That was fast. Just a week after the voters nixed Proposition 1 for roads and transit, Gov. Chris Gregoire announces she's taking control of 520 bridge planning.
Seattle is about to pay a price for its dithering -- loss of local control.
A similar theme was sounded in Bill Virgin's column
in today's P-I, suggesting a divestiture of authority for Sound Transit, handing over the controls for Sounder Commuter Rail to Amtrak and bringing on some private transit services. Is the corpse about to be carved up?
That's certainly one possible scenario in the aftermath of the crushing rejection of Prop 1, after five years of planning and armtwisting among the Seattle area players. Both Gregoire and House Speaker Frank Chopp delegated the roads planning to the local players, but have grown increasingly frustrated at Seattle's ability to thrash around without reaching effective consensus. Instead of getting the Big Fix, they got a Seattle specialty: The Big Nix. The list is getting long: the Seattle Commons, the Viaduct, the Monorail, the Sonics, and now Prop 1. What the state gives, the state can taketh away -- particularly when Gregoire is facing a tough race for reelection and the big problem of congestion remains unsolved.
The 520 bridge is in danger of sinking, and as time runs out the city gets no closer to a solution. Mayor Greg Nickels has been obsessed by the Viaduct issues and fearful of stirring up the citizen activists in Montlake. A mediation process, mandated by the Legislature, is apparently not making much progress. And now the project has a $2 billion shortfall. Microsoft, a strong influence on the big-business-friendly governor, is relentless in their pressure on getting the bridge widened and fixed. Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith said the governor's intervention was "most heartening."
The hope was to work out a compromise and then find the missing money through tolls or private participation in the construction. The fear was that if the state (after all, it's a state highway) imposed its solution, we would then head into a decade of litigation from Montlake and Medina neighbors, and possibly the University of Washington. Now, even risking litigation may seem a shorter course to a solution than the endless Seattle process.
Might all this be a wake-up call for local leaders? I wouldn't count on it. The business establishment seems especially weak these days, deploying little beyond money in the Prop 1 campaign. Ron Sims will find it difficult to be a regional statesman, having angered so many fellow politicians by breaking his pledge to stay neutral on Prop. 1. Sensing a turning tide, the environmental groups will push harder for pet transit ideas and against roads, even as the funding base fades away and the state takes away local power.
In the vacuum of leadership, a few powerful entities will seek to fix their main problem, as Microsoft is doing on 520. Sound Transit will have to content itself with a small extension of its system. The state will probably also lower the boom on a surface-only solution to the central waterfront, probably shifting to a patch job on the Viaduct. Welcome to Plan B, folks!