Home / General / Happy Bertha-Day!

Happy Bertha-Day!


I’ve written before about one of the most ill-conceived infrastructure projects in the country currently–a plan to build a deep bore tunnel under downtown Seattle so highway 99 (currently an elevated freeway as functional as it is unacceptably dangerous) can, theoretically, bypass downtown Seattle efficiently. If this project managed to be completed on time and under budget, it would not come close to justify the project; it will be useless for a majority of users of the viaduct today, as its most common use is to get to and from downtown. Given that the technology in use was experimental–the kind of tunneling machine they’d be using had never been used for a tunnel this size before, and the condition of the soil so close to Puget Sound raised serious concerns–the odds of a such an outcome were, already quite slim for such megaprojects, were surely slimmer than usual for this one.

It was a year ago that “Bertha” the tunneling machine stopped working, around 1019 feet into her planned 9270 foot journey. Since that day, the news about Bertha has been, alternatingly, vague, implausible optimism and alarming admissions that reveal how uncertain the future of this project actually is.  From January to April, we went from “Bertha will start drilling again next week” to “We plan to begin drilling again in March 2015, once we dig a vertical pit to access the machine so we can fix it.” Various theories about why Bertha stopped working were presented as fact, only be to later be revealed as mere speculation. In April, the plan was to complete the new tunnel to Bertha by September, conduct repairs over the Winter, and resume boring in March. It’s now December, the tunnel to Bertha is only 60% complete. This has yielded an admission that drilling might not resume in March–we might have to wait until April for that. As grim as the news is, it’s actually quite lucky the machine broke down where it did, as a Popular Mechanics article reported:  “To be honest, if Bertha was going to break down anywhere, that’s about the best possible place it could have happened on the job—they’ll get her fixed,” Amanda Foley, North American editor of Tunnelling Journal, told me in an email.” Further alone, she’ll be under skyscrapers; access of the sort that’s being attempted now will become difficult to impossible. This raises the stakes a great deal for fixing whatever is wrong with it, of course–it’s not at all clear how the project could be completed if it gets stuck again further down the line. David Kroman has a well done account of Bertha’s (first?) lost year.

The point of all this, of course, was to produce an alternative to the unsafe viaduct freeway. Damaged by a 2001 earthquake, it’s a another Cypress Street waiting to happen.  Which is what makes Bertha’s anniversary news –that the segment of the viaduct near the vertical tunnel sunk and additional 1.2 inches in two weeks in November alone particularly alarming. Earlier this year WSDOT told the council that the viaduct’s sinking over an additional inch may cause serious safety concerns. So the WSDOT spokesman’s line here–“don’t worry, everything’s safe, and we’re going to try and figure out if it’s actually safe ASAP” isn’t terribly reassuring.

One of the many ironies is that this project is a direct consequences of the viaduct’s unsafe condition; other than that it’s an ugly-but-highly functional piece of infrastructure. In addition to being the worst available option for replacing the viaduct’s functionality (a cut and cover tunnel and a surface replacement+enhanced transit option would have served far larger percentages of the population of vehicles utilizing the viaduct today), it was the worst available option for safety as well, as both of those project would have enabled the viaduct to be torn down sooner. The failures of the project to replace it are both ensuring it’ll probably remain up longer, while quite possibly making it less safe in the interim.

Transit advocates are often accused, absurdly, of engaging in a “war on cars”. If we were indeed committed to such a war, I’m not sure we could have come up better with anything than this. The overruns will likely cannibalize WSDOT’s budget, including all manner of road repair and construction projects (some of which are necessary and useful) for the foreseeable future. If, as appears increasingly likely, the viaduct must be shut down before the tunnel is ready, transit will become even more crucial for accessing downtown, and far fewer cars will be able to do so with any efficiency at peak travel times.  Meanwhile, Sound Transit’s tunneling project for light rail, using well established, off the shelf tunneling technology and conservative cost estimates, chugs along ahead of schedule and under budget, and Seattle just voted itself a tax increase to fund more bus service.


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  • LeeEsq

    Seattle seems weirdly lukewarm to public transportation for a city of its seize and character. Similar Democratic cities with populations about the same size of Seattle invested heavily in light rail. Portland is much less dense than Seattle but has much better public transportation system.

    • djw

      While Portland’s built out light rail and sensible grid approach to bus routing make it a superior transit town to Seattle in many ways, the gap in perception is greater than the gap in reality (and the great recession took a much worse toll on Portland’s service, although it’s coming back now), and transit use is actually much higher in Seattle, which has almost twice the transit mode share as Portland, and a pretty strong record of voting to tax themselves for transit. Even when they tragically failed to do so to get federal funds for a subway in the 70’s, the vote was 59% yes (they needed 60% for some damn reason). That money created MARTA instead.

      • Cheerful

        And of course that 1970’s vote came at the worst possible time – in the middle of the Boeing Bust.

    • Warren Terra

      1) Seattle has a history of excellent bus service, used by middle-class people more often than is the case in many other places in the US. The University in particular was very early in giving bus passes to students and to commuting workers. Though in recent years the bus service has encountered severe problems with budget cuts, at least some of them coming from the state capitol (hence the locally controlled decision to raise taxes a bit to compensate partially).

      2) I will never understand the enthusiasm for surface-level light rail, which seems to combine the road-use and traffic vulnerabilities of bus service (which can include dedicated lanes, and so be very similar to light rail) with a massive infrastructure expense and disruption for the rails and stops, plus an inability to adapt once the rails are in place. I understand that real estate developers like it (as the long-term effects on property values are more predictable for a fixed rail system than an adjustable bus system), but that doesn’t greatly sway me. Hybrid gas-electric buses with overhead electrical lines and if necessary dedicated lanes seem much more cost-effective.

      • The Dark Avenger

        BART works in the Bay Area only because of restraints placed on it by competing agencies when it was begun in the early ’60s, such as not extending it south from Fremont to San Jose, where it would’ve competed with the Caltrans rail station as an alternate route to SF. Fortunately, this limitation , which I cursed in my youth, seems now to be removed with an ultimate extension into Santa Clara through San Jose.

        • NewishLawyer

          BART is weird because it can’t decide whether it is a commuter rail or a subway. It sort of works as a weird hybrid of the two.

          I think Marin should have had BART forced upon it.

          • djw

            I think Marin should have had BART forced upon it.

            If they refuse to upzone, it’s a massive subsidy for a few rich people.

            • DocAmazing

              Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco Counties already heavily subsidize the far-from-poor San Mateo County.

              • djw

                Yep. BART’s urban core service is a fantastic success, but the outer stops don’t justify the levels of service provided. The per rider subsidy for Concord, Pittsburg, Dublin/Pleasanton, etc is embarrassingly large and not covered by those community’s taxes paid into the system.

                • DocAmazing

                  In defense of Concord, Pittsburg, Dublin and Pleasanton, they have been paying the half-percent BART sales tax since before BART opened. Colma, South San Francisco, Millbrae and San Bruno got stations after decades of not paying the sales tax; they were able to take advantage of the rolling stock, switching hardware and so on that SF and the two East Bay counties had purchased.

            • NewishLawyer

              I think this observation is what makes finding good (yet alone best) policy really really hard.

              I have a lot of friends who dislike that BART does not go into Marin and Sonoma. This is not because they live there but because they feel Marin and Sonoma rejected BART out of a few of minorities and to maintain their exclusiveness.

              Yet you point out that Marin could have remained exclusive even if it had BART by refusing to upzone. We can say with almost absolute certainty that Marin would refuse to upzone.

              Both paragraphs are probably right though but if you forced BART and upzoning on Marin, aren’t you calling the whole idea of liberal democracy into question? A comment complaint I hear from policy wonks is that “good policy is not good politics.” But how do you have liberal democracy without majority rule coming out at least a decent amount of the time. I don’t think a majority should be allowed to be discriminatory but I do think majority decisions should be allowed to stand even if they are not best policy. Otherwise why have a Democratic Republic at all?

              • djw

                Both paragraphs are probably right though but if you forced BART and upzoning on Marin, aren’t you calling the whole idea of liberal democracy into question?

                In some sort of abstract sense, no. There’s no democratic reason transit and zoning decisions shouldn’t be made a regional, rather than county/city level–and probably some good reasons they should be. However, in the world we live in, “regions” simply don’t have that kind political power. I suppose the state could pass laws to that effect, but I strongly suspect that’s a non-starter.

                It’s a decision I can’t get too worked up about because it would have been a huge subsidy to rich people, who wouldn’t have upgraded much at all (And BART and Sonoma in particular wanted them in, it’s not like they had any negotiating position to press the upzone issue). BART is a form of public transit that is only efficient for relatively dense places (as the horrifying per rider subsidy of existing outer stations demonstrates). Places that won’t densify shouldn’t get it.

      • sparks

        While the trolley bus has quicker to build infrastructure than light rail and more stability as an alternative to a simple bus route, trolley buses themselves weren’t doing so well reliability-wise in SF though I believe Muni has fixed them. Residential neighborhoods might have a problem with “unsightly” overhead lines. Baloney but you should see what activist neighborhood associations are like.

        • djw

          Residential neighborhoods might have a problem with “unsightly” overhead lines.

          Of the five remaining American transit systems with trolleybuses, I think Dayton may be the only one that doesn’t have NIMBY’s making that particular complaint.

          • sparks

            IIRC, Dayton’s trolleybuses started around 80 years ago.

            • djw

              The oldest continuously operating trolleybus system in the country! A point of civic pride.

      • Linnaeus

        1) Seattle has a history of excellent bus service, used by middle-class people more often than is the case in many other places in the US.

        It’s funny – a friend of mine voted no on both the county tax proposition in April of this year (which failed) and the city tax proposition last month to fund buses (which passed). He had several reasons, but one of them was, “it subsidizes affluent riders”. Um, yeah.

        • tsam

          Where the hell do people pick up this kind of shit. It’s blatantly counterintuitive, since it’s pretty rare to find many affluent people on buses.

          • Atrios

            oh in my local newspaper comments they can shift seamlessly from ‘no one wants to ride buses they’re filled with gross poor people’ and ‘buses are for those rich hipsters.’

            Other people are doing it differently and it pisses them off. Get off their lawn.

          • efgoldman

            it’s pretty rare to find many affluent people on buses.

            The buses from my town to Harvard Square were full of affluent people every morning and coming back every afternoon. Put them in neighborhoods from which it’s impractical to drive, to destinations where parking is prohibitively expensive and very scarce, and people will get habituated to transit.

            • djw

              My last job in Seattle was a lecturer at Seattle U. in First Hill, I lived in East Ballard. The first bus of my commute was coming from a fairly affluent neighborhood to downtown (28X), and I was routinely the scrubbiest and probably poorest person on the bus. Then I transferred to the 2, where I was every bit as much an outlier, but in an entirely different way.

        • djw

          There was a METRO survey of riders back in 2011 that showed a slightly higher income level for transit riders than the general population. Dori Monson and other anti-transit voices pushed this narrative aggressively earlier this year in the initial run-up to Prop 1 (county wide version).

          It’s probably not accurate, but it’s also much closer to accurate in most places–there are companies with a large number of high-income employees (Mircosoft, Amazon) that give out free transit passes to all employees and promote transit use. There are also a good number of well paid downtown worker s who probably live pretty car-centric lifestyles for the most part, but commute to work via express bus. The network has a lot of express buses that are a pretty great deal for suburban commuters, especially if their employer doesn’t subsidize parking. Seattle is just a pretty good city for transit use overall, but a top tier city for transit use for downtown peak commuters. Those people skew rich.

          • Linnaeus

            Sure, I remember that survey. My friend pointed to that in support of his argument. My response was that sure, many high-wage workers would benefit from it, but lower to middle income people benefit much more.

            • djw

              Yes, exactly. Monson and the times’ deployment of it as an anti-transit argument was deeply cynical.

            • Warren Terra

              Yeah, this. Also, having seen what happens to bus systems when they cater exclusively to low-income people (as is the case in most of the country), I always was glad Seattle was an exception. I remember landing at an airport in Tucson and telephoning my hotel to ask them if they could advise me on how to get there by bus; the receptionist responded as if I’d asked if it was OK to take a dump in the middle of their lobby. And this was a far from fancy hotel next to the University! And it turned out that a city bus went practically door to door (albeit not quickly), not that the receptionist was any help!

          • NewishLawyer

            Does Seattle-metro have commuter rail?

            • djw

              Two lines–Sounder South from Lakewood, Tacoma, Auburn, and points South, and Sounder North from Everett, Edmonds, and Muklilteo.

              Sounder South is a big success, and saves people time and avoids traffic (trip from Tacoma is about the same as a bus when traffic is not running). Sounder North is a bit of a boondoggle; from Everett it’s not competitive with freeway express buses and is less reliable; the other two stops don’t have much of a walkshed. Because the tracks are by the water; it gets shut down regularly for mudslides (there’s state law, no passenger rail 48 hours after a mudslide is cleared).

              South Sounder probably has sufficient demand to have a lot more service, but it’s restricted to rush our commute times because Sound Transit doesn’t own the tracks; they pay way too much money to private interests for the rights.

              • NewishLawyer

                Is Sound South the line I took from the airport to Seattle?

                • djw

                  No, South Sounder is heavy rail, and only runs at rush hour, and follows the BNSF tracks they’re leasing for it run well to the East of the airport. You took Link, our new-ish (opened in 2009) light rail, which runs 19+ hours a day 7 days a week on its own dedicated exclusive tracks. So far, it’s only from the airport through downtown, and points between, but a bunch of new stuff is under construction.

            • Warren Terra

              Also, it’s not rail, but there’s a big park-and-ride infrastructure with buses, especially for getting across the lake – I think the buses may have a dedicated lane on the bridges.

              And: ferries across the Sound.

      • LeeEsq

        Light rail usually operates on its own right of way unlike the trolleys of the past so you really don’t have traffic problems if its done right. One reason why planners like light rail is that its much easier to build around a rail based transit system than a bus based system because of the permanency of the routes and stations. Light rail also tends to be more aesthetically pleasing to most people.

        • Warren Terra

          If you can set a lane aside for rails, you can set it aside for buses or trolley buses. That’s not really a discriminating factor. And you see cars swerving across the tracks and trains stopped at intersections all the time, just like you do for buses in a dedicated lane.

          As to the advantages of fixed routes to “planners” – yes, that’s certainly the case, and I mentioned it in my comment using slightly different terms. The point is, “planners” is a broad category, one that spans from visionary public officials coordinating ideas for city-wide development clear to rapacious owners of individual properties. And the flip side of these fixed installations and reliable futures is a lack of flexibility and an incredibly long lead time and capital requirement for expansion and other changes.

          • LeeEsq

            Its also a lot easier to get people to leave their cars for a train than it is for a bus. If you want more people to use transit, you need to give them transit that they like.

          • To simultaneously address your point and Murc’s down below about a gradual transition, how do you feel about using road shoulders for light rail? We could recreate the old interurban network without having to buy new right of way or reducing current road capacity significantly.

            • Here in Ohio some of the old interurban tunnels are still around.

              • There are more remnants of old infrastructure than people realize. Some have been reused: US1 to Key West is the old railroad trestle upgraded.

          • djw

            If you can set a lane aside for rails, you can set it aside for buses or trolley buses. That’s not really a discriminating factor. And you see cars swerving across the tracks and trains stopped at intersections all the time, just like you do for buses in a dedicated lane.

            The key to good surface rail transit is grade separation, such that cars can’t do that.

            • MaxUtility

              light rail typically has higher capacity than a similar grade separated bus system and a lot of the cost savings of bus vs. rail disappear once you’re comparing apples-to-apples systems with dedicated lanes. But yes, people do tend to have an irrational aversion to well designed BRT.

    • Robert Cruickshank

      Seattle seems weirdly lukewarm to public transportation for a city of its seize and character. Similar Democratic cities with populations about the same size of Seattle invested heavily in light rail. Portland is much less dense than Seattle but has much better public transportation system.

      Seattle is very strongly in favor of public transportation. But for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, our elected officials aren’t quite as enthused. The City Council has a majority of members who were willing to undermine rail planning work in order to undermine the previous mayor. Our state legislative delegation has not been willing to fight for better transit, although that appears to be changing thanks to some good new legislators elected since 2012.

      The other problem is Washington State’s anti-tax politics has never been effectively challenged by Democrats, so that makes building new transit more of a chore than it should be. Oregon, it has to be noted, has faced the same problem. Funding for several MAX lines had gone down at the polls before eventually being approved a few years later.

  • Cheerful

    By the way as someone who voted in favor of the current situation in the series of votes inflicted on us by a spineless government, I was sold by the dreamy ideal of a good looking waterfront promenade with cars safely burrowed away somewhere far underneath.

    Which just goes to show that it’s easy to fool a citizenry. As it stands right now, the viaduct is closed frequently for various reasons and traffic just goes out into the street. That was probably the best solution (with enhanced transit) all along.

    • NBarnes

      I liked The Stranger’s plan; tear down the viaduct, replace it with… nothing. Greenspace the footprint and let the people who used the viaduct to get across the city without having to stop suffer.

  • Can’t Seattle just leave Bertha there, entombed and mothballed, for a future feudal society to find and revive and use to conquer neighbouring city-states?
    I assume that Bertha is nuclear powered. If not, WHY NOT.

    • Warren Terra

      Answering seriously, when Bertha was launched the claim was that it would be a revolutionary wonderful digging machine, the best in the world, and that after it had completed its task on time and under budget Seattle could sell Bertha to some other city and make a profit on it.

      I think that scenario is now seen as less realistic.

      • It does not auger well for the future.

        • In order to decide, one must sift through the boring data.

          • Shirley you mean “drill into”.

            • Linnaeus

              I can dig it.

              • Good, because we’re grading on a curve.

              • Lee Rudolph

                Oh, get bit.

                • wjts

                  I say chuck the punsters and throw away the key.

                • Pat

                  That’s the Chinese solution!

            • tsam

              That’s a hole lotta punnery. Simmer

              • Warren Terra

                This undertaking is lowering our dignity. It is beneath us, we should not bring ourselves down to this level.

                • We are undermining the foundations of the blog.

    • djw

      Can’t Seattle just leave Bertha there, entombed and mothballed,

      If I were entering a ‘fate of bertha’ pool, I would place my wager on exactly that, but only after it gets ‘fixed’ and plows ahead for another 1-3K feet, only to get stuck somewhere we can’t get at it.

    • wjts

      Can’t Seattle just leave Bertha there, entombed and mothballed, for a future feudal society to find and revive and use to conquer neighbouring city-states?

      Personally, I’m uneasy about leaving such a powerful piece of equipment within easy reach of any old Mole Man, Morlock, or C.H.U.D.

      • Mole Man, Morlock, or C.H.U.D.

        The omission of the Deros from this list suggests an attempt to divert attention from the real threat.

    • The mothballs are necessary to avoid moth problems.

  • Murc

    Transit advocates are often accused, absurdly, of engaging in a “war on cars”.

    … wait, what? This is absurd? If so, why?

    Speaking as someone who loves the suburbs and cars (but not car culture, which as near as I can tell consists of “being an asshole to people who don’t drive”), if transit advocates aren’t engaged in a war on cars, they probably should be. Absent the invention of some miracle energy source, car usage in this country needs to be massively scaled back in a way that can only be accomplished by either ruinous oil prices or a long, concerted, vicious war on the automobile, making it deliberately as hard as possible to own and use one.

    Neither of those situations is ideal, but the latter is a much better option than the former, because it’s a managed transition rather than a Mad Max style descent into ruin.

    • rea

      Car Culture:

      Well there she sits buddy just a-gleaming in the sun
      There to greet a working man when his day is done
      I’m gonna pack my pa and I’m gonna pack my aunt
      I’m gonna take them down to the Cadillac Ranch
      Eldorado fins, whitewalls and skirts
      Rides just like a little bit of heaven here on earth
      Well buddy when I die throw my body in the back
      And drive me to the junkyard in my Cadillac

      Cadillac, Cadillac
      Long and dark shiny and black
      Open up your engines let ’em roar
      Tearing up the highway like a big old dinosaur

      James Dean in that Mercury ’49
      Junior Johnson runnin’ through the woods of Caroline
      Even Burt Reynolds in that black Trans Am
      All gonna meet down at the Cadillac Ranch

      • Murc

        I dunno, rea. I mean, I get what you’re saying, but for every person who is seriously invested in cars in what seems like a healthy way, I seem to meet five more who are disgustingly sneering about it. “Oh, you ride the bus? How…. frugal.” “You had to buy used? Poor thing.”

        See also: the guys who roll coal. That’s what I think of, when I think of car culture.

    • a Mad Max style descent into ruin

      You say that like it’s a bad thing. Don’t you about the manufacturers of wrist-mounted crossbows?

      • tsam

        Not until one is on my wrist.

        • Pat

          Everybody wants a free sample.

    • tsam

      He’s saying the accusation is absurd. Seattle has absolutely AWFUL traffic problems. The “war on cars” BS is as credible as the War on Christmas. But that’s the shit they trot out to scare the North Bend/Issaquah right wing suburbanites.

    • LeeEsq

      A war on cars would be just as successful as a war on drugs. Something about cars just spoke to generations of Americans regardless of their race or class. Once mass ownership become possible, Americans happily adopted them as our primary form of transportation. Our geography and oil really helped. The ability to get into a car and just drive nearly anywhere you wanted seemed to define the essence of freedom for decades.

      • Murc

        A war on cars would be just as successful as a war on drugs.

        You’re possibly right, Lee, but it has to be tried anyway, because the alternative seems to be “we party hard until oil is 500 dollars a barrel, and then everyone who depends on a car is completely fucked.”

        I’d like to avoid that, and I don’t see any way to avoid that aside from a managed transition away from cars, and that’s going to have to involve crafting public policy that assaults car ownership and disincentivizes it.

        The ability to get into a car and just drive nearly anywhere you wanted seemed to define the essence of freedom for decades.

        Hell, it still does. I love the freedom my car provides. I love that if I want nachos at four in the morning, I can hop in my car and zoom to my 24-hour grocery and goddamn buy some nachos in safety, comfort, privacy, and warmth/coolness depending on the season. I will give up car living and suburban living only if I am forced to, and I’m far from alone in that sentiment.

        • LeeEsq

          I think your last few sentences dispute your first paragraph. Speaking bluntly, you sound like a junkie that knows he or she has a bad habit but can’t give it up. Its just that its about cars rather than heroine.

          I don’t quite understand the freedom of the car. To me it seems confining. I think freedom is having a lot of the stores and services I need within walking distance rather than spread out across a wide area. I still have no idea how people avoid driving while intoxicating outside areas without transit.

          • Joshua

            I still have no idea how people avoid driving while intoxicating outside areas without transit.

            Umm, they don’t.

          • ScarsdaleVibe

            Fist bump from another New Yorker (if I recall correctly). The only knock I have against the city, other than the cost of living (rent is the real killer, food is cheap enough if you know where to look) is space. I could get a little more space for the money if I moved to an outer borough (except for Brooklyn) or Westchester or Rockland or Jersey but I like Manhattan.

            The size does get to me. I loathe cars and driving. I love being able to just walk down the block into the subway and then emerge where (or near where) I want to be. No circling around looking for a space, navigating a tight parking garage (in the city they park for you in the garages though!). To me that’s *inconvenient*. I saw Interstellar with my wife two weeks ago by: walking a block to the subway, taking it two stops, getting off, walking three blocks to the theater.

            But wait! What about groceries???!!! What about them? Google Shopping/Instacart will go to Target, Costco, Fairway (you name it) for me. Do I pay a delivery fee and tip? Yep. Still not a bad deal considering I don’t need gas or car insurance or any of that stuff. Worth it for me.

            Too many beers? Stumble into a cab and slur my address.

            I want food? Two blocks, 24 hr grocery store, provided you’re not afraid of the dark (this isn’t Taxi Driver new york, you’ll be fine).

            And despite all this, I’m still seriously considering moving. I like space. I like it so much I’m willing to buy a car and swallow all the attendant shit sandwiches involved. That’s how much I like space. If I magically came into some money maybe I’d buy a nice penthouse on the upper east side, but I doubt that’ll happen.

          • agorabum

            It’s nice to have the best of both worlds – although most have one or another. I like walkability. I also like being able to hop in my car and drive to the mountains or beaches or wild and empty places.
            The suburbs built to drive from large parking lot to large parking lot to home has no attraction to me. But quick access to mountains or beaches does – and I can bring my dog too.
            The majority of people don’t drink or only have a drink or two when they go out (we don’t see them, because…they aren’t hanging out at bars). But those are the statistics.

        • Atrios

          Yeah, the notion that (good) urban living is inconvenient for such things is just weird. It’s inconvenient if you want to drive everywhere, but the 24 hour 7/11 is just around the corner and the 24 hour diner is 3 blocks away. My urban hellhole isn’t exactly a 24 hour town, but can get pretty much anything delivered before midnight.

          It’s fine that you’re a suburban mouse and fine that you like to drive, but really the key feature of good urban living is convenience.

          • LeeEsq

            You can also get this stuff delivered to your door with the Internet these days regardless of whether you live in a city or suburb.

            • Atrios

              by “anything” i meant meals and groceries, but, yes, otherwise delivery is universal (and groceries pretty widespread)

            • Tyro

              Getting groceries delivered in the suburbs is pretty rare. It’s *much* more common for city dwellers. Also, forgetting a grocery is a big ordeal in the suburbs because it involves a driver to the supermarket and back, whereas for major city dwellers it’s generally a trip around the corner.

          • Murc

            It’s fine that you’re a suburban mouse and fine that you like to drive, but really the key feature of good urban living is convenience.

            Here’s the thing, though. You’re defining “convenience” in a kind of generic way, whereas a shit-ton of suburbanites, including myself to an extent, are going to define it a highly specific way that is going to almost always be incompatible with urban living.

            Urban living can be super convenient, but a lot of people have a real specific vision of living well that involves the suburbs, and absent them suddenly being able to afford real high-end urban living (believe you me, if I had a nine-figure income I would ditch this place for an amazing apartment in lower Manhattan) aren’t gonna be real interested in giving it up.

            • ScarsdaleVibe

              Like space, really. Our apartment always feels messy because, while we have a relatively modest amount of possessions, we have a small one bedroom apartment that costs as much as my parents’ mortgage payments on a nice three bedroom with a pool.

              I *love* urban living. I despise driving. The only thing I like about the suburbs is that you can get more space for your buck. But space is a huge factor. We’re still a young couple, but I think we’re finally staring down the barrel of reality and realizing that we’ll never be able to afford to live the way we could near my wife’s parents in rural(ish) Central Jersey here in Manhattan. Not unless I suddenly became an MD at an investment bank or partner at Cravath.

              So maybe urban living is more sustainable and whatnot, but what can I say, I’m selfish. As long as the amount of $$$ that gets me a small apartment in the city can get me a decent sized house, then you’ll have to drag me kicking and screaming back into the city. Really, I wish I could afford a nice brownstone in Brooklyn Heights but it’s just not in the cards.

              • Murc

                Space is the real killer, I think. Detached single-family homes on half-acre lots that the inhabitants can actually own are both highly desirable to an enormous slice of the population and completely incompatible with dense development and walkability.

                You can get around a lot of the other stuff, but a ton of people want to live someplace quiet, spacious, green, and private, and I’m just not sure how urban living is ever going to manage that.

                I’ve heard some futurists toying around with the idea that eventually we’ll have super efficient non-gasoline powered, self-driving cars that people can summon at-will at a fraction of the energy and personal monetary costs of owning and maintaining their own car, which might split the baby neatly of suburbanites not needing to radically alter their lifestyles in unpalatable ways as we transition into a post-carbon economy. I am deeply skeptical of this, although I would squee with delight if it happened.

                • ScarsdaleVibe

                  As long as these self-driving cars aren’t programmed to be utilitarian. I wouldn’t trust a machine that was designed to kill me to save other people in an accident it foresaw (been reading about some interesting ethical issues in self-driving cars).

                • djw

                  It’s curious how many people fixate on that. It’s hard to make an argument why it makes sense to care about that if the self-driving cars are also considerably less likely to be in a fatal accident to begin with.

        • Gregor Sansa

          we party hard until oil is 500 dollars a barrel

          If we don’t use taxes to ensure that gas costs $10 a gallon long before oil is $500 a barrel, we will have burned enough oil to cook the planet. I know, that’s depressingly close to inevitable.

          So, a non-depressing fact: a new study shows that CO₂ probably only takes a decade to cause warming, not 2 or 3. Why isn’t that depressing? Because it means that the eventual stopping point will be only 1-decade-worse-than-intolerable. And also it means that current conditions reflect the CO₂ levels from just 10 years ago.

      • I love my car as much as the next person but….

        I hate having to take the car for every stupid little errand.

        I can’t even ride my bike to the grocery store a mile from my house without getting on a major highway and taking my life in my hands.

        People in Europe have cars too but they can also get around without one if need be.

        • Tyro

          Agreed. I bow to no one in the love for cars and speed– I have a 300 hp sports car (which is almost always garaged, now) and spend a lot of weekends honing my motorcycling skills. But when I used to drive, having a car didn’t mean “freedom” as much as it meant sitting in stop-and-go traffic every morning and every evening as part of my commute.

          Part of it is that I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s not the 1950s and 1960s. Whereas in the dawn of the auto age, cars meant that you could travel to distant places you couldn’t go to before, in the modern age, you need a car because everything is very distant. A car doesn’t mean “more freedom.” Rather, a car becomes the minimum cost of entry in suburbs so that you can have a bare minimum of freedom.

    • djw

      tsam is right. To be clear, I not only wholeheartedly endorse a war on cars, I gleefully volunteer to be sent to the front lines. My objection is to labeling the kind of half-measures transit advocates in Seattle and elsewhere fight for everyday (like “hey, maybe a dedicated bus lane is a better use of this strip of government property than highly subsizided temporary car storage for a few dozen lucky ducks!” or “let’s devote 1.5% of road spending to bike infrastrucrure enhancements, rather than 1%” or “maybe we should lower speed limits 5 MPH in this high pedestrian area”) as a ‘war on cars’. Those are all worthy projects, but they don’t deserve to be called a war on cars.

      • “Hey, let’s take this two-lane road that’s 40 feet wide and stripe some bike lanes on it, leaving 28 ft for two auto lanes and a parking lane.”
        WAR ON CARS!

    • Warren Terra

      I do think there’s room for half-measures in the War On Cars. One of my pet peeves about Seattle’s light rail system is that its implementation is terrible, in particular in connecting with the world of cars, or for that matter with buses. Thus: it offers a cheap, fast ride to the airport (actually, to a mile walk from the airport, because of incredible stupidity, but that’s a separate issue) – but it deposits you on random streetcorners that lack information kiosks and that lack good connections to local buses. More incredibly, they lack parking! They’re building a station on Capital Hill, which in theory should make it super easy to whisk off to downtown or to the airport – but in a neighborhood that was always dreadful for parking, and that has recently been made worse for parking by the addition of dedicated bike lanes (whether a city of hills and valleys is well suited to bicycles is another separate issue). It would be obvious and be of huge benefit to have multistory parking atop that light rail station, so people can drive a couple miles to the station before using it to commute, or to shop, or even to leave their car there for a few days while they go on a business trip. Instead, the station will be almost useless to people who don’t like within a half-mile or so.

      • djw

        More incredibly, they lack parking!

        There’s room for compromises and half-measures in the war on cars, but not in this case; ST spends far too much on parking (Edmonds is especially egregious) as it is, and the lack of parking at the Cap. hill station is a good thing. A P&R in Capitol Hill is a particularly bad idea, as it would induce more traffic and congestion in an area that has far too much of it (which slows down buses, too). Park and RIdes are massive subsidies for a technology that’s horribly oversubsidized already, and building them trades off with other ST priorities that don’t subsidize cars.

        Instead, the station will be almost useless to people who don’t like within a half-mile or so.

        This simply isn’t true, given what we currently know about the walking/biking/bus riding patterns of today’s Capitol Hill residents.

        • Robert Cruickshank

          Parking at the suburban stations is a reasonable compromise. Parking at Seattle stations is totally unnecessary. Thankfully the only one of the Seattle stations where parking is being planned is Northgate, though the money being spent to build it is better used to pay for the proposed bike/ped bridge across I-5 to North Seattle Community College.

        • Scott Lemieux

          Yeah, as a former Capitol Hill resident the idea that you need parking at the CH light rail stop is baffling to me.

        • Emily68

          Exactly. The very last thing the Capital Hill Link station needs is a Park & Ride.

  • stryx

    Interesting to see this as the local paper had a story today about the ill-fated hole drilling machine (“Marsha”) currently several hundred feet below the surface of Columbus.

    I will point you to the link at the top of the page at Tunnelling Journal*: http://tunnellingjournal.com/

    “At one point when the cutters needed to be replaced, the city had to hire expert divers for $1 million. The divers could work only for minutes at a time in the high-pressure underground water to replace the cutting wheels.”

    *while you’re there check out the Catalogue of Notable Tunnel Failure Case Histories (237 page pdf, with illustrations)

    • CD


      Just to connect some of the dots in djw’s writeup, the Seattle Times piece explains:

      “Contractors are digging a 120-foot deep vertical pit to reach, remove and replace damaged bearing parts at the front of the machine’s 57.3-foot diameter cutter. This phase includes a sophisticated operation to remove water from the soil, which can affect nearby areas. Dewatering may have caused the soil to sink, said Preedy, but there could also be natural forces, or other construction, at work.”

      In other words it’s entirely possible that digging the pit to fix the boring maching will collapse the viaduct, and God knows what else.

      Picture and commentary: http://www.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2014/12/05/now-the-soil-around-bertha-is-sinking

      • Robert Cruickshank

        In other words it’s entirely possible that digging the pit to fix the boring maching will collapse the viaduct, and God knows what else.

        Correct, and that’s been known ever since the boring machine broke. WSDOT is refusing to accept reality here. The settlement that’s taken place along the viaduct should force the issue.

        If Governor Inslee is smart, he’ll abandon this turkey of a project. We’ll see if he has the guts to stand up to the Seattle establishment and do it.

        • CD
          • djw

            Shocking! I wonder when they’ll admit April isn’t a plausible goal for re-starting the drilling. Mid to late February?

            • CD

              Can we make it a tourist attraction? Do Pike’s Place and then visit the Entombed Boring Machine?

              • marijane

                Maybe it can added to the Underground Tour! Which would be fitting, since the Seattle Underground only exists as a result of several engineering disasters.

              • djw

                I like the skate park idea.

  • Eli Rabett

    So Eli’s cousin was the city engineer for the West Side Highway when an overweight truck fell through. Similar idiocy with what to do what to do. The city took the whole thing down fifteen years later and a load of politics and made a multi-lane ground level highway with a small number of traffic lights at major crossings.

    Frankly the thing works better now than it did as an elevated highway because there are more lanes in each direction.

  • bobmunck

    They have to dig down from the surface to get to this machine? Isn’t there a tunnel behind it, that it had dug before it broke? Can’t they just walk up that tunnel to the back of the machine?

    • efgoldman

      Can’t they just walk up that tunnel to the back of the machine?

      Yes, of course they can.
      But the broken parts are in the front.

  • NewishLawyer

    Why does there always seem to be a huge divide between the types of public works projects that policy wonks want and the type of projects that actually get built?

    Is it corruption? Edifice complex? Do policy wonks/experts have a hard time convincing the general public and politicians that they have the right policies and projects? Etc.

    I think that sometimes it is aesthetics. I happen to be one of those people who prefers light rail and trains over buses and buses are the most common form of public transit in SF. I generally take them when I don’t walk places because I dislike looking for parking in SF. Yet policy wonks and opinion journalists tend to be hardcore bus advocates. I find that light rail is usually a much smoother (literally) and enjoyable ride. Of course there are unavailable socio-economic issues about the whole transit thing. I think that buses do have a lot of connotations of poverty for somereason and light rail does not. There are activists who accuse light-rail riders and supporters of being “poor-phobic”

    • djw

      That’s a big, complicated question. Part of the answer will involve asking the qui bono question; who’s to blame has something to do with who’s to benefit. The various firms that fund and comprise SEattle Tunnel Partners, and its executive oficials, will do just fine.

      Dominic Holden, until recently a local alt-weekly journalist, has provided indispensable critical coverage on the project for the last five years. His “What could possibly go wrong?” article couldn’t look more prophetic if it tried. His “Who’s to blame” post from this summer turns the target on some of the corporate interests who pushed this.

      But at the end of the day, the people (including Cheerful above) voted for this turkey. Part of the blame is from political interests focusing on other goals–the decided they wanted a prettier, nicer, more pedestrian friendly waterfront. This biased them against a retrofitted or rebuilt elevated freeway, as well as an extremely wide, pedestrian-unfriendly surface street. Given that the voters had rejected a shallow tunnel back in 2007, the deep tunnel was the only option left. The narrow focus on the one thing you don’t want, rather than a sober cost-benefit analysis of the various options, isn’t a good start. And I think part of the reason people voted for this (beyond ‘the entire political elite is pushing it’) was decision fatigue–voter knew something had to be done. This is something. They were tired of all talk and no decisions. I had a number of conversations with people who should have known better that followed this script in 2010.

      • NewishLawyer

        Gotta love an alt-weeklies ability to start a story with “get fucked”.

        I meant my question more generally. It always seems that the wonks/experts are jumping up and down and waving their hands saying “no no no” to the projects that get built. I wonder if there were Ancient Egyptian wonks who talked about why roads and canals would have been better than the Pyramids.

      • Robert Cruickshank

        Those are most of the reasons why peoples voted for the tunnel. There’s also the belief that tearing down the viaduct and replacing it with surface/transit would have not worked out in practice, despite all the evidence showing it would have, because of an ideological belief that vehicle capacity must be maintained.

        The incumbent anti-tunnel mayor had low approval ratings at the time, in part because there was a perception that all he cared about was fighting this project. That wasn’t true, but there was a “let’s move on” attitude among the political and media elite.

    • sparks

      There are activists who accuse light-rail riders and supporters of being “poor-phobic”

      That’d earn a good hard laugh around here. The light rail clientele is poorer than the bus clientele was on my (now removed) line. I’d guess overall it’s really about the same. The problem around here is there’s still quite a bus fleet, all natural gas. Would prefer them to try the trolleybus on some of the bigger lines away from the light rail system, but our transit system isn’t known for being very progressive.

      • djw

        Putting the first line through the Rainier Valley helped combat that particular issue.

      • NewishLawyer

        I think in most other cities it is the opposite. The NYC subway is very diverse but the I do think that the buses are generally only ridden by poorer and older NYC residents or that is the opinion.

        In many locations in the U.S., bus riding is considered synonymous with “too poor to own a car”. I remember a story from a few years ago about how canceled bus services in the midwest was bad for several nursing homes because it meant that most of the staff had a harder time getting to work. Of course they could just pay them better so they could afford cars…..

        • LeeEsq

          A lot of cities see their transit systems more in the nature of a social service rather than part of transportation. The idea is that the transit systems exist for people that can’t drive because they are too poor to own a car or have some disability that prevents them from driving. Ever since Ford made cars really affordable, people in the United States associated not owning a car with the lowest levels of poverty.

          Like I said above, something about cars caused something in the American mind to click. The American love affair with cars is one of the most enduring love stories of all times. Its slowly changing now but not that much.

          • Tyro

            Like I said above, something about cars caused something in the American mind to click. The American love affair with cars is one of the most enduring love stories of all times.

            I think this claim is a bit anachronistic. We don’t have cruising downtown anymore. There are no “gearheads” in high schools who stand around comparing cars. I think modern people view cars much like they view health insurance: a monthly expense that they need to pay for to get by on a day-to-day basis.

        • Katya

          In DC, I’d say it’s a mix. There are some “poor” bus lines, but there are also lines that skew more affluent–the lines up Connecticut or Massachusetts Avenue, and the line that runs up to Mount Pleasant, for example. WMATA also runs express buses at rush hour (which are much nicer than the regular buses, IMO) that also attract a lot of downtown workers (who, again, tend to skew more middle-class). I think it also helps that many federal agencies and some private employers subsidize transit expenses as a benefit (there’s simply no way the number of federal workers could all park downtown or that the roads could handle the traffic if everyone drove).

  • bobbyp

    a cut and cover tunnel and a surface replacement+enhanced transit option would have served far larger percentages of the population of vehicles utilizing the viaduct today

    I agree with a lot of what you say, but honestly, there were drawbacks to this approach as the viaduct would have had to have been torn down to start the work and this little thing about a seawall that there was no money to fix….this matter was debated to death in Seattle. Absent more funding, there was no good choice.

    It all started when they ran I-5 through the heart of downtown rather than Medina.

    • djw

      there were drawbacks to this approach

      Agreed that there were no options that didn’t have significant drawbacks, including the ones you mention. However, that doesn’t justify choosing the approach We with the most drawbacks.

    • Robert Cruickshank

      There was money to fix the seawall. The City Council held up that money because they were afraid that if it were released before the tunnel got under way, then that could undermine public support for said tunnel.

      The viaduct should have been torn down years ago. It is a tragedy waiting to happen. I don’t drive on it and nobody else should either.

    • Agreed that there were no options that didn’t have significant drawbacks

      The possibilities of Project Plowshare have been neglected here.

      • Gregor Sansa

        Make the Space Needle earn its name!

  • Robert Cruickshank

    This scandal should cost several elected officials their jobs.

    Unfortunately, the only person who lost their job over this was the previous mayor of Seattle, who tried to stop this catastrophe from happening. The political establishment circled the wagons to destroy him, in part because he opposed this boondoggle.

    The next person to lose their job over this could be Governor Jay Inslee, even though this tunnel wasn’t his idea at all, was something he inherited from the previous governor.

    This entire project is a searing indictment of the fucked up political culture of this city and this state, and of a media establishment that refuses to challenge that political culture. It’s not the only failure of state and local government, but it’s one of the most prominent.

    And the beneficiaries will be Republicans. Ugh.

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