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July 7, 2011 at 5:29 PM

Tunnels, tolls and traffic: The environmental statement is out

Posted by Mike Lindblom

The state Department of Transportation is out with its final environmental impact statement for its proposed deep-bored Highway 99 tunnel, thousands of pages posted Thursday at www.alaskanwayviaduct.org.

Activists and political fans will be especially interested in Appendix V.

A few months ago, anti-tunnel Mayor Mike McGinn and the Nelson/Nygaard consulting firm released a study that proposes a wholesale change in Seattle travel patterns -- to dramatically reduce driving in favor of more transit, surface streets and commute-reduction programs, instead of a highway replacement. Appendix V includes this report, as well as blunt rebuttal comments by the state and Federal Highway Administration.

Among other points, the EIS contends the Puget Sound region "has not embraced" the idea of government programs to deter driving.

There are also updated sections on tolling and traffic. These mention possible toll rates that average more than $2 each way, and peak at just over $4. We haven't had time to examine Thursday's release yet, but earlier drafts predicted tolling could cause 40,000 or more cars to be diverted onto Interstate 5 or side streets each day.

Governments don't have a coherent plan yet to reduce diversion, or to protect Pioneer Square from overflow traffic near the Sodo interchange, though meetings and discussions are underway. It will be interesting to see what ideas (if any) are in the FEIS. Are there ways to lower the toll rate? Would parking spaces, road lanes, or traffic signals be changed to protect the Square?

The biggest news may be the timing of the document. Thursday's release moves the state DOT closer to getting a final "record of decision" in August from the feds, allowing a groundbreaking.

Meanwhile, Seattle voters will vote next month on Referendum 1, regarding the City Council's tunnel agreements with the state. An "approved" result endorses the agreements, while a "rejected" outcome would send a political message that voters oppose the tunnel.

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