings are located) are even worse. It’s not uncommon to see vehicles wait through several full traffic-light cycles before advancing through a single intersection. Does anyone really think these streets can handle the majority of the existing Highway 99 traffic volumes?
I do not profess to know of all of the potential “enhancements” contemplated to accommodate this additional vehicle traffic, but the list may include the following: elimination of parking lanes, greater use of left (and even right) turn prohibitions, reduction in general-purpose lanes, and even, as Mayor Giuliani did in New York, prohibition of pedestrian crossings at key right-turn locations for vehicle traffic.
Even if these “enhancements” could somehow accommodate Highway 99’s traffic, my greatest fear would be the impact to pedestrians, including valuable shoppers, visitors and tourists!
Without curbside parking, pedestrians would no longer be “sheltered” from the impacts of passing vehicles (fumes, noise, splashing, even wind and vibration from larger trucks and buses). With multihour-long gridlock conditions, the cacophony of horns, screeching brakes, together with the fumes and odors of idling vehicles (especially diesel vehicles), would sharply sour the pedestrian’s street-side experience. Pedestrian street crossing could be hampered. Increased pedestrian-vehicle and pedestrian-bicycle collisions could ensue. In summary, I’m quite worried that downtown Seattle would increasingly be shunned by any discretionary visitors (shoppers, tourists, day trippers), losing both its charm, character and economic vitality.
The tunnel opponents don’t want increased traffic on our streets either. But they are willing to risk the potential traffic and pedestrian impacts that I and others fear as a hedge against their greater fear of the tunnel’s cost and potential cost overruns.
We tunnel supporters, fully recognizing that the current proposal is not perfect, fear the impacts to our environment and our economy more than we fear the cost and potential cost overruns. In fact, I would posit that the potential, permanent adverse economic impacts related to lost business if we do not build a tunnel would more than outstrip the one-time costs of the tunnel.