The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is spending $4.4 million begging you to drive under Downtown Seattle. A marketing campaign with expensive TV spots and billboards wants to ensure that the new tunnel is full of motorists when it opens. KIRO 7 reports that the $4.4 million will be spent on advertising for people who apparently haven’t been paying attention for the last decade to the fact that the highway they use will no longer allow them to exit directly into Downtown.

Meanwhile, the viaduct closure to connect the existing SR-99 to the tunnel, though predicted to be three weeks of traffic hell, has turned out to be little more than a blip. People are driving less and adjusting their commuting patterns and traffic didn’t seem much worse than a normal day even without one of the two major freeways through Downtown Seattle. But continuing those patterns after SR-99 reopens would render the new tunnel mostly obsolete — not to mention damaging its funding plan.

Partially, this thirst for drivers is driven by a funding plan backed by tolling revenue. WSDOT’s financing plan (even before the overruns climbed to $223 million with no sign of stopping) relies on $200 million in tolling profits. That tolling largesse is extracted from more than $1 billion in tolls projected over the next 25 years, due to considerable tolling overhead and maintenance and financing costs.

When it opens in early February, the tunnel will be free to drive through, with tolling starting at a yet-to-be-specified date this summer. WSDOT predicted traffic will actually increase significantly (by over a third!) compared to current viaduct numbers at rush hour during the untolled period.

WSDOT is pretty bullish that the SR-99 tunnel is going to be a thing. (WSDOT)
WSDOT is pretty bullish that the SR-99 tunnel is going to be a thing. (WSDOT)

Perhaps WSDOT wants to get people hooked on the convenience of the “tunnel direct” so they continue to use it after a modest toll is put in place: $1 to $2.25 with WSDOT’s Good-To-Go pass and more without one, but undoubtedly traffic will go down after a toll is put in place, and many of those vehicles will end up on city streets.

WSDOT’s excuse for spending your tax dollars inducing demand for driving and worsening greenhouse gas emissions is that the ad campaign is really about avoiding confusion and frustration among drivers who somehow missed that a tunnel will work differently than the viaduct did.

WSDOT spokesperson Emily Glad laid out the reasoning to KIRO. “The majority of people didn’t know that the tunnel would have different entrances and exits than the viaduct,” Glad said. “One of our main target audiences is reaching people who use those exits. We don’t want to risk confusion and frustration from drivers who are unaware of the major route change.”

Maybe, but the advertisements don’t explain exactly how the portals work beyond the catchphrase “Stadiums to Space Needle” — although it does direct people to the “99 tunnel” website. What the ad campaign fundamentally does is encourage people to drive and portrays that as a fun, easy thing to do under and through Seattle’s central core.

Has WSDOT or any state or local agency ever commissioned a $4.4 million marketing campaign to promote transit or biking or walking? It sure doesn’t seem like it.

When Sound Transit spent around $1 million on an opening day “party” and a media campaign for the University of Washington and Capitol Hill stations, it was a front page story on The Seattle Times, even though Sound Transit says they recouped the money from additional fares. When a light rail station opens, it’s free for a day and not several months.

That wave motion gimmick is a thing. (WSDOT)
That wave motion gimmick is a thing. (WSDOT)

It’s a thing, WSDOT’s ad repeatedly extolls, as their actors perform a new wave motion, that is apparently supposed to go viral making driving in a $4 billion boondoggle tunnel hip.

It’s a thing!

It remains to be seen exactly how popular the tunnel will be with drivers. The cost overruns associated with the tunnel (and the five-year delay building it) and litigating who pays for them are both definitely things though.

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Ryan Packer lives in the Summit Slope neighborhood of Capitol Hill and has been writing for the blog since 2015. They report on multimodal transportation issues, #VisionZero, preservation, and local politics. They believe in using Seattle's history to help attain the vibrant, diverse city that we all wish to inhabit. In December 2020, Ryan started a three-month stint as editor of Seattle Bike Blog.

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OK – I’m not a tunnel fan. I think we had our choice of bad options and were always going to choose based on “least bad” rather than “best.” But at this point, this is just a public information campaign, right? I see this getting covered as a waste of money, government bloat, and inducing people to burn fossil fuels.

But isn’t a perfectly reasonable explanation that there is a major, major change in the way mobility works downtown and you need a PR campaign to inform as many as you can in order for what we built to work as well as it can?

What’s the alternative? Build a huge tunnel that changes the way basic patterns of mobility work downtown and then DON’T try as many ways as possible to communicate the impacts to drivers? Just don’t say anything, open it and hope that chaos won’t ensue (people pulling crazy u turns driving aggressively and crazily because they “missed their exit” etc? We know that’s what’ll happen right?).

That’s absurd. Of course there’s a public information campaign, and of course it has to meet people WHERE THEY ARE. People shrieking over the PR are just looking for something to be mad about.

If you have this much energy over the tunnel, put it into Seattle Subway, or the Waterfront redesign, or any of a number of other things that can make downtown and the city in general better. We’re tilting at windmills here.


Thanks for exposing this – what a misuse of money! You don’t need to spend money on *encouraging* people to drive more. And all drivers who are affected by the viaduct/tunnel already know about it, so the excuse rings hollow.


Great story. All this huffing and puffing over this stupid tunnel that, as the easy adjustment to the viaducts loss proves, was never needed. McGinn was right and continues to be right. The viaduct should have been closed and replaced with…nothing.


I supported the ‘stacked’ cut-cover tunnel alternative on the basis of it making the strongest seawall, being the most stable in earthquake, and retaining access at Lower Belltown to SR99 south (not north to Lake Union) for 35,000 Ballard-bound vehicles daily. The Battery Street Tunnel was retained and extended north similar to the now finished deep bore tunnel north portal. The excuse given for its rejection: Too expensive of course.