Bertha’s Future

Bertha being delivered (by the author)

Bertha, the massive highway tunnel boring machine, is stuck in one place underground until at least next March. The future of State Route 99 has moved firmly into uncharted territory, so I thought I’d start a discussion of what might happen next.

First, a recap.

After the 2001 Nisqually quake damaged the SR-99 viaduct, the state legislature started seriously considering funding for a replacement. In 2003, they passed the “Nickel” funding package, providing $177 million in funding to begin design work and start buying right of way. In 2005, once the general scope of the replacement became clear, the Transportation Partnership Program provided $2 billion toward construction.

In 2006, voters in Seattle were asked in an advisory vote to choose between a ‘cut and cover’ tunnel or a replacement elevated structure, and rejected both.

Even at that point, there was a surface boulevard option that put money into transit and downtown street grid improvements, much like San Francisco’s Embarcadero, and would have torn down the damaged viaduct immediately; nearly every party involved ignored that option, other than the project’s citizen advisory committee, which endorsed it.

Also in 2006, the state asked Sound Transit to delay their “Sound Transit 2” vote until 2007 to pair it with a regional highway expansion vote which would have included additional funding for the SR-99 project. Sound Transit did so, and in November, the “Roads and Transit” measure failed, preventing even more money from going to the project. Sound Transit went back to the ballot in 2008 and passed handily.

Finally, in 2009, the state proposed a bored tunnel–the largest in the world–to replace the freeway. They capped the total state spending on the project at $2.4 billion, and assigned responsibility to the city if the project went overbudget. A referendum on the city council’s agreement with the state failed in 2010, and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) started construction.

Since then, the expensive machine has broken, as predicted by many, while other highway infrastructure deteriorates, sometimes spectacularly, and maintenance remains underfunded across the state. The viaduct, touted after 2001 as dangerously unsafe, remains standing, despite a 2008 promise from then-governor Gregoire that it would be torn down in 2012.

The first failure in this project was that it went past the drawing board.

Great. Now what?

I’m going to gloss over the mess of Bertha’s failure: the machine’s bearings failed, causing it to overheat when it spun the cutting head. The contractor has a plan that they believe could get the machine digging by March of 2015. To do this, they’re digging a pit down to the front of the machine, planning to pull off the 57-foot wide cutting head, replace the bearings inside the machine, and make a whole host of improvements to try to keep the machine from breaking again.

First, and soonest, as they dig a pit in wet muck between Elliott Bay and the existing viaduct, they’re going to have to pump water out of it–what they call “dewatering”. When you pump water out of the ground, the ground tends to sink.


Sadly, this isn’t as fun as actually sending the viaduct to the bottom of the ocean. The viaduct is only considered safe to drive on (if you can consider it safe at all) as long as it doesn’t sink more than an inch, and at least one part of it sank 4/10 of an inch when tunneling began.

WSDOT never planned to dewater in the area where Bertha is stuck now, so it’s likely the viaduct will sink further. If it hits that full inch, it’ll have to be closed to traffic. At that point, we’ll see adaptation–traffic will worsen in the short term, transit use will spike, and the region will reach a new traffic equilibrium over a few weeks as people take other routes and change their habits.

It’s very likely that traffic Downtown would improve as a result of tens of thousands fewer cars. It’s entirely possible that once the viaduct is closed for a couple of months, we’d see political will to throw more money at a new freeway disappear–and maybe WSDOT could even sue the contractor for damages to cover the cost of a new surface boulevard and transit improvements.


If the viaduct stays afloat and repairs are completed successfully, we come to another potential point of failure. One theory for Bertha’s failure is that because of its size, the pressure against the bottom of the cutting head is much higher than the pressure against the top, torquing it against the bearings and causing them to wear quickly. I understand this is one of the points the repair is supposed to address, but as it’s being done by the same company that claimed the machine was fine in the first place, I don’t have high hopes.

If the bearings are damaged again, and the machine goes twice as far this time as it did the first time, it would end somewhere under Downtown–either under 1st Ave or an adjacent building. At that point, perhaps under the Four Seasons hotel or one of the buildings of Pike Place Market, a repair would have to be attempted from inside the tunnel; and be more costly and time-consuming than the current year-long repair plan.


On the legal front, a source close to the project tells me that WSDOT has rejected a “change order” from the contractor to increase the contract amount by the amount of the repairs, indicating that the state believes the contractor is responsible. If the contractor disagrees, they may stop work arbitrarily, or only work until they run out of money. At that point, WSDOT might have to sue the contractor to complete the project (or even the repairs).

This is only one of several ways the project could end up in court–and given the history of Ron Tutor of Tutor Perini, 45% of the “Seattle Tunnel Partners” joint venture, it seems likely.


While there are oodles of other ways this project can still die, there’s one more that I find particularly interesting.

This project came from former Governor Gregoire, then-state Senator Ed Murray, former mayor Greg Nickels, county executive Dow Constantine, and most of the current Seattle City Council. All of them are Democrats in a state with only a small Democratic majority. If the tunneling isn’t complete or cancelled by the beginning of the 2016 election season, I expect the Republicans to campaign against Governor Jay Inslee on the cost and Seattle focus of the project.

With that in mind, if I were Inslee, I would be looking for a way out, and I’m sure his team isn’t blind to this risk. If the viaduct sinks, the money runs out, or the machine fails again, I expect to see him and WSDOT pull the plug.

What can we do?

This project may not die, but if it can, the best things we can do to help it along are small.

First, tell every local elected official you meet that you want this tunnel dead, that you’ll vote against any highway money, and that you’ll donate to candidates who oppose highways and build transit and high speed rail instead.

Oppose highways every chance you get. There are a dozen more projects like this one in the pipelines of state departments of transportation across the country. A lot of them are stalling due to a convergence of the interests of anti-tax and pro-sustainability voters. People need to hear in casual conversation that highways are dangerous and unhealthy, a past mistake we must remove and correct.

Tell Seattle City Council candidates that you want them to oppose highways, full stop. When you find one that does, give them a check if you can, and go doorbell for them. If you live in the 6th, for instance, you’re all set.

Finally, be ready for the next legislative session. Come January, we’ll need to testify against highways and for transit. When you come to Olympia in-person, your voice carries.

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Sana Afridi

I think the center issue here is a suspicion that building more interstates would help those drives. As a rule, incomprehensibly, extending thruways moderates drives. For every situation where a roadway has been uprooted in a noteworthy city, again apparently incomprehensibly, drives have enhanced instead of intensified. I haven’t seen any rowdy group on Link, and yes, its standing room just – that is normal for mass travel. RapidRide is the same way. I don’t bolster burning through cash on roadways so you can drive your auto, in light of the fact that the societal, natural, and financial expenses of doing as such are too high. We’ve basically won that battle – voters are slaughtering thruway ventures. I’d love to improve your drive with better travel; help us do that and you’ll win toward the day’s end! Amazing


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The state has already awarded a contract and committed to funding said contract. Withdrawing now would start an enormous legal battle that would probably end up costing about as much money as finishing the project–except we would have nothing at the end of it. We’re in it now. We’ve decided we dont like it. We can, and will, continue to gripe about it. But it will get done. Also this: If you haven’t looked at the enormous amount of design and preliminary work going into redeveloping the waterfront post-viaduct, you haven’t fully considered the impact of the new tunnel.

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Mandy Sue

Please, let the tunnel die and quickly. Who approved a boring machine that doesn’t run backwards anyway? From start to finish, it was a huge and costly mistake.


Great article. I think this is a summary of what has happened, and may be a good prediction of what will happen. I’ve said before that we are building a cave, not a tunnel. I think this could easily happen if we get half way done and the city and state start fighting. Neither one wants to pay for the rest of it, and all of the people responsible have moved on.

Like Ethan, though, I think it is a mistake, and an oversimplification to suggest we should “oppose highways”. What exactly does that mean, anyway. Oppose new highways? OK, I’m fine with that. What about highway improvements, expansion or maintenance? For example, 520 is the biggest project around right now. Is it a maintenance project (because the old bridge is falling down)? Or is it an expansion (because we are adding a lane)? What, exactly, would you do differently? As is often the case, the devil is in the details.

Interesting you should bring up O’Brien in this discussion. He decided to run for city council precisely because of the highway 99 situation. It is too bad he took down the article, but he used to have a little description of the entire process.. He served on a committee that was asked to come up with a recommendation. They had various shareholders involved, and he really liked the process (which is why he decided to run for office — if you really like board meetings and get along well with other board members, you too might be a decent politician). The board came up with two recommendations: a rebuilt viaduct, and a surface option. That is what pissed him off (and everyone else on the board) more than anything — not that the state decided to go against the surface option (which did involve improvements to I-5 along with transit) but that the state went with an option that the board had rejected (a tunnel). Had the state said “OK, a surface option sounds good, but we are going to rebuild the viaduct” then the board would have been OK with it. Plenty of people (myself included) would have been disappointed (since I think the surface option makes the most sense) but at least it would have been a reasonable suggestion. But the tunnel is stupid. Not because it doesn’t help transit, but because even if you don’t care about transit, and don’t want the city or the state to spend a dime on buses or trains, it is still stupid. It is simply a waste of money. Ask anyone in West Seattle who drives. Right now there are a bunch of people in West Seattle who are saying “Wait — the surface option included I-5 improvements and cost less? Why the hell didn’t we build that!”. (These are drivers by the way)

Which gets me back to a more nuanced approach that I think our state representatives should take. Basically, it is this:

1) Focus on maintenance first.
2) Figure out what will give us the biggest bang for the buck. This likely means no big projects like the 167/509 mess or the even worse Cross-Columbia project.
3) Place higher priority on projects that benefit transit or other HOV.
4) Allow local jurisdictions to raise their own money for transit.
5) Do all that, and be frugal about. Try and form an alliance with Republicans based on frugality.

There is tremendous overlap between 2 and 3. This may not be the best example, but consider what will happen when we add the Link station at 145th. Putting aside Lake City for a second, let’s assume that buses that travel to Bothell get rerouted to 145th. Unfortunately, the buses would get stuck in traffic. Much of the traffic is because of cars that turn left onto or off of the freeway. Cloverleafs could solve the problem. This is very hypothetical suggestion, but you get the idea. This would be an improvement that on the surface only benefits cars (new all purpose freeway ramps) but could save minutes off of a bus to train commute.

Unfortunately, this means digging through the various projects and figuring out which ones make sense, and which ones are a waste of money. Not that the project won’t help, but that it is simply a poor use of money. A good example of this is the 522 project. Anyone who has ever driven the road (and I drive it all the time to go hiking) knows that there are only two places that need improvements. Basically, from Bothell to Monroe, there are two cross streets that have traffic lights. There used to be more, but the state added overpasses. But rather than add a couple more (and solve the problem) it is spending a lot more expanding the road to two lanes. This is stupid. This is a great example of terrible bang for the buck. The overpasses should have been higher priority.

Ethan Pasternack

And this is exactly the type of nuanced, down-in-the-details, constructive approach to public policy i wish would take precedence over the “kill all highways” overreaction this article advocates.

Thanks for chiming in, Ross. 🙂


Thanks, Ethan. I don’t want to summarize the author’s approach as “kill all highways”, though. I think what is interesting is that my approach would be a radical departure from the standard Democratic approach. Keep in mind that Inslee, a guy I very much respect — a guy I got to know personally while campaigning for — supported the CRC. Most of the Democrats were too busy trying to get something, anything, that they lost focus on the big picture. They were too caught up in the “no taxes versus taxes” debate (a game Republicans love to play) that they forgot to ask what the taxes would actually build. Most of what was planned last session was crap. By “most” I mean where most of the money would go, not most of the projects. Plenty of the projects had merit, and would help transit. But most of the money went to two projects: CRC and 167/509. Both of these projects are crap. Crap that the author knows are crap — so it is understandable that the author wants to abandon all such projects. But there are some good, worthwhile projects in there. More to the point, even if there are a handful of projects that only help SOV drivers, they can be built, and it isn’t the end of the world.

In short, I agree with the original author that Democrats, especially urban Democrats, should dramatically change their approach to funding transportation in this state. I just think it should acknowledge that roads need improving, and that a little bit of money will go a long way to making the right coalition possible.

But I’m also aware that we may be in deep trouble, anyway. I fear that the “Dan Evans” Republican (that would embrace such a compromise) may be dead in this state (even though the man is very much alive). I’m afraid that many a Republican in this state simply wants “no new taxes”, and is willing to let roads, and transit, and the economy of this state suffer as a result.



“and maybe WSDOT could even sue the contractor for damages to cover the cost of a new surface boulevard and transit improvements.”

“Sue the contractor” is not a viable way to get the surface improvements you envision. It’s just another corporation whose assets consist of an investment by three other corporations. It has no call on the assets independently owned by those owners. So the state could seize Bertha and that’s about it. And once the old gal has proven unable to “bear the load” she’s not going to be worth much at all.

So far as the “dewatering” issue, I seem to recall a large and persistent water source only about 30 meters away from the pit. So the problem won’t be earth shrinkage so much as never being able to really get the pit dry.

Ben Schiendelman


This contract is quite different than most joint venture contracts; I’m told by those familiar with the contract that parent company assets are liable in this case, up to $500 million. Normally you’d be correct; I’ve been reporting on infrastructure contracts long enough to not get caught by that one. 🙂

On dewatering, they’ll be taking the water level down to below the machine, regardless of any water source. That will cause settling. If they’re unable to do that, you have yourself another potential failure path!



That is an amazing contract; I suppose the state insisted on it given Perino’s history. If so, good planning.

So far as the dewatering, I realize they drilled and filled those that circle of cylinders to create a sort of slurry wall. They supposedly touch the adjacent column, but in the absence of some sort of grout between them (and it may be there but not mentioned in the articles describing the pit) water is going to be coming in all the voids. The deeper the pit goes the more force with which it will be coming in. I’m skeptical that they’ll be able to get the water out. As you say, another point of failure.

I don’t see why everyone is hoping for failure. Two billion dollars has been spent, roads have been realigned, and even if the state has to seize the TBM and find someone else to run it on a per foot basis, I think it makes sense to complete the project.

Should the deep bore tunnel have been chosen? Probably not, although all the alternatives had drawbacks. Even the “surface and transit”.

Ethan Pasternack

Dear Urbanist,

Voting against highways because you don’t drive is like voting against transit because you don’t ride the bus. Both are shortsighted and rather arrogant in their inability to consider the necessity of the other form of transportation for a huge swath of your fellow citizens.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dissing your lifestyle. I’m just asking that you recognize that there are others besides it that deserve support just as much as yours.

In short commutes between the neighborhoods of Seattle’s downtown area (which given the name of your site is probably your editorial focus), yes – transit is a just plain better solution in most cases than driving.

Likewise if you’re one of the quarter million people who live elsewhere and commute into the city, the transit system is viable depending on how far from a transit hub your job and/or home is. The further from the bus hub of 3rd and 4th avenues you get, the less viable the commute just in terms of sheer time being sucked up waiting for transfers or hoofing it. On the other end, the further your house is from the local transit hub, the longer the wait for feeder buses or the more you have to pay for parking if you don’t happen to have a free park and ride handy (there’s only one on the light rail line, by the way – fills up by 7am).

But the further your job gets from downtown the less of a superior option the current transit system becomes. There are at least as many of us who commute -through- or -around- Seattle as there are who commute -to- Seattle, and for us the public transportation system is decades away from being viable compared to a car or carpool. That is a reality that we all need to acknowledge and agree to both improve and accommodate because damnit we’re citizens too and we can’t afford to live downtown.

I have done it all as a distance commuter living in Kent. Kent to Bellevue, Kent to Seattle, Kent to Redmond. I’ve bussed it, and I’ve taken the train, and I’ve taken the light rail, and I’ve driven. I’ve combined those methods in every way imaginable and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that each has problems and EACH NEEDS TO BE IMPROVED AND EXPANDED.

We all need to get behind the significant improvements planned to a highway system that was designed for 70’s era traffic volumes just as much as we all need to get behind the planned vast expansion of light rail that’s been creeping forward and an overhaul/expansion of the bus system that so desperately needs better management and equipment.

That’s the long and short of it – if we want the transportation system to improve in this city, we need to support everything. This region is not getting less-populated as time goes on – it’s only growing. And an increase in population necessitates an increase in funding for both transit and highways.

If you don’t like the tunnel you don’t like the tunnel, but it’s already in progress so trying to actively encourage it to fail now smacks of the bitter pill politics I usually attribute to the far right in this country. It’s counterproductive and guaranteed to waste the billions already spent on it. It wasn’t what I wanted either – I wanted to just build a new viaduct – but that’s not how the vote went down. Democracy is as much about how you lose the vote as it is about winning it. Bertha will eventually finish. It will likely be a fiasco getting there, but there’s too much money already invested to just walk away. Even the Big Dig eventually got done – it just took 20 years.

In the end, we have to face the reality that we live in a growing city with restrictive geography. There are not enough viable corridors in this region as it is – just I5, I405, and US99 in the north/south direction. No side streets connect the whole way, there are no service roads, and there is no room to create either.

Belief that removing 1/3 of our north/south capacity will “iron itself out in a few weeks” or “push people to alternative transit” is a pipe dream. Traffic doesn’t miraculously disappear. It just moves around. Even if it it did the transit system downtown doesn’t have any extra capacity to absorb these mythical car refugees – have you ridden a bus or the light rail during the commute lately? Standing room only. Unruly crowds pushing to get on board. Waiting for the next one because the driver says it’s full. Daily.

I dig it that you don’t drive a car. I support your decision because it’s great for you. But in return I expect you to support my decision to drive my car because it’s right for me. Cars will never go away – they’ll just get electric – so we need to plan accordingly.


Hi Ethan,

First, you seem to be suggesting that highway expansion is necessary to improve the regions transportation system. This is flat out false. Over the last 50 years, research has been very clear that expanding highways in urban areas doesn’t reduce travel times for people, it makes them worse. In fact, expansion of urban highways is a contributing factor to the pitiful transportation system. It’s fine to suggest that we can support everything but it doesn’t reflect a reality in which we have a constrained space and constrained finances with a growing number of people that need to be moved.

Second, it is incorrect to say that the tunnel will inevitably be built. As predicted before this debacle, the project is more complicated than it was budgeted for and will require more funding. This means that we’ll need to decide whether it’s worthwhile to spend billions of dollars for a tunnel when we could provide the same service with surface streets.

While people like to suggest that arguing against highway expansion is a cultural war or somehow screwing the suburbs, this isn’t the real argument that’s happening. The real question is how to move everyone the most quickly and this simply won’t happen with highway expansion. We have a choice, do we want to follow the example of the Big Dig or do we want to follow the example of the Embarcadero.

Stephen Fesler

Also, people need to stop talking about SR-99 as a regional highway. It’s not. It serves are very narrow commuting market that mainly benefits south-of-Seattle (and West Seattle) commutes. The tunnel actually astronomically reduces its utility as a local route because it has ZERO Downtown exits–which generate the supermajority of trips. Certainly the Ballard-to-Kent or Tukwila-to-Fremont commuter will be annoyed without a tunnel, but they are the exception. The cost to benefit for the tunnel is appalling now–and that’s not even including the massive overruns should the project be completed. To add insult to injury (and quite ironically really because I think tolling is great), tolls will further discourage any real usage of the facility.

WSDOT and the public should pull the plug now and finish out the critical elements of the project: removal of the viaduct which is a safety hazard to the travelling public, repairing the grid of SLU and SODO/PSq, and fixing the Waterfront. The tunnel is not worth the cost for its simple lack of actual public benefits. Even the most highway-loving person can understand that it is a dud.

Ethan Pasternack

I’m not talking about building more highways – I’m talking about optimizing the highways we already have to handle traffic smoothly. There’s no room for new highways anywhere in the Seattle area. I’m not even talking about expanding highways in general terms – only where it’s necessary to eliminate bottlenecks.

And I’m also not talking in broad theory – I’m talking in very specific instances in which I have seen specific remedies have specifically highly beneficial effects on traffic flow.

If you spend any time on the highways in this city at all (which I know is not a given with this audience so I will not assume that), then you know that in the absence of accidents or construction 405, I-5, and I-90 all lock up during rush hour at the exact same points every day. Each of these points has a very specific trigger that is correctable. These triggers usually fall into two categories – 1) a reduction of lanes, or 2) a cross-flow access point.

As an example of type 1, let’s use 405N at exit 4. But first a little history:

The entire highway between I-5 and exit 4 used to be two lanes plus an HOV. That stretch had three short entrances (entrances that are required to merge with the right lane of traffic in a short distance), and three short exits (exits straight from the right lane without a lead-in), and was a constant gridlock.

This changed when last year they completed a third lane – an on/off lane – on this stretch of the highway. This third lane (on the right) begins as the on-ramp from I-5 north, but rather than disappear and force a merge it continues all the way until it hits 167, at which point it is exit only onto 167 south. In between it has one long-ramp exit and two long-ramp entrances. Those merges being confined to the on/off lane, this no longer snarls traffic. Then the lane appears again as the on-ramp from 167 north until it hits exit 4 at which point it becomes exit only for 169. That is the end of the new construction.

What this HIGHWAY PROJECT did was to completely solve the northbound 405 traffic snarl that used to exist between I-5 and 167. The new on/off lane gives people enough room to come up to speed with the rest of traffic and merge safely and at their own pace into the two thru-lanes, instead of forcing that traffic directly into the right thru-lane causing thru traffic in that lane to merge into the left thru-lane, snarling things up along the whole route.

As a result of this construction, the traffic snarl now begins at Exit 4, where the on/off lane disappears but does not resume on the other side of 169. On the far side is just a regular on-ramp that is once again merging with one of the two thru-lanes (note I’m not talking about the HOV lane – I’ll get to that later).

“But Ethan, adding lanes doesn’t help traffic!” I hear you crying already – but that’s thru-lanes you’re talking about. Adding on/off lanes works. How do I know? Because the traffic snarl ends just north of Exit 9 where, lo and behold, the on/off lane begins again (also new construction) and continues until it exits at I-90, after which it reappears again until it disappears once more to feed onto 520. Also new construction. And all of which moves smoothly even at peak capacity.

ALL of these places that now flow smoothly used to back up at the entrances and exits – why? Because two thru lanes and an HOV lane are not sufficient for a major thoroughfare unless you provide an on-off lane between major entrance/exit points. The HOV lane should be an island of happy that never sees normal traffic so it doesn’t count – a major thoroughfare at the capacity level we have in this region requires a slow lane and a fast lane to function and requires the ability for exits and entrances to merge their traffic in over a distance that allows speed equalization. That’s what an on/off lane does.

Over the past three years, highway construction on 405 north has cleared 75% of the northbound rush hour congestion by the cunning use of a dedicated on-off lane. THE ONLY place it still backs up is (not coincidentally) the stretch in which they haven’t yet added that critical on/off lane.

Now on to an example of type 2 correctable errors – cross-flow access points.

One good example of this being fixed is on 405 south at 167. This used to be an absolute bitch of an intersection that required cars merging -onto- 405 to cross the flow of cars exiting -from- 405, which is something average drivers just cannot do at highway speeds without running into each other. Thus, 405 south backed up for MILES, usually all the way up to I-90.

But no more – five or six years ago they spent some time on it and re-worked the ramp system so that there’s a dedicated off ramp that goes over the dedicated on ramp and never the two flows shall meet. It worked, and now it only backs up for a few hundred yards when a truck that’s too heavy is trying to crawl its way up the incline. This is a classic, basic civil engineering technique in highway design that has been around since the 60s but that nobody thought would be necessary when the intersection was built back in the 70s or 80s and nobody lived here.

Another good example of this being fixed is the series of “Texas T” HOV lane entrances that have been constructed on 405, I-5, and I-90 over the past 5 years. When buses and carpools have to cross several lanes of traffic just to get to their dedicated lanes, it forces slower, highway-entering vehicles across the paths of faster thru-traffic causing regular snarls at every major bus/commute entrance along the highway. A Texas T is a bridge that stretches out to the median of the highway into a T-intersection of ramps that feed FROM the HOV lane and exit TO the HOV lane, making a dedicated entrance/exit for buses and carpools.

At every intersection this has been implemented I’ve seen traffic congestion reduce drastically if not vanish entirely at that locale. It always picks back up again at the next major bus/carpool entrance/exit that isn’t a Texas T, or at the next poorly-conceived traffic flow issue, but that dedicated HOV flow always solves the problem where it is implemented.

And that’s my point.

Any time you engineer traffic to flow across itself, you’re engineering congestion. Our highways need to be optimized to be as advantageous to transit and carpools as possible and the best way to do that is to keep the flows as separate as you can. Example: I-5 north at Michigan street should NOT BE A LEFT EXIT THAT CROSSES THE HOV LANE). Fixing these kinds of errors is all that is needed to reduce congestion in the puget sound region, and it requires construction. And that requires highway projects.

Highway optimization IS TRANSIT SPENDING – or did you think buses and carpools never get caught in highway traffic jams? As a frequent distance commuter on the ST Express buses I have calculated that the commute on a bus – even an “express” bus – is inflated by an average of 25% due to traffic congestion alone. Solve that congestion and you reduce commute times via bus and carpool – and ensure that all the rest of the vehicles on the road get where they’re going smoother and with fewer collisions (NHTSA has issued numerous reports over the past 40 years to municipalities describing the dangers of cross-flow traffic patterns and forced-merge scenarios – that’s issue type 2 and issue type 1 for those losing track).

Anyway, that’s why I resent calls for “opposing all highway projects” as you have done at the end of your article. Hate the tunnel all you want – I don’t agree with your tactics or your analysis that the 90,000 vehicles that use the viaduct every day won’t snarl up traffic downtown or make things worse on I-5 – but don’t equate the tunnel project with other highway projects in the region.

Because the simple fact is that highway projects in this region are usually about fixing horrible civil engineering errors from the 70s that desperately need to be fixed and that can’t be fixed simply by throwing more buses or train tracks onto them.

Opposing all highway projects carte blanche without looking into what those highway projects are is just as ignorant and non-constructive a position to take as opposing all transit projects because you think the bus is smelly, or opposing all incumbents regardless of what they did in office or how they voted just because they’re incumbents, or opposing all bills that the President endorses just because he endorses them. It’s the wrong kind of politics.

Be reasonable. Be logical. Be specific. Decide on the issues issue by issue just like you would anything else. Push your agenda and your needs and your ideas and be the change you want to see, sure, but recognize the fact that you’re not the only one in the boat and that changing the world takes time and compromise.

Ben Schiendelman

Yo Ethan,

I think the core issue here is an assumption that building more highways would help those commutes. In general, paradoxically, expanding highways slows commutes. In each case where a highway has been removed in a major city, again seemingly paradoxically, commutes have improved rather than worsened.

I haven’t seen any unruly crowds on Link, and yes, it’s standing room only – that’s expected for mass transit. RapidRide is the same way.

I don’t support spending money on highways so you can drive your car, because the societal, environmental, and economic costs of doing so are too high. We’ve essentially won that fight – voters are killing highway projects. I’d love to make your commute better with better transit; help us do that and you’ll win at the end of the day!

Stephen Fesler

Don’t forget the bikes and peds!

Ethan Pasternack

See my above novel, Ben (sorry for the length) regarding expansion vs. optimization, but as to your last point it will take 30 years for transit to reach beyond the narrow confines of Seattle and serve the city’s actual feeder communities. Ignoring the majority of your commuters for 30 years will not solve the problem. It’s only gonna make it worse for cars and transit alike. Doesn’t matter how many buses you throw on a broken highway, it’s still gonna be broken.

Also, cars are not going away man. That is a fantasy, pure and simple. The internal combustion engine, sure – and I’m all for that becoming a piece of history – but not the car. If the last 10 years of automotive development have taught us anything, it’s that cars are becoming electric. And when they do, your argument about how evil cars are becomes pretty much anecdotal (since you’re reduced to only the “societal” cost of cars, the economic and environmental costs having been nullified by innovation).

You’re not spending money on highways so I can drive my car any more than I’m spending money on transit so you can ride your bus or than I’m spending money on bike lanes so you can ride your bike. That’s an us-vs-them attitude that is exactly what’s wrong with our political system.

_We_ are _all_ spending money on those things so that people – all people, you and me both – can move around efficiently in whatever way we need to move around. And until we develop transporter technology that’s gonna need to accommodate cars as well as try to develop more and more efficient mass transit options. We need to have as many choices as possible of how to get from point A to point B so that as many peoples’ needs can be met as possible. Because that’s what you do in a democracy.

Ben Schiendelman

We agree that cars aren’t going to go away. That binary view (cars or no cars) isn’t instructive here. Taking away highway funding means that highways will have to be maintained through tolls, and we’ll stop funding more of them, and more people will shift to transit. And let me know when you can afford an electric car.

Ethan Pasternack

” And let me know when you can afford an electric car.”

Remarkably short sighted. That’s what people said ten years ago about hybrids.

Not planning for the future is what got Seattle into the traffic snarl it’s in in the first place. Once you eliminate the internal combustion engine cars are no longer the evil you seem to think they are and our infrastructure needs to reflect the needs of our communities.

Our public policy should always be to strike a balance between optimism and pragmatism. What you’re advocating is pure optimism (especially the “we’ll stop funding more of them, and more people will shift to transit” part considering that transit is already full to capacity and 30 years at least from being capable of serving the whole region) with no basis in the reality of our region. At least, not outside the urban villages.

My approach to fix the broken bits while ramping up much larger transit projects is a more fair, reasonable, and quite frankly viable approach to public policy.

Ben Schiendelman

I feel like you didn’t read the rest of my comment.

Ethan Pasternack

I read it, I just think you’re fooling yourself if you think that A) viable transit options exist for drivers outside the downtown area _or will exist_ for another 30 years, or B) that the voting public in this state (most of which live outside a reasonable transit option) will let you toll every stretch of road in the state because you don’t like people driving cars.

We all pay the taxes in this state that go toward the transportation budget, so it is only fair to serve more than one set of transportation needs with that budget.

A free and fair society demands that the reasonable needs of as many parties as possible be addressed. Your plan does not meet the reasonable needs of the 80-90% of the population of the state who do not live in the Seattle mass transit corridor, and thus is not a viable way to effect change.

Come back with a plan that meets the needs of others than yourself (like mine, in which transit is invested in while roads are optimized within their current footprints) and then we’ll have something to talk about.

Ben Schiendelman

The voting public have to pick between higher taxes, tolls, or degraded highway quality. So far they’re picking the latter. It’s not up to me to change that. I’m happily helping us build more transit, and making sure to make room in transit corridors for people who want infrastructure.

Ethan Pasternack

From what I could tell in this last vote, they’re choosing to say no to bloated municipal bus budgets, not highway maintenance. 😉

Look I hear you that Washington voters are retardedly allergic to voting for taxes to pay for what they want (I always vote for taxes, for transit, and against idiots like Eyman, but I’m in a minority here) but that doesn’t somehow make the “screw all the drivers” plan you guys are advocating somehow more palatable as a pubilic policy. If anything it makes it less likely to ever be adopted outside the Seattle city council – and Seattle doesn’t control the highway system.

The overall balance we have right now is right – steadily optimize our highways, steadily invest in mass transit, steadily incentivize efficiency everywhere you can, and fund big over-and-above projects with tolling. It may not be fast enough for you, and there may be these big ugly screwups in the middle of it like the tunnel and KC Metro, but generally the system is not in need of as dramatic and draconian a shakeup as you seem to think.

And in the end the slow and steady approach is the fairest way to go about it.

Ben Schiendelman

That vote isn’t what I’m talking about. Voters last rejected highways in 2007, and have passed a couple of transit measures since then. The legislature can’t even pass a package to the voters, they haven’t been able to since 2005. That has nothing to do with Seattle.

When you talk about a “system” or “balance”, it’s a red flag to me that you think I’m suggesting changing some existing policy. I’m not sure where to go with that, as you’re reacting really negatively to me supporting what I know to be the status quo, and then telling me that the status quo is great.

Ethan Pasternack

The highway system all around the region is being regularly maintained and upgraded, and that takes money. They’re getting it from a budget that the legislature defines and it’s ongoing to this day so it’s not like no money is being spent on our highway system.

Thus whenever you talk about ending highway funding, or voting against any candidate who supports highway funding, you’re advocating a change to the all-prongs approach that our current budget priorities embody.

Not sure what you’re referencing in 2005 and 2007 but they sound like citizen initiatives or something?

Ben Schiendelman

It’s much more complicated than that. The transportation budget funds maintenance, not improvements. The 2005 package was the last time the legislature funded expansion/upgrades. In 2007, the legislature put highway funding before the voters, and we rejected it. Both of those are in the article above.

Ethan Pasternack

We didn’t reject highways, we rejected taxes. Like the ever-short-sighted Washington voter base always does. What you’re seeing is an entirely different problem re: having your cake and eating it too.

That’s what Eyman was counting on with his idiotically myopic initiatives stripping the transportation budget of its car tab revenue (which was a progressive and fair way to fund highways via the owners of the cars that used them) and forcing tax measures to go to voters instead of being the purview of their elected representatives the way they’re supposed to be.

And I really don’t know how to solve that one. :/

We need to re-empower our legislature to create revenue streams if we want them to pass a transportation package of any kind at all – only once we tackle that does any of our debate above begin to become relevant anyway.

But assuming we can somehow solve that problem and let the legislature do its job, I stand by my position that until we have viable transit options -in place- throughout the Seattle region it would be irresponsible and counterproductive to prematurely kill all road projects – projects that as we’ve seen over the past 6 years of implementation from the last bill (still ongoing to this day) are smartly designed to ensure the safety and optimization of our highway system within its current footprint.

Ben Schiendelman

Why do you believe we rejected taxes rather than highways? First a package went to the voters with transit and highways together, and the voters rejected it. Then the transit (about half the package) went to the voters, and they approved it. I think you’re making assumptions about what the voters want based on what you think they should want.

Ethan Pasternack

Funny that’s exactly what I think you’re doing.

You’re reducing two different proposals in two different years that featured two very different economic and political landscapes in this state down to “this one had roads and this one didn’t.”

You’re also ignoring the fact that a transit-only measure went on the ballot just this year and was rejected even under threat of painful service cuts, which I thought was tremendously short-sighted on the part of the voters.

But what all this tells me isn’t that the voters want this or the voters want that, it’s that voters shouldn’t be directly involved in big budget decisions in the first place. That’s their State Representatives’ and Senators’ jobs, and a duty the legislature needs to reclaim.

Weighty decisions about how to spend large quantities of tax dollars in ways that affect all 7 million people in the state should not be subjected to the whim of a fickle public who can’t see past the end of their own noses. Such large-scale decision-making deserves the deliberation and broad impact assessment that takes place only in legislative negotiation, not a battle of issue ads and funding drives. If we don’t like what our representatives are doing we get to vote them out of office, but they also get the chance to explain their votes and justify their positions.

That is how a functional democracy works, not this dysfunctional hodgepodge of ballot measures and referenda we have right now.

Ethan Pasternack

Which is, by the way, why I am arguing in favor of electing officials willing and able to negotiate and compromise, rather than those inclined to take tea-party-esque ideological stands.

Ben Schiendelman

Please don’t accuse me of ignoring things that I’ve addressed upthread. I don’t think you’re willing to listen, which is too bad.

Ethan Pasternack

It’s all about that call at the end to elect officials who will fight all roads. That’s not a reasonable position – that’s an ideological stand.

If you’d called for the election of officials who will favor transit over highways, I’d totally have agreed with you.

Ben Schiendelman

Do you think all roads are highways now…?

Ethan Pasternack

Oh good lord. I apologize profusely for choosing the wrong word, but I suspect you know that’s not what I was talking about. I’m talking about highways. 😛

I draw your attention however to the second paragraph of that post – that if you were advocating officials who favor transit over highways we wouldn’t be having this debate.

And I’m a heavily left-leaning democrat – I’m sure you can imagine the visceral and vitriolic reaction the “no to all highway spending” platform will elicit in the many, many areas of the state that are more red in their politics.

Whoever you elect will need to be able to throw bones to representatives of districts with other transportation interests or nothing will ever get done.

Stephen Fesler

Even if you eliminate emissions, you still have emissions from how the energy is produced. Electric cars use, well, a lot of electricity. Sure, there’s efficiency made over time, but we aren’t going all-electric for decades.

Even when we do, we’ll still have to deal with a very inefficient living pattern of sprawl: that requires lots of roads and expensive public infrastructure to support. It also means that people continue to eat up forest, agriculture, and environmentally sensitive land which is really the greater impact to the environment.

It’s irresponsible now that we allow such a living pattern to persist, especially because we don’t internalise the true cost of poor living choices. Enabling and even inducing people to live incredibly environmentally devastating lifestyles in broken suburbs is backward public policy. This needs to be fixed, and it needs to be done through a car-light retrofit of the suburbs to curb their dependence on a singular means of transportation.

This is about reasonable and equitable choices, and you’re asking people here to continue throwing money at people who are actively damaging our environment and communities.

Ethan Pasternack

If you’re trying to argue that it’ll take -longer- and cost -more- to:

A) transition to alternative power sources and electric cars (both of which already exist and are becoming increasingly cost-effective as the tech becomes more commonplace)

than it would to:

B) convince millions of people to change pretty much everything about their lives and put their personal needs aside in order to make the massive investments in infrastructure required to “retrofit the suburbs” (your words) into your particular urban-village hipster commune vision of utopia

…then you’re high. I love you, but you’re high.

Pushing and pulling car companies towards electric and power companies toward renewables through regulation and subsidy is a viable, plausible, and legal way to try to solve this problem. It’ll take decades, sure, but less time than it’ll take to fundamentally change our entire society, and it’ll do what we need it to do – stop the pollution factor from being an issue, which makes other issues much easier to address.

Stephen Fesler

Because places like Downtown Kent and Renton or the original platted neighbourhoods of Issaquah, Everett, or Snohomish are just full of those utopian hipsters…

I’m not suggesting that suburban cities should resemble a place like Capitol Hill–let alone Hillman City. But the system of how settlement has occurred is unfortunately broken. And you’re advocating to keep it that way. When the greatest diversity of quality jobs have to be found 10 or 20 miles from where you live, that’s a problem. It means you’ve built a system where you can’t reasonably do all your basic things in daily life (e.g. taking care of the kids, shopping, going to the park, go to the doctor, etc.) without traversing extraordinary distances.

Convincing people that this is bad isn’t something that I need to do. The supermajority of Americans have already decided that the conventional suburbs are awful places anyway, and why they’re rapidly fleeing for places (if they can) that are much more dynamic.

Retrofitting the suburbs isn’t just some pipedream–it’s a necessity if such cities want to remain relevant and prosper. And jurisdictions begin that by actually allowing people to work where they live. They stop bad transportation planning that focuses on long commutes and takes people out of their communities, and they fight against more highway vehicle capacity which sucks the lifeblood out of them.

Also, please refrain from patronising on the blog.

Ethan Pasternack

Ha – ok which is it, man? Are suburbs being vacated by this supposed supermajority of Americans, or are -suburbs- like Kent, Renton, Issaquah, Everett and Snohomish growing healthily?

I can tell you the answer – especially in this region where real estate is so ridiculously expensive anywhere approaching downtown, our suburbs are growing. New ones are popping up as the old ones get more expensive. And it’s largely because the cost of living in urban village environments is ridiculously high and you have to be incredibly wealthy to buy in.

Look man I’m not saying that the communities that feed Seattle should not develop vibrant central service hubs of their own (like The Landing, Kent Station, etc) – hell I think they’re a great change. I’m saying that if you think that will somehow meet everyone’s home and work needs in anything other than decades and decades of slow, agonizingly fought change, you’re outright fooling yourself.

That’s not patronizing, that’s realistic.

No amount of suburban village making will magically make the biggest employers in our region move. That’s not how business works, and that’s certainly not something that the big urban centers like Seattle and the East Side will allow to happen without a fight. Sure a place like Kent might attract new business headquarters after a few decades of improvements, but with the existing major hubs expanding and competing for that business, it’s unlikely a Kent or a Snohomish will attract the next Microsoft or Google or even Boeing.

That’s hope passing for fact.

I commute because I have to. It took me 18 months of desperate searching and frantic freelancing to get this job (a story far too many people share after the recession), so I don’t care if it’s in Bothell as long as it pays well enough so I don’t lose my house.

Telecommuting is only an option for a few pampered tech elite, Microsoft ain’t moving to Kent any time soon, Redmond real estate prices ain’t going anywhere but up, so I work an hour away from home. Because I have to. I’d love it if Google magically popped an office up next to REI and offered me a job, but that just doesn’t happen, and I can’t support my family by working at a thrift shop in downtown Kent or a sushi bar at Kent Station, and I have no desire to start an entirely new career just hoping to land a job at REI or Boeing.

And you know what? That’s my call. Not yours. Not your elected representative’s. Not the Urbanist’s. Mine.

People commute for all sorts of reasons. Maybe they like a quieter home life, maybe they fear for their or their kids’ safety in a bustling urban environment, maybe they are loyal to the company they work for, maybe they can’t afford the exhorbitant rents (and impossible purchase prices) of the real estate near their workplace, maybe parties in the same household work in different cities (say, one in Redmond and the other in Federal Way, like my wife and I), maybe it’s a combination of several of those reasons or one of dozens more I can’t think of off hand. It doesn’t matter.

The point is that government doesn’t get to dictate to people what their priorities have to be. That’s the nature of a free society. Government’s job is to provide services for its constituents – as many of them as can be accommodated within reason. That does not include refusing to provide services to 80% of the population to try to force them to be more like the 20% of the population that they wish everyone would be.

Government can invest in the places they want people to move, sure (like they have been with these centralized service and transit zones, which I totally support) and can use its policies to make it easier and easier to adopt the lifestyles it finds most beneficial or in your words “efficient,” however it still has an obligation to meet the reasonable needs of everybody – and that includes at this point in time and for the foreseeable future maintaining and optimizing the road systems that so many of its populace still HAVE to use in the absence of any viable alternative.

I actually share your goals of relocalizing our lives, of creating a society in which we aren’t all holing up in our little suburban fortresses trying desperately to ignore our irritating neighbors – but I am willing to admit when my goals are not immediately attainable without a long and drawn out process of investment and adaptation.

Once we have a vibrant and extensive network of light rail lines, feeder buses, and free park & rides that make it unnecessary to drive to work, I’m all for changing our highway focus to favor commercial traffic and thru traffic and discourage non-essential civilian traffic. But that ain’t today. It’s gonna take decades to get there (and, as I argue above, decades longer than it’ll take before we’re driving electric cars), so until then we have to accommodate the continued necessity of highways.

As any good systems engineer will tell you, you have to have the replacement system up and running before you can turn off the system it’s replacing. It’s even more critical in actual life with actual people, and I don’t think it’s patronizing to ask you to consider that fact as you advocate for public policies that would be immensely destructive to a huge number of peoples’ lives and livelihoods.

Dan Ryan

Any idea how much money will be left in the budget if the tunnel is cancelled, say in mid-2015? My understanding is that a lot of the money is going to surface improvements that are still marching ahead. Seems there will be a lot of sunk costs by next year (apart from the obvious hole in the ground).

Ben Schiendelman

I believe the tunnel budget is essentially spent at this point – the last time I heard, it was 80%, so I would be surprised if there is any now. It’s all sunk!

I think the surface side of things is largely unspent, as the contractor for the tunnel isn’t getting those change orders.


It’s Long been my understanding that the Viaduct was built with replacement parts. For example, if one section failed, new decks could be installed quickly and traffic could continue moving.
So three’s a question about columns shifting in recent earthquakes, so a bit more work needs to be completed, but is this a reason to discard the value of the viaduct?
I’ve never been able to locate anyone who can validate the replacement story, but the guy that told me was a construction worker on the project.
Who knows? What’s buried in the archives as to the design and intent of the viaduct?

Ben Schiendelman

From the demolition we saw of the south end of the structure, it doesn’t look particularly modular. At all. 🙂


Thank you.

Joe Szilagyi

The current viaduct isn’t compatible with current Federal safety standards and is only grandfathered in. It might not be legally possible to do what you suggest.


true, and that makes sense.
But it worked for the Bay Bridge!
And hey, while I admire Federal safety standards to a point, maintaining a structure without the ability to replace elements seems short-sighted.