I’ve been putting off commenting on Washington State’s recently-passed $8 billion transportationpackage—funded by a 9.5 cent per gallon increase and new weight-based vehicle fees—until I could figure out exactly how I feel about it. I still can’t. It’s complicated.

In general, I like taxes on gasoline.  Gasoline carries many costs—security, air and water pollution, climate-warming emissions, and the like—that aren’t captured by the market price.  Which means that, no matter how high the market price for gasoline goes, it’s still not high enough to account for all the externalities. So in theory I should be in favor of a gas tax increase.

In practice, though, it matters a lot how the money raised through a gas tax is used.  In Washington state, gas taxes are dedicated to roads and car ferries.  As a consequence, gas taxes in the state have tended to accelerate sprawling development at the ever-receding urban fringe—in precisely the places where residents have to drive most.  So even though gas taxes increase the cost of gasoline, they’ve also, in effect, increased its consumption.

This time, however, some anti-sprawl advocates in Washington seem genuinely pleased with the transportation package, touting it as a "win."  They give three reasons:  the package focuses on fixing existing highways, rather than building new ones; it provides nearly half a billion in funding for non-car-centered projects such as bike and pedestrian investments, special-needs transit, and a safe routes to school program; and, while it does provide nearly a billion dollars to I-405, the money is flagged for managed (i.e., tolled) lanes that encourage carpooling and transit.

I’m a little less sanguine, though.  And not just because increasing highway capacity on I-405 may foster sprawl, but more because the package provides $2 billion for my pet peeve: rebuilding the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

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  • I think that the city’s preferred option for replacing the Viaduct with a tunnel—which would cost $4.5 billion to replace 2.2 miles of highway, plus some work to reconnect the street grid—is wildly expensive, especially given that transportation planners think that they could raise at most $100 million by tolling the facility.  (In other words, the tunnel’s supporters think that it’s worth 45 times as much as drivers themselves would be willing to pay for it.)  Construction is likely to cause serious disruptions from 2009 through at least 2016, and according to the Seattle P-I, during construction itself…

    traffic will likely be shifted off the old structure onto downtown surface streets and onto Alaskan Way past waterfront businesses. A temporary bypass may be built between Broad and Pike streets.

    Which of course makes me wonder—if the Viaduct is so darn crucial that we have to spend $4.5 billion to fix it, how is it that the city thinks it can survive during constrction, with all of the Viaduct traffic forced onto city streets?

    Now, really, a tunnel isn’t the worst thing in the world.  By 2016 or so, Seattle might have a reasonably attractive waterfront—though a high-speed highway nearby, coupled with a decade of neglect, may mean that not too many people will be inclined to live there. 

    But what really gets me is this:  the $2 billion in state funding will disappear within two years if the region can’t find the rest of the money to build the tunnel.  The state’s just going to take it away, and spend it somewhere else.  So the region (mostly Seattle) is going to have to commit another $2 billion, at least, to lock in the state funds.  Seattle residents are already taxing themselves for the monorail; we’re helping to pay for light rail; the state is phasing in a 14.5 cent per gallon gas tax; we’re facing expenses for repaving I-5 and rebuilding the 520 bridge; and on top of that, Seattle is still going to have to come up with a couple of billion extra to pay for the rest of the Viaduct.

    Here’s the risk: with all of the expensive transportation mega-projects underway right now, there’s a distinct chance that Seattle residents will balk at the cost of the tunnel—which was the most expensive of the proposed designs for replacing the Viaduct.  But with $2 billion in construction money already on the table, the city may opt for one of the lower-priced options:  a surface highway, or simply rebuilding the existing structure.  Which would mean that Seattle would be saddled with a waterfront highway for the next 50 years, just as it had one for the preceding 50.

    One hundred years of highway. Ugh.  I’d much rather have nothing than that.  It would be much better to use the $2 billion to replace the seawall, tear down the Viaduct, and invest in a plan to move people into and through downtown without a gold-plated highway. 

    Any takers, Seattle?