Cancel the Tunnel

Bertha Knight Landes
Seattle mayor, 1926-1928

What would Bertha do?

Bertha Knight Landes, that is: the former Seattle mayor, not the billion-dollar abomination currently stranded underneath downtown Seattle.

The decision to name the world’s largest (and most costly) tunnel-boring machine after the first woman mayor of a major American city must surely now be embarrassing to the memory of Landes, who ran for Seattle mayor in 1926 on a staunchly anti-corruption platform.

The recent public speculation surrounding the boring machine’s blockage by an unknown object has been amusing (is it a long-lost Salish artifact? the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey? the body of Jimmy Hoffa?), but the broader implications of political corruption in modern-day Seattle are not.

Those of us who have been skeptical about the SR 99 tunnel project from the beginning now have the bittersweet ability to say “we told you so”; the tunnel is not yet one-tenth complete and it’s already becoming an obvious fiasco. The potential for drastic cost overruns — a central point of our criticism when we attempted to stop the project by a citizens’ initiative in 2011 — should now be apparent to all concerned.

What should we now do about this emerging financial and civic farce?

Here’s an idea: cancel the tunnel.

Sound crazy? Truth be told, there’s a precedent in Seattle history for canceling an ill-conceived infrastructure project after construction had already begun: namely, the R. H. Thomson Expressway. Conceived in the 1950s, commenced the following decade, and canceled by persistent grassroots citizen activism in 1972, the Thomson Expressway would have been disastrous for Seattle’s overall quality of life had it been completed. According to its final design, it would have stretched the full length of Seattle’s eastern edge, from Interstate 90 in South Seattle through the Central District, Montlake, and the Washington Park Arboretum, and onward through Lake City towards a northern interchange with an also-aborted Bothell Freeway.

Reginald Heber Thomson
Seattle city engineer, 1892-1911

The Thomson Expressway project was also named after someone who deserved a much better civic monument. Reginald Heber Thomson was Seattle’s city engineer from 1892 to 1911. During that time, he achieved numerous civic accomplishments, including the creation of Seattle City Light, the Cedar River watershed, and the famous Denny regrade project. These projects all ultimately improved Seattle’s quality of life early in our civic history.

Naming such a potential abomination as the aborted expressway project after Thomson was ultimately an insult to his legacy. We now have a remnant to remind us of that project’s folly: the “ramps to nowhere” which can be seen while driving onto the SR 520 bridge across Lake Washington. One can easily imagine how detrimental that project would have been to Seattle’s world-famous environmental splendor if completed.

Similarly, the SR 99 tunnel project is already proving to be detrimental to Seattle’s civic integrity. It’s ultimately a massive money pit that will not solve traffic congestion in downtown Seattle even if completed. It’s not too late to stop this farce.

Cancel the tunnel now.

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