When state officials met recently to discuss how their highway megaprojects are doing, the fact that fewer people are driving through Seattle these days was presented as terrible news.
That car volumes have dropped in the Highway 99 tunnel and across the 520 bridge, mostly due to the soaring popularity of work from home, was described as “bleak” and a “negative message that I wish I wasn’t here to deliver.”
“It’s a problem that’s not going to go away with time,” a state treasury official warned.
Now the reason they view less traffic as a bad thing is because the state’s toll revenues are taking a hit. As transportation reporter Mike Lindblom laid out well in a story last weekend, the tolling revenue shortfall is expected to be especially acute on the 3-year-old Highway 99 tunnel.
It’s a pickle because as they jack up the tolls to wring more money out of each driver to cover the shortfall, then more cars will divert onto Seattle’s waterfront – where they are building an eight-lane monstrosity of a road to handle the traffic.
But I would like to submit that less traffic is not bad. It’s good! That there are now fewer commuters warring, Hunger Games-style, over the same scraps of pavement at rush hour is one of the few great things to come out of the pandemic.
It’s changed the calculus of one of Seattle’s biggest challenges of the past three or four decades. How much the traffic math has changed, and in precisely what ways, nobody is yet certain. But here’s what state officials just said about the old Alaskan Way Viaduct transportation corridor, which we spent 20 years arguing about because it was seen to be so overloaded with traffic:
“There’s been a permanent shift in the projected use of this corridor.”
It isn’t a shift up, which would be bad. It’s a shift down, which is … a godsend for the city.
It means we don’t need to put that eight-lane road (plus a parking lane) on the south part of the waterfront to handle spill-over traffic. This stretch of Alaskan Way will be so wide in parts – 111 feet – that they’re building a median as an oasis for pedestrians who can’t make it across in one light change.
It’s plopping the equivalent of Mercer Street at I-5 on the very waterfront the whole project was designed to save.
The city has a dubious plan to shrink this roadway in 10 years when light rail to West Seattle is scheduled to open, on the theory that rail will eliminate the need for so many lanes. Road lanes are disposable? Anyway the good news is that work from home is already cutting rush-hour traffic. There’s no need to wait 10 years — the waterfront roadway should be shrunk now.
The other thing we don’t need are the tolls through the tunnel. Just get rid of them.
The reason these tolls even exist is political spite. Lawmakers from around the state were hacked off at Seattle and were convinced this tunnel would be a cost-overrun boondoggle. So in exchange for their votes for the Highway 99 tunnel project, they insisted on tolling to stick a share of the cost on city residents.
They did this even though state transportation officials had warned them for years that tolling wouldn’t work well on Highway 99.
“Tolls on a Viaduct replacement would generate little revenue,” the state transportation secretary wrote in a memo way back in 2003. “Primarily because it would be too easy for drivers to avoid them by taking other routes.”
As promised, tolling this tunnel has turned out to be so inefficient that, in the most recent period, 54% of the money collected there went just to paying the costs of collecting the tolls. A normal tolling operation costs 10 to 20%.
Canceling the tolls would lure those drivers not working from home back where we want them — which is underground, not clogging up the waterfront. This was the main purpose for the tunnel.
It’s true that to make the tolls go away, the state would need to come up with about $200 million in tunnel debt. But there’s good news there, too: The Bertha tunnel did not turn out to be a financial boondoggle, as so many predicted.
Last week the courts not only let taxpayers off the hook for cost overruns, but forced the contractors to pay the state $77 million in late penalties. Incredibly this means the final price tag for the tunnel will likely be within 5% of the original price promised way back in 2009.
Talk about a plot twist. After all that drama, taxpayers will pay less of a cost overrun than you get on your typical kitchen remodel.
State lawmakers just found $130 million to lower tolls on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. A similar move here and bam – debt would be paid, make-work tolls could be gone, Seattle waterfront saved.
Killing the tolls would also be a kind gesture to West Seattleites. I think we can all agree they’ve suffered enough.
Seriously, though, less traffic isn’t a crisis unless you’re a toll-collector. For Seattle, it’s an opportunity. It grants a last-ditch opening to return to what the original vision of this civic campaign was more than 20 long years ago: to reclaim the waterfront from the automobile.
In the Seattle story that may never end, it still isn’t too late for a proper ending.