Monday, May 23, 2011

R. H. Thomson, meet Mayor McGinn

Seattle started boring another tunnel last week, one of two tubes that will go through Capitol Hill and link up at the excavation next to Husky Stadium, where trains and buses will soon head off in all directions.  The city, finally, is on a roll with its transportation projects. 

The Capitol Hill rail tunnel follows a burst of tunneling activity in Seattle and, indeed, around the world.  Tunnel technology has changed.  As it becomes harder to put structures on top of the earth, it has become easier to build them below.   

The next tunnel in line is the second tube of the University of Washington bound tunnel.  The third tunnel is the one that will dominate our summer discussions, the bored tunnel beneath downtown that seeks to erase the scar of the viaduct from Seattle’s waterfront and take the clutter, noise and traffic away from the city's front porch.

University of Washington
Reginald Heber Thomson, the city surveyor in the 1880s and city engineer from 1892 to 1912, the man responsible for the location and function of most everything that counts in Seattle, would not have described it exactly that way. R.H. Thomson was not a metaphor kind of guy.  He was a builder, borer and sluicer of the first magnitude and did not get overly fussy about making a mess.  His busy hand sculpted the city as we see it today – The Denny Regrade and Harbor Island, West Point Sewage Treatment Plant, the Hiram Chittendon Locks, the canal connecting Lake Washington and Lake Union – as well as the institutions that provide functionality to the city like the Cedar River Watershed and its regional delivery system, the first City Light powerhouses on the Cedar, the Port of Seattle. 

He is our Robert Moses.  Nobody can or will touch the enormous physical contributions he made to his city, yet he has nothing of any consequence named after him.  He is just the caboose of a hyphenated north end middle school, Broadview-Thomson, and is mostly remembered as the namesake of the R.H. Thomson Freeway, a giant concrete enemy-of-the-people project that would have gone from Renton to Lake City.  Think you like big transportation projects?  Try liking this one, as described by Historylink:  

“…from Renton through southeast and central Seattle, and north through the Washington Park Arboretum, linking to SR520 and I-5.  The highway would then dip under the Montlake Cut and re-emerge near University Village with a link to an east-west expressway on NE 50th before proceeding north to Lake City.  Voters approved the project in 1960 and turned it down in 1972.

But, I digress. 

City of Seattle
The central waterfront was a different proposition in the early 1900s.  Ships and goods landed there, were handled by people, animals, rail cars and wagons.  It was noisy and scary, the sounds of heavy equipment amplified by the wooden planks over which they banged and rumbled.  If you were to be crushed by heavy equipment, Railroad Avenue, as Alaska Way was then called, was the most likely spot. 

Minnesota Historical Society
In the midst of the Railroad Avenue mayhem, was where James J.  Hill, the owner of the Great Northern Railroad, wanted to locate his terminal.  Hill had the idea of a long pier that would bring his Great Northern trains directly to the ships.  However, Engineer Thomson was having none of it and worked on a plan that would put the tracks Hill needed on recently reclaimed, city-owned land around Dearborn Street, south of the downtown.    Hill wanted his terminal to be as close to the city as the shack he had at today’s Second and Columbia streets, but ultimately, with Thomson's advice, settled on property just off South Jackson Street. 

Thomson knew the railroad business, having laid out the route of the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railroad over Snoqualmie Pass and constructed bridges and terminals in Spokane.  Hill respected his expertise.  Now that Hill knew where his railroad would touch down, he turned to building the tunnel skirting the central waterfront that Thomson had convinced him he also needed.  It is one of the most enduring pieces of the city’s infrastructure.

City of Seattle
Shovels and young men were the core technologies of tunnel building in April of 1903.  There were 350 of the latter who deployed first at the north end and shortly thereafter along the south end, at 4th and Washington, of the mile long tunnel.  A fast digging pace was 18 feet a day, moderated by hard clays and the discovery of an ancient forest that reduced the daily pace to 12 feet. 

They dug about 125 feet below the ground amid great competition between the night crews and the day crews.  In October, 1904, they broke through.  While modest today, this tunnel was ambitious for its time and was, at 28 feet high and 30 feet wide, the tallest and the widest.  They used a lot of concrete.  The walls were between four and a half and five and a half feet thick.  It has proven remarkably resilient, standing up to 15 or so notable earthquakes that have occurred in the Puget Sound over its lifetime. 

The waterfront grew into a gentler space after the Great Northern Tunnel.  Much of the cargo supporting America's greater role in the world moved to the north at Piers 90/91.   Thomson's effort to spur commercial growth in the city's downtown by removing Denny Hill and placing the spoils in the tide flats south of the downtown, created Harbor Island.  It was an ideal platform for the transformative transportation technology developed for the Department of Defense during World War II, standard-sized, intermodal steel containers.  Equally at home at sea, on rail cars or on trucks, these containers were best served by lots of open space, which Harbor Island offered. 

The tunnel ultimately had a major role in turning the hostile, noisy central waterfront into a place of rest and retail, marred in the fifties by the construction of the viaduct.

If only shovels and men could fix the tunnel issues facing our community today.   King County Superior Court Judge Laura Middaugh ruled last week that voters can have another pass at the bored tunnel issue, but, according to the judge, the execution of this franchise will bring little clarity:

"Is there going to be a tunnel or not? This doesn't resolve that. What happens if the state wants a tunnel and the city doesn't? I have no idea who controls that. By allowing that to go to the voters, that doesn't resolve any of the issues." Middaugh said in the Seattle Times.

Meaningless votes have highly meaningful consequences.  We are headed, under the inept and myopic administration of a mayor who as a candidate told a fundamental untruth to get elected, into a miasma of public confusion and civic disappointment.  There will be a vote in August of 2011, followed by the continued construction of the project.  The governor’s race, as it plays out in Seattle in 2012, will be about the tunnel, as will the Mayor’s race in 2013.  So, with all the big things we have to do, we are focused corrosively on a single transportation project for the next several years.

The politics of transportation in Seattle have gradually changed as the motivations of the players have changed.  The great freeway fights of the 60s and 70s in which citizens brought down the R.H.  Thomson and the Bay freeways, and nearly sunk the second I-90 bridge, were dominated by neighborhood groups, both those directly affected by the project and people in other neighborhoods who found solidarity with them, fearing their house would be next.  The environmental component of those opponents was smaller, less focused.
Today's opposition is firmly led by the environmental groups whose motivations are rooted globally, far from the neighborhood.  If anything, the neighborhood angle, energized by the 70,000 people who have moved downtown since the R.H. Thomson project went down, are leading the pro-tunnel crowd.  The motivator for this political alteration is climate change.  Now, it is not enough to bemoan the parking, exhaust fumes and asphalt paving brought by the car, but rather its contribution to global warming.  This fact makes for a harder dialogue.  A transportation philosophy that demonizes the car at the expense of other public goals in combination with a vote that provides only rhetorical direction is a lousy way, R. H.  Thomson might of said, to run a railroad.

All you ever wanted to know about the R.H. Thomson Freeway
The lie the mayor told
The centennial of the Port of Seattle
Gunnar Lotsberg knows everything about tunnels

(Note. In the Summer and Fall of 2011, Seattle voters gave the meaningless vote some real meaning, giving tunnel supporters a 60-40 margin over those who do not want to build the tunnel.   In the Fall of 2011, voters defeated an initiative that would have stopped light rail going across Lake Washington on the I-90 bridge, and made it impossible to use tolls collected on one project on other projects in the Puget Sound.  R. H.  Thomson would have been proud.)


  1. "Meaningless votes have highly meaningful consequences. We are headed, under the inept and myopic administration of a mayor who as a candidate told a fundamental untruth to get elected, into a miasma of public confusion and civic disappointment." Spot ON!

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