A Permanent Decline in Revenue Forecasted for the Tunnel Bertha Built in Seattle

Public transit isn't the only mode struggling to attract the expected number of users in 2022. State Route 99 in Downtown Seattle is also failing to live up to expectations and struggling to make ends meet.

2 minute read

August 4, 2022, 12:00 PM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

Construction on a tunnel is visible next to the Seattle waterfront.

SR 99 tunnel construction, pictured in the more optimistic days of 2019. | Rey Rodriguez / Shutterstock

Recent revenue forecasts for the State Route 99 tunnel underneath downtown Seattle—built to replace the demolished Alaskan Way Viaduct—paints a dire picture for the costly and controversial project.

Long-time Planetizen readers will recall the saga of the SR 99 tunnel—the project that trapped a tunnel boring machine known as Bertha under the city on more than one occasion between 2013 and 2016, delaying and driving up costs for a project that many advocates said was unnecessary to replace the capacity of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which has since been completely demolished.

The Washington State Department of Transportation built the tunnel, and now it seems drivers aren’t actually paying the toll to use it enough to cover the costs of operating and maintaining the tunnel. As Ryan Packer reports for the Urbanist, the latest revenue forecast provided by the state treasurer’s office expects a permanent decline in revenue from tools from somewhere between 16% to 30%.

“I think it’s important to note that there’s been a permanent shift in the projected use of this corridor, which is going to have a pretty substantial negative impact on our revenues over the projection period,” says Jason Richter, the state’s deputy treasurer for debt management, as quoted in the article. Richter provided the Washington Transportation Commission

With “a balance sheet that by 2052 showed a cumulative negative balance of $236 million dollars,” reports Packer.

“Overall traffic volumes in the SR 99 tunnel are not looking good compared to the forecasts that WSDOT prepared over a decade ago as part of the environmental review for the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement program. That documentation projected that with tolling in place, by 2030 over 57,000 vehicles per day would use the facility, a substantial decline compared to the number that would use it if it weren’t tolled,” explains Packer. Traffic volumes are currently well below 40,000 vehicles a day, adds Packer.

Other highways in the state’s system are back to pre-pandemic flows, so the SR 99 tunnel is likely a victim of the same economic and demographic trends currently gutting transit ridership and office occupancy rates in downtowns around the country.  

Monday, August 22, 2022 in The Urbanist

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