Final Analysis: Tunnel Vision


Is it possible for road traffic to decline over a period of time and driver frustration to go up during that same period? As we used to say in Ballard before it went from quaint Scandinavian enclave to architecturally bankrupt sanctuary of the condo/apartment overlords, “Ya sure, you betcha.” The Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based nonprofit whose mission is “to make the Northwest a global model of sustainability,” reports that traffic has been steadily dropping in Seattle for the better part of the past decade while transit ridership has risen dramatically. Sightline uses this information to buttress its argument that Seattle doesn’t need a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and that we would all be just fine making do on existing surface streets.

Clearly, no staffers from Sightline were driving, busing, walking or biking in downtown Seattle during the afternoon rush hour on June 10. That was the day the Earth stood still. Nothing moved. Because of a serious traffic accident on Highway 99 south of the West Seattle Bridge, police thought it prudent to detour traffic away from the scene for several hours. The best way to do that, they thought, was to shut down the Battery Street tunnel about four miles north of the accident scene. This measure diverted Highway 99 traffic either to I-5, already clogged with commuter traffic, or onto surface streets.

These things happen with some regularity, accident or no accident. On June 21, the scheduled closure of the 520 bridge and part of the viaduct conspired with several major events in town to create another still life of Seattle transportation. Anyone who drives to and from downtown Seattle knows from these events that surface streets are completely, irretrievably and astonishingly inadequate when either I-5 or Highway 99 is compromised. The June 10 and 21 fiascos simply reaffirmed this reality.

To suggest that the viaduct need not be replaced with another highway, and that surface streets are fully capable of handling the traffic that normally flows along Highway 99, is foolish and irresponsible in the extreme.

This is not to say a tunnel is our only option. True, it’s the option we seem to be stuck with, assuming Bertha, the broken boring machine, can be fixed. Absent a tunnel or a bonafide light-rail system in Seattle, we need an alternative to I-5. Otherwise, traffic paralysis will be an everyday treat. Even with a tunnel, many motorists will avoid tolls by using surface streets. Any realist behind the wheel knows the carmageddon that will ensue.

It’s important to remember that a good chunk of the decline in Seattle vehicle traffic — and the uptick in transit ridership — occurred during a serious recession. It’s what you would expect. At the same time, commute times for motorists have gotten longer, even with fewer cars on the road, because Seattle has catered to transit vehicles by creating more HOV lanes on city streets. When I’m riding a bus to work, I love those lanes. When I’m in my car, not so much, because what used to be accommodated in three lanes is being squeezed into two.

Shopowners and other businesses love it when motorists use surface streets. Shopowners and other businesses also hate it when too many motorists use surface streets, because if drivers know a certain area is likely to be clogged, they’ll avoid it like a kid avoids Brussels sprouts. And don’t get me started on the productivity issues arising from employees getting nothing done because they’re going nowhere fast. 

Clark Williams-Derry, deputy director of the Sightline Institute, has written that the traffic numbers “paint a compelling picture” of a revolution in slow motion.

“Slow motion” is the key term here. I wonder how many of us will miss the revolution’s victory party because we’re stuck in traffic. 

John Levesque is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine.

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