Fanciful proposals for what to do with Seattle’s old Battery Street Tunnel all overlook the obvious: That it would make a fine, and desperately needed, roadway for cars and buses.
Sometimes the answer is right in front of you, so close you can’t see it.
For months now, panels of citizens and designers have been convening to imagine a possible future for Seattle’s Battery Street Tunnel. The one-third-mile tube has for decades connected the Alaskan Way Viaduct on the waterfront to Highway 99 in South Lake Union, but it’s slated to be “decommissioned” — filled with concrete rubble — when the viaduct is torn down next year.
So last fall a group called “Recharge The Battery” held a design competition for how we might reuse the old tunnel instead. The group said the ideas “ranged from the feasible to the outrageous,” and one news account gushed that “coming up with bold ideas is the kind of thing Seattle citizens do well.”
So that’s how the following got proposed: A mushroom farm. Geothermal public baths. An ice skating tube. A giant garden planter. A subterranean concert venue. A skateboard park. A forested ravine to filter stormwater (the sketch of this one shows a man clad in a Speedo frolicking in the stormwater stream — ahh, downtown living!).
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When Seattle Times Sketcher Gabriel Campanario asked readers to brainstorm, he was hit with equally far-fetched notions, such as a giant campground for the homeless.
But a couple of readers had an idea so crazy, and so un-Seattle, that it just might work.
Use the Battery Street Tunnel for … a road.
“I understand the tunnel is old and not up to current safety standards for a highway, but could the tunnel be used as a 30 mph city street with a single lane in each direction?” wrote Jeff Roberts, a business manager at ADP in Seattle. “The tunnel was designed to be a road and it still has value to the citizens … as a direct connection between South Lake Union and the Seattle waterfront.”
This makes so much sense that apparently it didn’t occur to anyone before Roberts mentioned it. None of Recharge the Battery’s visioning concepts include cars (though one mentions running buses through part of the tunnel, which is a great idea). Even the state transportation agency, in its planning documents, mentions only that future uses of the old tunnel could be possible, “such as pedestrian or bicycle use.”
Yet what Seattle desperately needs are crosstown car and bus routes, especially in the boom town around Amazon. And here is one just lying there. Out of sight, and, so it seems, out of mind.
The street that forms the roof of the tunnel, Battery Street, is a major bus route that routinely backs up with traffic, delaying the buses as they queue to head north. It got so bad that half the street is now marked off in red as a bus-only lane.
If we converted the tunnel below into a local shortcut to South Lake Union, then the buses could skip the entire Belltown-Denny-Aurora quagmire. To make the tunnel more useful still, install an entrance along Third Avenue for buses.
We’ve long had the Mercer Mess, but now the Denny Disaster is just as bad. This is when Amazon-fueled traffic backs up to the vanishing point along Denny Way each afternoon. Well, the Battery Street tunnel conveniently goes under Denny. So traffic trying to cross from downtown into South Lake Union would have a shot at getting there.
The state cautions the tunnel is so old it needs seismic retrofits, which could run into the tens of millions of dollars. I would only counter that our recent experience with Bertha taught us that new tunnels are so difficult and expensive to build they are effectively priceless. So is it really wise to fill any potentially usable tunnel around here with rubble?
I’m with Recharge The Battery: Save the old tunnel! But not for stormwater ravines or a dank underground park. Recharge it for its original, utilitarian and, yes, mundane purpose — a road.
I know, it’ll never happen. Because first somebody in Seattle other than a few crazy readers would have to think that a road is something worth saving.