Dear Seattle, What’s With You and Transportation?

Bertha went “clunk” and the people involved in building Seattle’s grand but suddenly ill-fated tunnel project began to look at each other. It was considered beyond belief that the “clunk” would come so soon into the actual digging — the result of literally decades of fierce debate and discussion on what to do with an elevated roadway considered a potential disaster waiting to happen at the slightest provocation. The thousands of commuters using it every day, while enjoying unparalleled views of the city and Elliott Bay, were playing chicken with their lives and each time a seismic event happened the viaduct had to be shut down and minutely examined followed by a proclamation that We really dodged the big one this time! But finally a solution was settled on. A tunnel. And in a short time we had our latest transportation disaster of the moment.

Different cultures measure and react to disaster in very different ways. In American politics the finding of fault begins. As soon as the machine digging the tunnel ground to a noisy halt, numbers began to be compiled for insurance and litigation purposes and all sides began to prepare for a verdict. Who’s going to get the bill? Heads rolled to give some satisfaction to local commuters who were mad about the usual — and mostly unrelated — issues.

The Japanese manufacturers of the digging machine smiled through gritted teeth and insisted the machine they delivered was perfect until it got into the hands of their clients (the subtext almost screaming that they would have been done on time if people from the same engineering pantheon that gave the world the AMC Pacer, Chrysler K Car, and KFC spork hadn’t been allowed to touch Bertha). You didn’t even see the pipe it hit on the blueprints?! The Germans offered unsolicited advice that they had digging machines designed with superior technology that, had only the tunnel partners picked their version, well…

The reaction was much different at The Art Institute of Seattle, where I teach scriptwriting. The students there love the idea of disaster and the tunnel goes right under the school building. Their problem was that the disaster was so dull. They envisioned a machine gone out of control, like some bad Michael Bay movie. A hapless engineer switches on Bertha and then screams: “It’s loose!” as it runs rampant around the area with the authorities powerless to stop it until the Japanese send another transforming tunnel machine to halt it in an epic battle sequence.

The reality was so incomprehensibly boring that it’s almost less believable than the unfinished scripts of my students.

Bertha started up, began digging, went the distance of an average Costco (by width), ran into a pipe and broke. It’s a bit more complicated than that but not a lot more.

A tunnel for Bertha and eventually, for commuter traffic in Seattle.
Photo by Washington State Department of Transportation/CC 2.0

The original purchase price of the machine was $80 million. The two-year breakdown and delay have run up at least $220 million in cost overruns. The year 2019, when some say it is now scheduled to open, will be a decade after then-Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Legislature gave the okay. Former Mayor Mike McGinn proved almost clairvoyant with his scenario of a tunnel disaster and legal weed stores covering Seattle. Still, he was voted out.

To add insult to injury the smaller light-rail tunnel projects have whizzed on ahead of schedule adding to already popular stations with new stops in the middle of Capitol Hill and one next to Husky Stadium in the U District. The light rail has proved so popular it has inundated the downtown area with a new class of pedestrians pulling thousands of wheeled suitcases behind them. It’s transformed my Columbia City neighborhood and I evangelize it every chance I get. I slap my ORCA card down and it takes me to work in a fraction of the usual time with no parking fees. Now, new stations are offered up as plums in return for new taxed-backed funding packages.

And yet the automobile traffic is still impossible. With all the tunnels, rail systems, bike lanes, water taxis, tolls and trolleys, a critical mass of people simply refuse to get out of their cars. I’ve lived here all my life and the only time it was ever easy was during the ‘70s when everybody was moving out. We’ve tried a lot of things in the last century. As Bertha chugs to the north it will be digging through the debris of another big idea: The Denny Regrade. In the last century the largest hill in the city was sluiced away to provide the foundations for what are now the sports stadiums and to make it easier to expand the city. (You’re welcome, Jeff Bezos. Bring in more techies with their Teslas.) But the authorities insist the tunnel will be done someday. What that reroute of traffic will look like and its effect on commuters nobody really knows. A suggestion has been made to put Bertha, or at least its cutting blade, in the Olympic Sculpture Park when all is done. I think it’s a good idea — both in an artistic and practical sense — since we’ll probably need it when the big one really does arrive and we have to start all over.

  • John Keister

    John Keister is a Seattle-based comedian, writer, commentator and motivational speaker. He hosted the local comedy program Almost Live! from 1988 to 1999.