[Editor’s note: Even before he ran for City Council in 1997, Richard Conlin was one of Puget Sound’s leading sustainability champions. Throughout his tenure, Conlin has consistently proven to be a leader in forward-thinking, green politics. Conlin’s imprint is on everything from City Hall’s zero-waste strategy and carbon–neutral campaign to the recent move to make Seattle America’s first official Gross National Happiness city. Besides being president of the Council, Richard chairs its Regional Development and Sustainability Committee. In 1989, he co-founded Sustainable Seattle.
When Mayor Mike McGinn, an environmental lawyer and bike commuter with sustainability credentials as unimpeachable as Conlin’s, took office in January, we were ecstatic over the prospect of a united green front to tackle mounting challenges facing our region. Finally the mayor and Council could move together on transportation issues to lead Seattle toward a post-carbon future.
So we were at first puzzled and have become increasingly dismayed with the bitter standoff between Conlin and the mayor over what we consider to be a defining issue for Seattle’s future, the Deep Bore Tunnel project to replace the deteriorating Alaska Way viaduct. Having seen city after West Coast city make the call against car dependency and in favor of livable waterfronts, we’ve been inclined to support the Surface Transit option — a boulevard along the waterfront, with former viaduct traffic using the boulevard or finding alternate routes. The surface option is admittedly not the fastest way to move vehicles — but then, in a post-carbon era, the whole point is that the car is no longer king.
The more people we asked about Conlin’s position, the more we found expressing similar consternation to ours. Surprisingly, we could find no public exploration of precisely why he supported the Deep Bore project, given his green credentials. When Richard returned from vacation last month, we asked to meet with him. Last week, between a meeting on bike sharing and the wake for the South Park Bridge, Conlin laid out his philosophy on the tunnel. We give him credit for compelling arguments and the humility to admit that for all the obvious work and thought he’s put into his position, he could be mistaken.
From the get-go Richard took us by surprise. The $4.2 billion Deep Bore Tunnel through downtown Seattle, he said, is the “green” solution.]
Q. How do you reconcile your longstanding sustainability views with support for the tunnel?
A. I actually see it as the green alternative.
Q. In what way?
A. We’re trying to create a great waterfront park that’s going to make a huge difference in terms of the type of urban environment we have. And we’re trying to put in a transportation system that’s going to serve the urban center effectively and efficiently. So how do you reconcile these? It comes down to: Creating an underground corridor takes your traffic away from the waterfront and keeps it going through the city while you create an urban waterfront center that you’re looking for. I see that as good management strategy. And soaking up all that gas-tax money in the city actually really helps us prevent roads from being built in some of the places we don’t want them being built.
I’d add that from a climate perspective we’re reducing a six-lane highway to a four-lane roadway — that’s a significant gain. It’s not creating new capacity. I don’t know any other city that’s actually taken a central freeway and slimmed it down like that.
There’s clearly an embedded carbon impact from the construction. That one’s really hard to compute, I don’t know exactly how to deal with that. Probably if you amortize it over the 100-year lifespan it’s not that significant.
Q. Other cities have livable waterfronts without an underground tunnel. Do we have to have both?
A. Portland just moved their freeway traffic over. Here we’re building something as well, so why not a tunnel, what’s wrong with that?
Q. They still have traffic congestion, it’s just the nature of the beast that when you accommodate traffic, you get more. In San Francisco, the surface traffic kind of figured it out and went elsewhere. They all have far advanced rail as well. None of these cities escape traffic problems, but they also don’t have the crushing expense of the tunnel. The Bicycle Master Plan has $75 million in committed funding, less than 2 percent of the tunnel cost, with no clear path to getting full $240M financing. We can’t afford to make even minimal infrastructural improvements for bikes — the greenest alternative to cars — yet we continue to put ourselves into deep debt for the dubious cause of car dependency.
A. Vancouver is lucky because they never had freeways, they never created them. They have the advantage of being at the end of the line, so things don’t go through Vancouver.
Q. North Vancouver is an emerging problem. Again, Vancouver has terrible traffic. But it manages to get by.
A. But Vancouver made the decision initially not to build freeways through the city. And we’ve created [in Seattle] an infrastructure that’s going to take time to reshape. The San Francisco model is not as apropos, because we’re dealing with a through route, whereas they came off elevated [freeway] and sent traffic down onto surface streets. So it’s not quite the same model.
The model I think would be interesting to imitate is Seoul, Korea, where they had a freeway that was over a stream and they took the freeway down and re-opened the stream. It was really cool. But they also had a lot of additional construction, you can’t separate the fact they took down [a freeway] with building all these other roads around there.
I’m not sure any of those are quite the same situation we’re dealing with. And from the cost perspective, the surface option was $3.2 billion, and this (tunnel plus surface) is $4.1B, so that’s still a big difference, but it’s not $4B worth of difference. And most of that is gas tax, and gas tax can only be used for highway purposes. We can’t get it for things we’d like to get it for.
Q. In terms of prioritization, though, moving cars instead of funding bike improvements?
A. That’s something we need to do. But because this is the state’s project, things aren’t fungible. And that’s the second point I wanted to make, which is, what would happen if you said no, we’re not going to do this [tunnel] now? There’s really three possible outcomes that I can see.
Outcome No. 1 is you would be able to get a surface option. It would save you some money, but there are some risks to the surface option. Could that $500M investment for I-5 actually be done [adding a lane to the Freeway]? What other problems are likely to emerge if you have to deal with the changing lanes and so forth? How much traffic are you going to wind up with on other city streets? So there are risks to it.
Option 2 is that the state decides to go ahead with the tunnel, and in that case your risk is any further delay or other problems are likely to drive up the cost and create more cost overruns.
The other option is that the state says to hell with you, Seattle, we’re going to rebuild the elevated because that’s cheaper. So the question is what is the probability of one of those things happening and you wind up in a poisonous relationship with the state, which is also problematic for all kinds of different reasons.
My assessment is the risk is pretty high they’d pursue an elevated. They might stay with the tunnel, the governor is pretty committed to it, and we’d get the same thing we have anyway but it’d probably cost a lot more.
The chances that the state would actually fund the surface option — it would be pretty revolutionary for that to happen. Other people read it differently. But my perspective is that’s the risk of getting something worse than what we’re being asked for.
Q. Still, we’re looking at a project that the citizens of Seattle repeatedly have said they don’t want.
A. That’s not true. They voted down a cut-and-cover tunnel and it was an advisory ballot, it was totally screwy.
Q. We elected a mayor that made it the centerpiece of his candidacy.
A. I think there’s a very good argument to be made that they wouldn’t have elected him if he hadn’t said he was going to go along with it. You can interpret election returns any way you want.
Q. Mallahan was not a question-mark, though. He was 100 percent for the tunnel.
A. My argument is this is Seattle. You have an environmental leader who led the parks levy campaign, a neighborhood advocate, had the endorsement of most of the major organizations in the environmental and democratic communities, opposing a corporate executive who hadn’t even voted in most Seattle elections — McGinn should’ve gotten 75 percent of the vote.
Q. Well, they were both unknowns (in terms of elected office).
A. You can argue these things till the cows come home, you’ll never know what the voters were thinking.
[Part 2 tomorrow: “I’m not the anti-McGinn.”]