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Can Canadian transit learn from Seattle's tunnel vision?

Last week I wrote about the Swiss city of Lausanne getting a perfect little subway system built while Toronto and provincial politicians make fools of themselves and accomplish nothing to relieve their city's gridlock. Today, to further your despair, let me point out how Seattle is tearing down its eyesore "Gardiner Expressway" and liberating an otherwise very attractive waterfront.

It has a rather romantic name – The Alaskan Way Viaduct – but it is actually a horrible, ugly, two-decked, concrete expressway that, just like Toronto's Gardiner, cuts off the city from its waterfront. Progressive planners since the David Crombie era have recommended tearing down the Gardiner but then politicians wring their hands and ask how much it costs and where would their beloved cars go?

The answer is obvious, of course – underground, in a tunnel, a toll tunnel.

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And that's exactly what Seattle is building right now. The Alaskan Way was one of those planning mistakes from the 1950s (sound familiar?) which was put up in the days when a waterfront was thought to be suitable only for train yards (that also sounds familiar).

A section of it was badly damaged in a 2001 earthquake and that forced politicians to focus more seriously on the problem. They argued back and forth for nearly 10 years but did eventually come up with a solution that will suddenly make Seattle one of the most attractive waterfront-oriented cities in North America.

It's a $2-billion (U.S.), 1.7-mile, 56-foot-wide, deep-bore highway tunnel that will run below downtown Seattle and behind a sea wall holding back Puget Sound. It's nice enough to look out over Toronto Harbour when you can find a break in the wall of towers but the Puget Sound vista is inspiring.

They're bringing in a monster tunnel-boring machine from Japan (the largest one built), which will grind through 36 feet of earth per day while laying concrete as it goes. Drilling will take 16 months. Like the old Alaskan Way, the new tunnel will be a double-decker, but this one will be out of sight and out of sound. It is also designed to withstand a magnitude 9 earthquake.

When it's completed in 2015, it will open up 22 acres of newly accessible downtown waterfront that is presently occupied by the decaying expressway. After all the lengthy public consultations about the massive project, the city now is wildly enthusiastic about its potential to improve Seattle's transportation network and recreational waterfront.

Opposition to the tunnel called it Big Dig West – a reference to the Boston tunnel project that buried an interstate highway but cost double its budget, took years longer than expected and had corrupt management top to bottom. The State of Washington is the big spender on this project and it swears this one will come in on time and on budget.

Two billion dollars is a lot of money but didn't we just waste one billion on eHealth and have nothing to show for it? Lausanne and Seattle both show how enlightened political leadership can transform a city without drawing battle lines between car-haters and car-lovers. Seattle has improved transportation routes and opened up a magnificent but hidden waterfront.

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In 2015, I'll go out to Seattle, sit along the water's edge while watching the sun set over Puget Sound. I'll toast the citizens of Seattle with an Olympia beer. In Toronto, they'll still likely be squabbling about light rail or subways or streetcar lines or what kind of railway vehicles should go to the airport if they could only agree on the alignment.

This one's for you Seattle. Prosit Lausanne.

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