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Slim, Jim, and Jay: Revive the 30-mile Cascade Tunnel for cars and trains?

Jan 19, 2022, 10:02 AM | Updated: 12:15 pm

The heavy snow that shut down traffic over Snoqualmie Pass and Stevens Pass a few weeks ago inspired a former member of Congress from Seattle to reach out to Governor Jay Inslee with a bold solution for avoiding similar problems in the future – with an idea that dates originally to 1907.

Former Representative Jim McDermott retired from Congress in 2017 after representing the 7th District for 14 terms. McDermott, a child psychiatrist for his day job, first came to Seattle from his native Chicago in June 1966, driving here with his wife and their six-week old baby – and coming over a bare and dry Snoqualmie Pass for the first time at the wheel of his two-door hardtop Corvair with a U-Haul trailer behind.

When those closures of the passes were contributing to shortages in grocery stores in the Puget Sound area, McDermott – who’s 85 now, and living part of the year in France but reading the paper online and watching CNN – sent an email to Gov. Inslee reviving an idea for a major piece of infrastructure: a long tunnel through the Cascades, bypassing the snowy and treacherous areas for year-round safe travel.

The email, dated Jan. 9, was shared by McDermott with Seattle Times reporter Jim Brunner, who posted it on Twitter on Jan. 14.

 

“In Seattle and in Washington state we have often waited too long to put in the transportation improvements that would make sense if one looked at the economy of the state of Washington,” McDermott wrote to Inslee. “Whether you’re shipping wine or wheat or potatoes or any other agricultural product they ultimately must pass over the mountains to get to the ports of Tacoma or Seattle. … Our combined ports are not called Chicago West for no reason.”

The tunnel wasn’t originally McDermott’s idea. It was shared with him by Slim Rasmussen, an old colleague and somewhat of an iconoclast in the state legislature where McDermott served beginning in the 1970s.

The time was 42 years ago when McDermott was looking for campaign ideas to connect with Eastern Washington voters. McDermott had defeated incumbent Democratic Governor Dixy Lee Ray in the primary that year, but because he was a liberal from Seattle running for governor in the general election against Republican John Spellman, he needed an edge.

“Well, you know, that reminds me of my campaign in 1980,” McDermott told KIRO Radio on Monday, recalling how the tunnel idea came back to him during the pass closures. “When I asked Slim Rasmussen, and I said, ‘You know, I’m a guy from Seattle. What can I do that might attract attention from Eastern Washington?’ And he was an old locomotive engineer, Slim Rasmussen, and he had worked on the railroad. And Slim said to me, ‘Jim, if you want to help the people in Eastern Washington, what they need is a sea-level tunnel under the Cascades.’ And he said there were plans for one a long time ago, many years ago.”

“I never saw the plans or anything,” McDermott continued. “He just told me that, and so I thought, well, I’ll propose that, if I became governor, I’d push through a ground level [tunnel] so we could have all-weather transportation between Seattle and Eastern Washington.”

The idea – which wasn’t exactly a sea-level tunnel, it was more of “below-the-snow-level tunnel” for cars and trains — was something Rasmussen had read about in an old report from the 1930s. McDermott can’t remember now if it was actually an official part of his 1980 platform, but he says he did talk about it on the campaign trail.

The election that year was tough for Democrats.

“I ran against John Spellman and Ron Reagan and got my comeuppance in November,” McDermott wrote in his email to Inslee, the same year Jimmy Carter was defeated in his bid for second term.

Ultimately, Spellman prevailed in the general election; it’s the last time a Republican won that office in Washington, though Dino Ross came close in 2004.

“I suspect with a little research into the archives of the Department of Transportation in the state of Washington you can find the plans that were done many years ago,” McDermott continued in his email to Gov. Inslee.

Sure enough, Benjamin Helle at the Washington State Archives tracked down what Slim Rasmussen had likely remembered in 1980: an incredible 100-page report from 1936. It’s packed with amazing facts and bizarre twists of nearly 30 years of history, plans, and studies of Cascade tunnels.

According to the study, the original idea for a tunnel through the Cascades from 29 miles to 68 miles long goes back to 1907 and to Hiram M. Chittenden, the local Army Corps of Engineers leader who built the Ballard locks connecting saltwater Puget Sound to freshwater Lake Washington back in 1916 – and who is something of a complicated figure in local history.

Chittenden published his report about a Cascade tunnel in 1909, and there were other studies of the concept commissioned by the state of Washington in the 1920s. Reading through the summary of those earlier reports of new findings included in the 1936 study, it becomes clear pretty quickly that the authors – commissioned by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce – are less than enthusiastic about a Cascade tunnel’s prospects and feasibility.

They quote Chittenden’s estimates, and report that he probably lowballed the costs. The 1936 cost for a 30-mile tunnel was estimated to be somewhere between $62 million to $100 million – which translates to nearly $3 billion in 2022.

The authors also cautioned that seeking federal funding for a tunnel would threaten other federal projects of that era – including Grand Coulee Dam and the reclamation irrigation/projects planned or already underway in the Big Bend area of the Columbia River Basin.

They also said one of the attractions of driving for recreational purposes was the view – and that, of course, goes away with a long tunnel.

“The motoring public, always attracted by the scenic grandeur of our mountains, will generally prefer travel in the open to driving through a long tunnel which offers no inducement from a recreational standpoint,” the authors wrote.

Potential routes examined in the 1930s included Snoqualmie Pass, Stevens Pass, and Naches Pass, though no single route was identified as the preferred choice.

And regardless of which snowy pass the tunnel would bypass, the authors also said that snow removal equipment and processes in Chittenden’s time were pretty crude, which is reflected in Chittenden’s original report.

“[H]ighways (through the mountains) are completely blocked for from five to seven months during the winter,” Chittenden had written in 1909.

By 1936, the authors pointed out, the state had gotten much better at snow removal by equipping two-man plow crews with modern trucks and modern two-way radios, and by not waiting until late winter to try and clear blocked highways and instead trying to plow after each snow dump. In fact, the authors say, by the winter of 1930-1931, state crews were able to keep Snoqualmie Pass open year-round for the first time.

So, is a Cascade tunnel – perhaps, as McDermott suggested to Governor Inslee — connecting North Bend on the west side to Ellensburg on the east side of the mountains a “thing?”

The best indicator is the response that McDermott says he got from Gov. Inslee – which is a KIRO Newsradio exclusive.

“When I talked to Jay, the thing you don’t know is, he responded to me and he said, ‘Jim, it’s a great idea,’ he said, ‘but I’ve got to tell you something. I’ve been talking to Peter DeFazio, and it looks like whatever [federal] money we get is going to go into a high-speed rail between Portland and Vancouver,’” McDermott told KIRO Newsradio.

Governor Inslee’s reference to Representative Peter DeFazio of Oregon is because DeFazio serves as chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in the House of Representatives.

“And [Governor Inslee] said, ‘You were always 40 years ahead of the curve,’” McDermott continued. “And I laughed and said, ‘Well, you know, what the hell.’”

Still, somewhere in the laughs and overall kookiness of a 30-mile tunnel under a mountain range, it’s clear that McDermott sees a kernel of non-silliness in the notion of what he suggested to Inslee.

“This one is an idea that if you think long term, if you think the weather’s going to get better around here, … I mean, Leavenworth is buried in snow, right? … And that’s weird, that’s what’s happening here,” McDermott said. “From an environmental standpoint, it makes good sense to do it.”

There would be political benefit of a tunnel, too, as McDermott wrote in his Jan. 9 email, telling the governor: “If you were seen as a forward-loking governor by making such a proposal it would boost both your credentials as a good governor and as someone thinking about the future of the country.”

Further tests of the tunnel’s viability included KIRO Newsradio checking with the Washington State Department of Transportation and with the governor’s office.

“We do not have a comment at this time as this is not a finalized request or proposal,” wrote Barbara LaBoe of WSDOT Communications on Tuesday. “At this point I am not aware that WSDOT has been engaged in any discussion or details of this idea. Given the age of the study referenced (initially from the 1930s), I would note that this would require extensive review and study to apply to modern day regulations and use.”

And, Laboe confirmed in a follow-up email, “WSDOT is not currently conducting a study on this idea.”

Over at Governor Inslee’s office, deputy communications director and press secretary Mike Faulk also responded by email.

“This is not under active consideration,” Faulk wrote on Tuesday. “I haven’t had a chance to talk to the governor for his side of the conversation, but this idea is not something that has received any funding or attention in recent budgets, which means we don’t have any information to update the feasibility or cost of such a project.”

Both responses seem completely reasonable and understandable, since a Cascade tunnel calls to mind other earlier infrastructure projects that were ultimately deemed too big and too costly – and maybe too wacky – such as connecting Olympia to Grays Harbor and Grays Harbor to the Columbia River with a ship canal, or building bridges across Puget Sound via Vashon or Bainbridge Island.

But perhaps those projects only seem wacky because they never happened. Shorter Cascade tunnels are not crazy at all; especially the tunnel at Stevens Pass that was finished in 1929, and which drastically improved the Great Northern Railway route over the Cascades – decreasing elevation gain and thus travel time and fuel expense, and avoiding deadly avalanches like what happened at Wellington in 1910.

Still, though, on the surface – no pun intended – a 50-mile long tunnel does seems like a pretty wacky idea. But, along with the still-there and still-very-real challenges pointed out in the 1936 report are new realities of climate change and the questions raised by what this might mean. The first is whether or not big snowy shutdowns of the passes are going be more common in the future? The second is, does a long tunnel with electric trains and cars mean a significantly smaller carbon footprint than is currently created by how people and freight are moved over the Cascades: by gas and diesel powered cars and trains?

In what became a far-ranging conversation with Jim McDermott about the funding and political challenges of going big on transportation and other infrastructure, he mentioned Washington’s former longtime Democratic Senator Warren G. Magnuson. Magnuson, according to McDermott, was a big believer in the premise that if you don’t care about who gets the credit, you can get a lot done.

Still, Magnuson’s humility aside, it begged that McDermott be asked a vitally important question: If the Cascade tunnel from North Bend to Ellensburg were to be built someday, would McDermott smile down from heaven if it were named after him?

“Yes,” McDermott said, laughing deeply before becoming philosophical. “You know how life is, man. When you die, you die twice. You die once when you pass, and you die a second time when they stop telling stories about you. And I’m telling you a story about a guy named Slim Rasmussen.”

“So, yeah, if they want to name the tunnel after me in the year 2059, it’s OK,” McDermott said, laughing deeply again.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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Slim, Jim, and Jay: Revive the 30-mile Cascade Tunnel for cars and trains?