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Originally published Saturday, August 13, 2011 at 9:00 PM

Danny Westneat

Digging into Seattle's century-old debate

Seattle's debate over whether to replace its aging elevated waterfront highway with a tunnel mirrors one surrounding the construction of the Great Northern Tunnel in 1903.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Once upon a time, the Seattle City Council had a vexing problem. It may sound awfully familiar to you.

Our waterfront area is "mayhem," was how one council member described it, a wall of congestion and noise. The thicket of train tracks and ramshackle depots is necessary for growth and prosperity, but is "unbecoming of such a beautiful and important city."

That was in 1903. I bring up this ancient history because a bold plan was hatched back then to help the railroads keep doing business, while also saving the area around what is now called Alaskan Way (then Railroad Avenue).

Put the trains underground, decreed the city engineer. Dig a tunnel under the heart of the city. In other words, the same debate we're having today.

Now it's about relieving the waterfront of cars, not trains. It culminates (or maybe not) in a vote Tuesday on replacing our aging elevated waterfront highway with a tunnel.

There are many solid reasons to vote either yes or no on this current tunnel. I'm not going to repeat that debate here.

But I had noticed that some of the anti-tunnel critiques by the mayor and others, particularly the newspaper The Stranger, have suggested that tunneling under downtown Seattle is so complex, difficult and risky that the idea is insane on its face.

The Stranger laid out its bill of particulars last year, in an article titled "What Could Possibly Go Wrong?" It was thousands of words of calamities that indeed could conceivably happen, from the tunnel-boring machine getting stuck to loose soils caving in to downtown skyscrapers sinking to future earthquakes collapsing the entire mess.

Mayor Mike McGinn mostly opposes digging a tunnel for financial and environmental reasons, but he has also called the project "unacceptably risky." He cited how it will be dug through "extreme soil conditions" beneath a major American city.

But nobody ever seems to mention that we already have a tunnel down there. It was dug through these same soils. It's no minor tube, either. It's a mile long and 30 feet in diameter (enough room for two train ways). In places, it is 140 feet below the surface.

And here's the thing that gets me: They dug it by hand.

In April 1903, "an army of 350 workers with pickaxes, shovels and wheelbarrows began digging into the hillside" at the foot of Virginia Street, according to theSeattle history website historylink.org.

The Great Northern Tunnel is smaller — it's 60 percent of the length of today's proposed 1.7 mile-long tunnel, and only about half as wide. Still, at the time it was the largest train tunnel ever attempted (again — sound familiar?). Yet it took two work crews digging from opposite ends only 17 months to chisel the entire thing out by hand.

That's about the time it takes us to convene an advisory commission.

According to newspaper reports at the time, incessant water seepage hampered work, as did soil cave-ins, boulders and the discovery of a prehistoric forest. Yet the entire project cost only $1.5 million. Plus it's still in heavy use 108 years later. The last earthquake, in 2001, didn't crack it or move it an inch.

In today's dollars, the old train tunnel cost about $40 million — fifty times less than what we're projected to pay for the new tunnel.

"I don't think that train tunnel has ever missed a day of service," says Ron Paananen, manager of the state's team planning the current tunnel. "It changed the face of Seattle, and it doesn't get a lot of notice."

How can we be so freaked out by something when we did a version of the same thing more than a hundred years ago?

On the other hand, why does it now cost so much more? The prices of all these big public-works projects have exploded to where they are almost undoable.

Paananen said state engineers are intimately familiar with the railroad tunnel because it was dug through the same general soils (the bus and light-rail tunnel, dug in the 1980s, is much shallower).

Obviously, a machine would be used to dig the new tunnel — compared with legions of toilers who were probably paid a pittance — but otherwise the parallels, and contrasts, between the two projects a hundred years apart are striking.

"Whether we tunnel or not has never been an engineering question," Paananen says. "It's never been 'can it be done?' It's 'will it be done?' "

Much has been made about how we've bickered over the Alaskan Way Viaduct for 10 years now. But really, Seattle's struggle over this same waterfront spot has been going on for more than a hundred years.

McGinn and others have articulated well the modern arguments. That they don't think we need new highways at all. That we'd be better off spending our money on something other than this risky tunnel.

There's merit to that. Still, I can't help wondering how Reginald Thomson, the city engineer who ordered the train tunnel back in 1903, in order to protect Seattle's waterfront, might respond:

"A tunnel's too risky? Pshaw. I could build one of those with my bare hands."

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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