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Originally published September 15, 2009 at 12:16 AM | Page modified September 24, 2009 at 4:50 PM

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McGinn's no-tunnel campaign counts on fewer cars

If Mike McGinn beats Joe Mallahan in the Seattle mayor's race this fall, he will consider that a mandate to fight the $4.2 billion bored-tunnel plan to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

Tunnel

McGinn scenario

MIKE McGINN would seek to move $2.4 billion in state highway funds to a "surface transit" plan instead of a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Alaskan Way/waterfront: Demolish viaduct, rebuild surface road similar to present width, mostly four lanes, $825 million.

Interstate-5 widening: Eliminate left-side offramps to fit an additional lane through downtown, make other improvements, $553 million.

Utility relocation: Paid by the state instead of the city, $250 million.

Sea-wall replacement: Paid by the state instead of the city, $255 million.

Transit: Cost savings applied to buy new buses and increase service in waterfront and other areas, $500 million.

Source: McGinn campaign

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In Mike McGinn's vision for the Seattle waterfront, there is no Alaskan Way Viaduct, no tunnel to replace it, no highway at all. Just a waterfront boulevard.

If McGinn beats Joe Mallahan in the mayor's race this fall, he will consider that a mandate to fight the $4.2 billion bored-tunnel plan that Gov. Chris Gregoire and Mayor Greg Nickels announced in January.

More people, McGinn says, would take buses, bikes, squeeze onto Interstate 5, use downtown streets — or stay home.

At least 50,000 of the 109,000 vehicles now on the viaduct each weekday would have to disappear, government studies say. McGinn agrees, and he's eager to make that happen.

"Automobiles are like in-laws. You want to have good relations with them, but you don't want them to run your lives," said McGinn, a former local Sierra Club chairman who considers the tunnel a road to environmental ruin.

"The public knows we need to make this transition, and the way you make this transition is how you invest your dollars in the future. And an investment in a 1.7-mile buried highway that doesn't even connect to downtown and serve transit is just a really poor investment in our future."

Traffic studies and experts say McGinn's call for change would disrupt thousands of commutes and business deliveries.

"I have no conception of any other place that would take out a road with 100,000 cars a day, with no alternative to that," said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington.

McGinn said he would increase bus service, add bus and bike lanes, and improve I-5, by adding a downtown lane, and relocating or closing ramps.

Fans of his "surface transit" concept note that San Francisco, Milwaukee, New York and Toronto have scrapped elevated freeway segments, without a traffic apocalypse. But Seattle has only the viaduct and I-5 to carry cars, buses and trucks through its downtown.

A waterfront boulevard, depending on its size, would carry 45,000 to 75,000 vehicles a day, state figures show. Driving would be slower, although the amount of delay is debatable.

Mallahan says McGinn's anti-tunnel effort is misguided. A decision has been reached, and businesses that rely on a highway for moving freight would come to a halt, he said.

"I'm committed to the idea of encouraging other modes of transportation, bikes, pedestrians, transit, but I think it's extremely risky to force people to other modes by destroying the current automobile capacity," Mallahan said.

It's not clear, of course, that McGinn could even stop the tunnel. Key state leaders consider the matter closed, after years of debate.

Efforts to replace the viaduct, built in 1953, gained momentum after the 2001 quake caused a few columns to sink. Lawmakers earmarked $2.4 billion, mostly in gas taxes, toward a replacement highway, and they voted this year to direct that money to the tunnel.

McGinn counters that Seattle voters have not signed onto an additional $930 million in city spending for a sea wall, utility relocations, street improvements and a waterfront promenade, and he warns that tunneling is likely to bring cost overruns.

Surface boulevard

Hallenbeck said a waterfront boulevard would be like putting Aurora Avenue on the waterfront.

McGinn hasn't proposed a specific design. He would add bike lanes and shoulders, but generally, no more car lanes.

When the state has mapped out surface options, the studies predicted speeds as low as 8 mph at peak.

While there are no stoplights on today's Highway 99 from Spokane Street to the Aurora Bridge, a surface boulevard would have 22, the state said.

The latest state study, in November, said a peak trip from Greenwood to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport would take 11 minutes longer with a surface street, compared to a tunnel or elevated highway.

As for urban design, a state-sponsored study by Gehl Architects of Copenhagen said a surface boulevard, if it carried only 30,000 to 50,000 cars a day, still would leave the waterfront "a vehicle-dominated place."

McGinn points to The Embarcadero in San Francisco, where cars, streetcars, bike lanes and parks share a former viaduct corridor, wider than Seattle's.

Earlier, a City Council consultant, DKS, forecast that even with "extensive transit use," 40,000 to 75,000 average daily trips would be made on a waterfront road, thwarting the goal of a pedestrian-friendly waterfront.

McGinn says people aren't crazy enough to sit in traffic, so most would use transit or find other routes.

For instance, his plan would create capacity to convert 2,955 northbound vehicles that now bypass downtown (per peak hour) into I-5 and transit rides, his campaign said Friday.

The state has assumed all along that capacity south of the ferry terminal would increase, regardless of whether a tunnel is chosen.

But McGinn wants less homage to the car there, too. He opposes the state's plan to widen Alaskan Way to six lanes, from the stadiums to the ferry terminal.

He said that while the state needs a bridge over freight tracks, it should discard plans for a big interchange with a truck underpass in Sodo, and instead build a street intersection at the surface.

Pro-tunnel critics of McGinn will argue that traffic would blight the central waterfront in a surface plan, yet the state plan also lures freight and car traffic, by widening the surface street south of the ferry dock.

At least one expert believes a surface plan still could serve traffic needs.

New computer modeling by Paul Waddell, a University of California professor of planning, predicts that if you remove the viaduct, and don't add road lanes elsewhere, the result is an average 6-minute driver delay (small enough it might well be zero, he says) for various trips.

He forecasts no spillover delays on I-5, and said there's an 80 percent chance a trip from Lake Union to Spokane Street would increase between two and 10 minutes.

Reality far better?

Typically, the studies published by state government ignore people who would shift to transit, change jobs, move homes or relocate businesses, said Waddell, formerly at the UW.

"In instances such as a temporary or even long-term closure of a major transportation facility, the reality in terms of traffic conditions is often far better than transportation officials expect," his study concludes.

Commuters had few problems surviving the August 2007 repaving of I-5 in south Seattle, when backups stretched one to three miles, not the 10 miles state transportation officials warned about. They took vacations, used other highways, or switched to transit.

The traffic results of a permanent viaduct closure are harder to predict, said Rick Schuman, vice president of Kirkland-based INRIX, a traffic-data firm. "Would people adapt? Certainly. Is it the outcome that best serves the region? It's hard to say."

Hallenbeck believes many commuters and businesses would tolerate longer drives for a few years, then move.

"While people are sorting out their lives, you've got freight sitting in traffic," added Dave Freiboth, executive secretary of the M.L. King County Labor Council.

Pouring money into the current bus system wouldn't be enough.

McGinn proposes shifting $500 million from the tunnel plan to Metro Transit.

Without major changes, bus drivers worry that downtown streets would be so crowded that routes would be delayed. "We are terrified of that," said Paul Bachtel, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587, whose political-education committee supports Mallahan.

McGinn's campaign calls for more bus lanes. Even under the state tunnel plan, the transit union says bus lanes are crucial to connect the downtown core to Highway 99.

The DKS/city study contends downtown streets already are too saturated to absorb traffic. Seattle would need more high-capacity transit — at similar cost to a new highway.

McGinn said he will make a detailed transit proposal this week. "It needs to be more than just plain bus service," he said.

Too late?

Some construction already is under way, especially in the south end. The main Sodo contract is to be awarded in January, days after a new mayor is sworn in.

This year, the state Department of Transportation has spent $64 million on tunnel engineering, done about 60 soil tests, and continues work on environmental studies — bringing the eight-year total for viaduct-related work to $372 million.

If Seattle hesitates on a tunnel, state Senate Transportation Committee Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, said lawmakers from elsewhere will pounce on the $2.4 billion for highway projects in their districts.

But McGinn insisted, "it's not a done deal."

For starters, engineering is only 5 percent complete. Also, the state hasn't issued a plan to collect $400 million in needed tolls, and Gregoire hasn't helped King County create a transit car-tab tax, as described in the January tunnel agreement.

McGinn notes whenever Seattle voters get the chance to support transit, they take it.

"The politicians underestimate the public when they think it's all just about angry drivers," he said. "The people of Seattle, they're hungry for a better transportation system."

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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