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McGinn draws a firm line about the waterfront tunnel

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn meets with the media following a shooting involving a metro bus driver on Aug. 12. Credit: John Stang

In his first state of the city speech, Mayor Mike McGinn Tuesday (Feb 15) spoke frequently about financial concerns as he outlined the key challenges facing he sees facing Seattle. Most strikingly, he tied the financial issues to the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which he has opposed in the past.

The mayor outlined priorities around improving opportunities and education for young people; lining up city policies to promote jobs; advancing broadband, fiber-optic infrastructure; and transportation improvements. McGinn said the city seems to be well-positioned financially in comparison to many other large cities, both for the moment and as an economic competitor in the future.

But he said the city faces both a deficit in the range of $50 million for 2011 and a possible need to cut $5 to $10 million in the middle of the year because of falling revenue. And the city, McGinn suggested, can’t take anything for granted, including its ability to thrive off such assets as its history of technological innovations, its higher education institutions, and trade through its port.

Early on, he struck an almost wistful note as he referred to the complaints many had about growth during the economic boom, saying, “Now we probably wouldn’t mind seeing a new [construction] crane or two go up.”

Throughout the address in the City Council Chambers, he connected economics to all of the issues, but none as specifically as he did when talking about state transportation initiatives. He argued again for more transit in the planned reconstruction of the Highway 520 floating bridge and stressed what he said is a risk to Seattle taxpayers of being stuck with costs for a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

While saying that he doesn’t support the tunnel, McGinn said he does respect the city council’s 9-0 decision to move forward. (Well he might, since he switched his position in the campaign to saying he wouldn’t block the tunnel.) But he said he had one remaining issue with the tunnel construction, albeit a deal-breaker. Noting that the legislature has said it will not pay for any cost overruns and plans to stick those costs to “Seattle residents” (not, interestingly the “City of Seattle”), McGinn said ominously, “What we know about mega-projects is that they have cost overruns.”

He said the bill for Seattle “could be billions of dollars, billions of dollars that we don’t have. So I intend to keep fighting as mayor to say that we should not get those deep-bore tunnel machines going as long as we are at risk of paying the cost overruns.”

The statement is likely to be regarded as tantamount to direct opposition to completion of the tunnel. Tunnel supporters think the state language on overruns is unenforceable and essentially meaningless, and not amenable politically to change by the legislature.

Councilmember Tim Burgess took strong exception to the mayor’s tunnel statements. McGinn, Burgess said, “is clearly attempting to create confusion and fear.” Burgess said the mayor could easily have confined himself to saying he would “make sure that, as everyone agrees, there are no obligations for the city.”

Council President Richard Conlin was guarded in his comments. He said McGinn’s tunnel remarks “seemed pretty rhetorical.” But Conlin said he was glad that the mayor seemed to talk about the replacement of the Seattle waterfront seawall as part of the viaduct replacement project, which is how the council has viewed it.

Tom Rasmussen, chair of the council’s transportation committee, took a third tack on the tunnel, saying that McGinn repeated his earlier position, which flies in the face of state opposition to making any explicit changes to the cost overrun language. “It seems like that is something he wants to work out with the state, and all I say say is, good luck with that,” Rasmussen said, noting that the council, like the state, has no interest in pursuing the issue.

Overall, Conlin said, the speech gave a good grasp of the issues facing the city but he said he kept waiting for specific legislative approaches the mayor might take. Burgess, likewise, praised the “conversational tone” and the listing of challenges, adding that McGinn is too new to the job to be expected to have many specific solutions.

Conlin said that, in some ways, McGinn’s lack of specifics was the direct opposite of how onetime Mayor Paul Schell would lay out numerous proposals at once. “Somewhere in between is where we are looking to land,” Conlin said. The council will lay out its own 2010 priorities on Monday.

Other highlights of McGinn’s speech included:

  • On broadband, McGinn said, opposition from the private sector to any municipal-led projects is to be expected, but said cities have to make sure their citizens have the Internet connections to be competitive economically.
  • The city will cut its budget, and “then we may have to look at” revenue options for essential services.
  • The city has excellent plans for biking and pedestrian improvements but needs to figure out how to pay for them. McGinn said he and new the city’s new transportation boss, Peter Hahn, are outlining ideas around a theme that includes transit connections, tentatively called “walk, bike, ride.”

Rasmussen praised the last idea and said that he has heard from city neighborhoods about “sidewalks, sidewalks, sidewalks” and a desire to be able to walk to transit.

At the opening of the speech, McGinn talked about “the great work” that city employees had been doing over the past year. That seemed to suggest the mayor, who offended many city workers with immediate talk of reducing senior positions, wanted to offer an olive branch. But he then avoided any specifics, saying that examples of the accomplishments would be posted electronically.

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