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Tolls or not, Seattle tunnel will push vehicles onto surface streets

Once the Alaskan Way Viaduct is no more, drivers will have to choose between and tunnel and surface streets. (WSDOT)

Punishing drivers who divert to Seattle’s surface streets once the new tunnel is in place would be a disservice to people who do so out of necessity.

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Seattle Councilmember Mike O’Brien proposed spending $200,000 in the next budget to study tolling Seattle’s surface streets. His reasoning is that drivers are going to avoid the tunnel to avoid the toll associated with it.

“Folks that are on 99 that are going to try to divert to get out of the tunnel, because they don’t want to pay that toll, do we have some sort of toll that says, ‘You are going to pay a toll one way or the other’? So if you are going to use the tunnel, just use it,” he said.

Downtown, and really all of Seattle, doesn’t have the capacity for additional cars. The director of Seattle Department of Transportation said so himself when he said the city couldn’t handle more vehicles. A toll to use surface streets, like congestion pricing in London, would be a method to keep the number of vehicles down.

But O’Brien’s comments are directed at people avoiding tolls. The proposal to make drivers pay “one way or the other” ignores the fact that many people use the Alaskan Way Viaduct to get in and out of downtown and Belltown, not just to avoid the area.

A study estimated that between 20,000 and 25,000 additional vehicles will be pushed onto I-5 and surface streets once the tunnel is open, depending on the toll “scenarios.” The Washington State Transportation Commission has not set toll rates for the tunnel. However, those estimates include all drivers diverting around the tunnel; not just the ones expected to avoid paying a few dollars. A spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Transportation confirmed as much.

Once the tunnel is in place and the viaduct is gone, drivers will not have mid-town exits, according to WSDOT spokesperson Ethan Bergerson. The tunnel will no longer have ramps to/from Seneca Street, Columbia Street, Western Avenue, or Elliott Avenue.

Demolition of the aging viaduct is expected to occur in early 2019. The tunnel is expected to open in the same time period.

The tunnel is more like an express lane through downtown, rather than into it. That means drivers who currently use the viaduct to get closer to their destination in downtown or Belltown will be forced to find an alternate route.

That alternative route will likely be an expanded Alaskan Way surface street, which will have more lanes and better access along the waterfront, Bergerson points out.

“The new tunnel will be just one of several transportation investments to the Seattle waterfront over the next several years, including the new Alaskan Way surface street with improved capacity and connections to downtown Seattle,” Bergerson wrote.

O’Brien says “places around the country” are having the difficult conversations about tolling congested areas. He reportedly said, “there aren’t very many tools that have been proven to work around the world, and I think it’s important that this be part of the conversation.”

But should we toll drivers who were forced to change their routes? Maybe the city council should keep digging through that toolbox.

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