WA: Tunnel Debate Spills Into the Streets

July 26--Three weeks before Seattle's vote on the Highway 99 tunnel, the campaign has turned into a street fight about traffic outside the four-lane tube.

The tunnel-tolling concept, as portrayed in its environmental-impact statement, would cause severe traffic congestion on other roads -- some 40,000 to 45,000 cars a day as drivers dodge a cost of anywhere from $1 overnight to $5 in the southbound afternoon peak.

Anti-tunnel campaigners have gone so far as to argue, "The tunnel is no better for traffic than letting the viaduct fall down and doing nothing to replace it."

Highway 99 project Administrator Ron Paananen says that sound bite defies logic. A tunnel that can move 90,000 cars a day would be better for overall traffic than simply losing a highway, he said.

But he also acknowledges the toll rates need to come down so more drivers will use it. "The simplest way to reduce diversion is to reduce toll rates, reduce the amount of tolling, make it unattractive to use other routes," he said.

Ballots will be mailed to voters Wednesday for Referendum 1, for the Aug. 16 primary.

The measure asks voters to approve or reject a process clause in a Seattle ordinance, about how the pro-tunnel City Council gives notice to begin the construction phase of city-state agreements for utilities, right of way, design review and liability. In the event R-1 is rejected, the council majority can pass a new ordinance. But opponents hope a huge "rejected" majority will persuade government officials to halt the project.

The state has signed a construction contract to break ground on a $2 billion, 1.7-mile tunnel from Sodo to South Lake Union in September, to replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct by 2016.

The misery index

Highway 99 is unique because a toll road would replace an existing free highway. Not across some waterway or mountain pass, but next to other busy roads.

People aren't likely to pay tolls if there are convenient other routes. Traffic jams have to be lousy enough that folks will pay to bypass congestion.

Call this the "misery index."

Highway 99 traffic has barely changed in the last decade -- hovering around 110,000 daily trips near Seneca Street, or 63,000 through the Battery Street Tunnel.

The tunnel project, plus a widened Alaskan Way south of the ferry terminal, preserves similar overall capacity to the current viaduct, says Paananen. But high tolls could undo those benefits.

The state predicts that by 2030, about 57,000 cars would pass through the tunnel each day under the current proposed tolling plan, compared with 93,000 if the tunnel wasn't tolled at all.

The diversion forecast includes 10,000 to 12,000 more cars east of Interstate 5, where they would conflict with the future First Hill Streetcar, hospital traffic and maybe even spill into the Central District. Between 6,000 and 7,000 extra trips would go along the north waterfront. Another 14,000 to 15,000 are supposed to cram onto I-5, and 16,000 to 18,000 downtown.

Downtown includes the historic Pioneer Square district. Not only would some cars divert, but officials are looking at Washington and Main streets as an east-west bus route between the highway and the Third Avenue transit spine.

Car congestion could delay buses en route to Third Avenue, and obstruct loading at the ferry terminal, warns Rick Krochalis of the Federal Transit Administration, in comments for the EIS.

Downtown intersections that would become "congested" or "highly congested" by tolls include Fourth and South Jackson next to King Street Station, First and Yesler, and six more along Fourth Avenue, studies show.

So why not just lower the toll rates and lure some of those cars back into the tunnel?

Washington lawmakers boxed themselves into a corner by decreeing in 2009 that tolls would support $400 million in construction bonds, before understanding how the traffic and revenue trends will pencil out.

"We have no quantitative evidence of taking a 100,000-vehicle-a-day road and slapping a toll on it because nobody in the country's tried it. Nobody in the world has done it," says Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center. Toll modeling can easily be 20 percent off, he said.

Drivers are highly sensitive to tolls, which spells trouble when megaprojects cost more than can be raised, says Todd Litwin of the Victoria Transportation Institute, who favors transit, pedestrian and road projects instead of a tunnel.

"Until recently, there was this dream you could build new roads and pay for them with tolling," he said.

On the Golden Ears Bridge outside Vancouver, officials have lowered the toll rate to woo drivers aboard.

Hallenbeck believes removing Highway 99 capacity, as some tunnel opponents propose, would cause a two-year "desert" when people put up with extra delay or costs, before they change jobs, move, or fold their businesses.

"That process is amazingly ugly," he said. "If that works, congestion isn't so bad anymore, 10 years from now."

What to do

Should the tunnel proceed, officials have four years to find an answer to diversion. The city will participate in the state's toll-planning committee.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has hinted that tolls could be lower, if the state underruns its $3.1 billion budget for the entire highway; Paananen says there are about $300 million in reserves. But drilling brings risks of a costly tunneling-machine stall or mistake in the tricky downtown soil.

Another option is to set aside a portion of future statewide gasoline, car-tab or other funds to buy down the toll rate. That seems a hard sell, given lawmakers' aggravation about tunnel costs to date.

Ben Schiendelman, spokesman for anti-tunnel Protect Seattle Now, said that if politicians had the will to reduce toll burdens on Highway 99, they would have done so already.

If nearby roads are tolled, there is less incentive to divert.

The state is considering future tolls on the I-5 express lanes to raise dollars for maintenance or on Interstate 90 to reduce diversion from a tolled Highway 520, and other highways. State law even allows Seattle to toll its major arterials, though no proposal is afoot.

State Treasurer Jim McIntire said that as a general principle, tolling "is most effective when used to finance the transportation system within a corridor, not individual projects or facilities." He said he hasn't seen a detailed financial plan for the tunnel tolls, so he cannot give specific advice.

In a report for environmentalist Mayor Mike McGinn this spring, the consulting firm Nelson/Nygaard suggested that if there is less highway space, people will adapt and drive less.

"Their real motivation is to make it so hard to get around Seattle that people will leave, or change jobs, or simply stay at home," accuses the pro-tunnel Let's Move Forward campaign.

An extreme step would be to tame diversion through cordon tolling on all cars entering the central city, as in London and Singapore.

The state seems to be evolving to a similar place, for a different set of reasons.

Doug MacDonald, retired transportation secretary, says the toll argument shows that something useful has been learned amid the thousands of pages of environmental study -- the state's first draft of a toll strategy must be changed.

"Sense will prevail, and people will do it. There's no way you're going to build a tunnel and then have a toll proposal that says it won't be well-used," he said. "There's no way that the Legislature would ignore the need to fix that, when the time comes."

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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