The Highway 99 tunnel tops a new list of 11 “highway boondoggles” that shouldn’t be built, in a report issued Thursday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).
The report, called “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future,” argues that America’s six-decade “Driving Boom” has passed its prime, and miles traveled will gradually decline. Highway megaprojects are therefore a waste of money, including $3.1 billion to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the PIRG says.
The study notes that tunnel-boring machine Bertha is stuck while undergoing repairs, causing delay and added costs. On the other hand, Washington state has already spent most of the Highway 99 budget, including more than $1 billion of the $1.44 billion to Seattle Tunnel Partners — making the four-lane tunnel an irreversible choice, at least to Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and other officials.
Nonetheless, study author Phineas Baxandall said in an interview that Washington state ought to at least consider the costs and benefits of changing course. “We’re not able to reassess the economics of what that money is now, but we hope someone at DOT (state Department of Transportation) is doing that,” Baxandall said.
The 11 “boondoggles” include double-decking I-94 in Milwaukee and widening I-94 in Detroit. Some are still in planning phases. “A lot of these can still be stopped before ground is broken,” Baxandall said.
The leveling off in miles driven, and a steep drop in car use by young adults, have been documented in multiple studies, many of them cited in essays by Seattle-based Sightline Institute. On the other hand, the Highway 99 tunnel replaces rather than expands Seattle-area road capacity, while removing noise and a double-deck structure from the central waterfront.
PIRG replies that short-term boosts to transit during Highway 99 construction have been successful, and should be expanded rather than pour dollars into highways. “What else could you do?” he said.
Ridership is growing on routes such as King County Metro’s Route 120, from Delridge and White Center to downtown. And the RapidRide C Line alone carries about 8,000 passengers between West Seattle and downtown per weekday.
While there are plenty of citizens and bloggers who despise the tunnel, there appears to be no organized opposition, nor any politicians calling to halt the Seattle project.
In other studies today, the Reason Foundation reissued its annual survey of road conditions and performance — Washington state ranks 42nd overall. The state’s best rating is 4th in safety, while pavement conditions on interstate highways are in the bottom 10.