We’ve been debating variations of Bertha’s tunnel under downtown for so long — since 2001— that Seattle is a much different city now than when this project was first conceived. Most important: Downtown moved.
I went down into the pit Tuesday to see Bertha’s breakthrough.
I went because the news said, “Breaking news: Bertha breakthrough,” and I realized I have been covering this tunnel and the question of what we’re going to do with the highway on Seattle’s waterfront for as long as I’ve been a newspaper columnist.
Can news be called “breaking” when it takes 15-plus years to get here?
One time my in-laws were visiting from Nashville and I had written a column on the city’s fierce Alaskan Way Viaduct debate. This was maybe 2010. They read it and remarked: “The last time we were visiting, which was five years ago, you also had a column about this Alaskan Way Viaduct. What’s up with that?”
What is up with that, Seattle?
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As I watched Bertha grind through to daylight, nearly three years late, all of this ground through my mind. This project is on its fourth mayor and third governor. People have attended more than 700 community meetings and voted on it three times since the Nisqually quake shook the old double-decker highway in February 2001.
A tunnel, a new viaduct, a surface boulevard, a concrete-encased Frank Chopp-a-duct in the sky (remember that?). Seattle’s not good at deciding anything, but this truly vexed us. It was the “riddle in Seattle’s middle.”
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What’s amazing today is how much has shifted since then — both in how Seattle has grown and how it thinks about itself.
For starters, the main practical argument against this tunnel was that it didn’t go anywhere. “There are no exits to downtown,” I heard a thousand times at a hundred meetings. “Who will use it?”
But a funny thing happened in our years of dithering: Downtown moved. This project is taking so long that the gravitational pull of the entire central city has sharply reoriented to the north — coincidentally bracketing where Bertha came out of the ground.
I walked the new tunnel’s offramp into South Lake Union on Tuesday. It dumps into the heart of one of the fastest-growing job markets in the nation. Right now there are 22 skyscrapers of 40 stories planned for development within 10 blocks of the tunnel’s exit.
It was mostly antique stores and old auto dealerships when we started debating the project in 2001.
It’s as if Bertha were a children’s book character, known for her pointless wandering. But when she popped up Tuesday, miraculously in the middle of the hottest neighborhood on the West Coast, she could say: “I knew I was going somewhere all along!”
Seriously, West Seattleites who derided this tunnel all those years: If you now work at Amazon, as increasingly many of you do, somehow this boondoggle with no exits has morphed into a direct stoplight-free track to your offices.
And for you car haters, there’s no reason the tunnel can’t now be used as a major express-bus route to the Amazon jungle.
Dumb luck? Probably. But it’s no road to nowhere anymore.
Critics such as former Mayor Mike McGinn say we should have built light rail from West Seattle to Ballard instead of this dubious highway. Sounds great on paper, but they would have had to drill a tunnel for that project, too. And it wouldn’t have solved the riddle in the middle. We’ve still got freight and heavy industry. We still would have had to do a multibillion-dollar project to replace the crumbling six-lane viaduct highway with … something.
“There was no good answer — that’s why this was so hard for us,” said Bob Messina, a 37-year Seattle resident who came down to the Bertha breakthrough to see some progress being made for a change. “My own thinking on it has shifted several times. In the end, I came around to the tunnel because we’re putting a portion of the cars underground. That’s it. That’s priceless.”
I had to laugh at a tweet that was going around Tuesday. It read: “Please remember I’m new to Seattle before judging me … but why is everyone here so obsessed with Bertha?”
Ha! Because she’s the symbol of both our ambitions and our failings. Because we’re coming of age as a city and puberty is a navel-gazing time. Because we’ve been talking about this for so damn long, we don’t know what else to talk about?
I do not know. But mercifully, she’s finally done.