Tunnel debate is redefining Seattle politics

Perhaps we're dwelling on the debate because we are starting to think about how, whichever way the tunnel decision goes, the city protects its history and builds a healthy future.
The proposed waterfront tunnel

The proposed waterfront tunnel WSDOT

Seattle's tunnel debate is like that old vaudeville joke about two ladies complaining about the food at their hotel. "The food here is terrible," says one. The other replies, "Yes, and such small portions." Let's face it, we hate the tunnel debate but we can't get enough.

It seems likely that our city is working something out through this debate; it's almost as if it's cathartic. Even though the council has passed resolutions to move forward the discussion will certainly continue. What does that decision mean for the future of Seattle's civic discourse?

Understanding a bit more about our past might help us envision where we go when we're done with the tunnel debate, no matter what happens. We're in a painful synthesis of two great historic civic trends, Forward Thrust and Lesser Seattle. Forward Thrust was the inspired and capital intensive effort to improve Seattle's infrastructure and Lesser Seattle was the rugged individualist skepticism of expensive vanity projects. Jim Ellis, a downtown, establishment lawyer, stands on one side as the leader of Forward Thrust and Emmett Watson, a curmudgeonly journalistic skeptic and champion of common sense, was the founder of the Lesser Seattle movement.

The civic urge represented by Ellis and Forward Thrust cleaned up Lake Washington and brought Seattle a world's fair. Watson's Lesser Seattle sensibility battled successfully against freeway expansion and for preservation of the Pike Place Market. At their worst, the Thrusters could be relentless in their effort to pave over history and the Lessers could be stubborn opponents of positive progress. But both of these elements are alloyed in almost every discussion of land use and transportation.

The tunnel debate forces these trends, ironically, to the surface, but in new ways. And the question for Seattle is whether these impulses — one toward big splashy projects and one towards keeping Seattle from losing its character — will tear up the city and civic discourse. Or will Seattle somehow use this conflict to synthesize the tendencies into something new?

The debate took a brutal turn with City Councilmember Jean Godden’s article in Crosscut in which she compared those of us who oppose the tunnel to "birthers," the people who believe that Obama isn't a citizen. But I think we could use the tunnel debate to evolve our civic discourse away from a progress-versus-past dichotomy and toward a view of the future that is sustainable, progressive, and preservative of the character of our region. We've seen elements of the Lesser Seattle movement, like Knute Berger and Tim Harris, coming together — intellectually at least — with Urbanists and Forward Thrust types like Dan Bertolet and Mike O'Brien in raising tough questions about the tunnel.

Previously, these characters would be found locked in pitched feuds over land use, one side arguing for preservation and affordable housing and the other urging more density to accommodate growth. None of these things are incompatible, but culturally they represent two divergent views of Seattle, one based on existing land use patterns and urging that growth go elsewhere and the other seeing growth as our ticket to sustainable prosperity.

There's a lot to debate about whether I have cast these protagonists appropriately. But it's hard to dispute that tunnel opposition has created some strange bedfellows. The problem with tunnel opposition is that it doesn’t necessarily form a coherent basis for a positive political movement. Opposition doesn't always make the most fertile ground for a for the seeds of positive change.

Imagine if environmentalists, preservationists, homeless advocates, and neighborhood density advocates turned their opposition of the tunnel into a positive movement. Could the anti-tunnel urge form a kind of opposition party against the seemingly dominant group that is pushing the tunnel? Are we ready for partisanship in Seattle or are we too nice? The question is, can tunnel opponents find common ground to move beyond the tunnel and, for example, elect a slate of new like-minded members of the city council next year, when there will be five seats up for grabs. Do they even want to?


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Aug 4, 7:14 a.m. Inappropriate

While I agree with your story in the main, I do have some issues with it. Emmett Watson promoted Forward Thrust; he was against willy-nilly destruction of landmarks. Both he and Bill Spidell worked to save historic buildings. Forward Thrust was necessary if you ever stood at the shore of Lake Washington in the mid fifties watching “things” float by.
That was the reason for Forward Thrust. As far as I-5 goes, yes it chopped Seattle in half, but, where was it to go? Federal Government (Eisenhower) decreed that it take the location it did. Remember, this was a national security issue. (OK, as most federal defense projects go, it was behind the times before it was complete.)

Now, I feel that all anybody wants in Seattle is to stop everything. Look to the Seattle Times today about SR 520. We can stop development, there is no question. But, do we want to? Coalitions need to be built, but in this current environment of “my way or the hiway” I doubt that it will come to fruition. We are just too polarized these days. A strong leader who is not afraid to take hits and stand up for what they believe is needed. Jim Ellis v.2011, where are you?

Posted Wed, Aug 4, 8:01 a.m. Inappropriate

The gross errors: The money we are talking about isn't Seattle's and can't be reallocated without State action - that's why tunnel opponents "don't have a plan" but only an idea. They don't have the votes in Olympia to accomplish their goals and no leverage to get them. For good or ill, most Seattleites do want to replace Highway 99, they just don't agree on what kind. Impact, the tunnel will guarantee a world-class waterfront that will make the impact of the World's Fair seem puny by comparison and be the biggest density-booster this City will ever have. This article reinforces the notion that McGinn’s opposition to the Deep-Bore Tunnel is a ploy to establish himself as Seattle’s decision-maker and replace members of the City Council. After eight months in office, McGinn has one lonely accomplishment: he has divided Seattle’s pro-environment progressives. Why? More at www.lightandair.wordpress.com

Posted Wed, Aug 4, 8:07 a.m. Inappropriate

The original concept behind the Interstate Highway System, as I understand Eisenhower's vision, was for the highways to link major cities in the US, but not actually penetrate them. Highways for commerce, not for commuters. But local social engineers saw opportunities to put more local travel into automobiles and away from public transit, and to sell more real estate in the suburbs. Thus the I-5s that divide cities and help fill them with single-occupant commuter cars.

But on his main point, Roger may well be on to something. Getting tunnel opponents to actually work together, however, requires more leadership among them than has been demonstrated so far. Everyone has their own agenda and collaboration goes out the window.

What I still can't fathom is how so many smart people, most of whom I admire, got caught up in this crazy tunnel scheme in the first place. It reeks of old-school back-room political deal-making. The "do SOMEthing" solution when the perceived "do nothing" solution (Surface/Transit/I-5) was claiming victory.

All those smart people just deciding to ignore the elephant in the room: the absence of ANY mid-tunnel connections! Nearly half the existing traffic on the viaduct uses these ramps, and their needs are just ignored. The through traffic, that will be handled by the tunnel, will be subjected to a toll, one likely to be high enough to displace a large portion of it (30 - 40%?) from the tunnel to alternate routes.

Net result is that surface routes will carry most of the corridor traffic, but without the support and amenities that would've been provided by the Surface/Transit/I-5 program. And the tunnel will be lightly used, with toll revenues not covering the costs they need to cover.

And future generations will ask, "what WERE they thinking?" What indeed.

Posted Wed, Aug 4, 8:09 a.m. Inappropriate

This piece should be titled:

"McGinn wants tunnel debate to redefine Seattle Politics."

More at www.lightandair.wordpress.com

Posted Wed, Aug 4, 9:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Opponents of the tunnel need to understand, going in, what each suggests as an alternative. 1/3 a boulevard; 1/3 a viaduct repair; 1/3 a surface cut. So they defeat the tunnel, part ways and spend another five years fighting each other on the next idea. Ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

Pogo was right.

chance

Posted Wed, Aug 4, 9:21 a.m. Inappropriate

I think the entire premise of this article is wrong. The city was never easily divided into two distinct camps, Forward Thrust and Lesser Seattle. Most people have a mix of support for making the city different and better, and wanting to keep some things the same. That's as true now as ever. And the anti-tunnel folks are actually the progressives here looking to define a new future that's a break from the past. The tunnel is just another flavor of keeping things the way they've "always been"--devoted to moving cars rather than moving people and strengthening neighborhoods. In that sense, the tunnel represents the worst combination of build-at-any-cost and Lesser Seattle tendencies.

Seattle's freeways were a mistake. There's too much invested around their existence to remove them all, but when presented with an opportunity to remove one of them, we should take it.

cascadian

Posted Wed, Aug 4, 9:39 a.m. Inappropriate

Cascadian - the deep bore tunnel is a compromise. Eliminating the viaduct is about as far from keeping things the way they have "always been" as possible. Eliminating the viaduct restores the city fabric and encourages density. As for Deep-Bore Tunnel opponents being progressive, they are no more progressive than the environmentalists that support the tunnel, just more obdurate and less realistic. Many environmentalists support the tunnel because they are unwilling to risk the possibility of a new viaduct, ruined waterfront and/or the loss of $2.8 billion dollars in State funding. The true progressive view of highways in cities is to either eliminate them or bury them. Tunnel opponents are in favor of I-5 preservation and expansion.

Posted Wed, Aug 4, 10:14 a.m. Inappropriate

I can predict one thing with certainty; Sooner or later, someone will claim that their point of view is the only "true progressive" one.

When somebody can tell me what is "progressive," and who is to decide, I'll read further. But I'm not holding my breath till that happens. Until such time, I'll continue to regard "progressive" like Ambrose Bierce regarded "patriot": "One to whom the interests of a part seem superior to those of the whole. The dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors."

In other words, "progressive" is a term that ten different people will define in ten different ways, each to suit their own purposes.

Is it "progress" if our precious, sacred waterfront is freed from the unsightly Viaduct, and traffic becomes unbearable as a result? Will cars automatically vanish from the scene? To those who expect -- and demand -- that outcome, and consider it "progressive," I have only one response:

Clap your hands and shout as loud as your little voices will carry: I BELIEVE IN FAIRIES!

ivan

Posted Wed, Aug 4, 10:52 a.m. Inappropriate

For many politically-minded folks in Seattle (and in places like Seattle), the word 'progressive' has become a code word for bestowing approval and a shibboleth for identifying people who share their own views. With an uncertain meaning (especially with regards to lots of local matters) it can be hurled indiscriminately and used to win points without providing any insight or requiring additional analysis or persuasion. Anyone who tries to persuade others by applying this term is on thin ice and probably knows it.

Posted Wed, Aug 4, 11:02 a.m. Inappropriate

The tunnel is not a "compromise". Fixing the sea wall first, building Light Rail to West Seattle and a Trolley to Ballard is the compromise. It tackles the three most important things about transportation. First, it's the failure of the seawall during an earthquake that brings the Viaduct down. Just watch the DOT video and you can see that once the soil leaves the support posts, over it goes. Next adding additional capacity to rapid transit alleviates the need for a full replacement of the viaduct. And during reconstruction, having this in place before tearing out the viaduct digging anything will make life a lot easier for everybody who uses this route. And once this is done, we can again talk about tunnels vs elevated vs surface and my bet is that a surface replacement will look very good.

GaryP

Posted Wed, Aug 4, 11:17 a.m. Inappropriate

Roger, I can see both sides but I have to go with the tunnel. Most major cities that "are on the map" have major infrastructure underneath their cities leaving more land for the stuff we see and love. I really take issue with your comment "Unlike the 1962 World's Fair, the tunnel won't put Seattle on the map." When in fact a new face of seattle as a waterfront without the viaduct will. Just look at the Olympic Sculpture Park and how much more interesting and desireable our city is because of it and it's not downtown! We just have to find a way to make our city pedestrian friendly and our downtown unforgettable.

chuck

Posted Wed, Aug 4, 1:51 p.m. Inappropriate

An AWV-free Waterfront would be great. The proposed Phase 1 Mercer Rebuild project looks great. Reconnecting the grid at Aurora and John, Thomas and Harrison Streets is a sensible road network design and would be great.

However, depending on which AWV replacement is chosen, these 3 'Thrustian' projects can come with extremely severe impacts which 'Lessers' should oppose.

Thrusters with complete disregard for Lessers:

-South Lake Union interests because the DBT reconnects the grid at Aurora, and, Waterfront District interests because the AWV is removed.

Lessers who must fight to preserve neighborhood character and livibility:

-Lower Queen Anne residents and businesses because noisy traffic diverted from the DBT north portal to Elliott via Mercer will spew air pollution and increase traffic hazards.

-Lower Belltown interests because they lose access to Battery Street Tunnel and SR99 which affects its commercial potential. The new traffic pattern will likely travel in 'packs' with a harmful affect on the pedestrian environment.

-Traffic will also increase along the Denny Way and Westlake/Nickerson corridors, and along Alaskan Way.

I support the cut/cover Tunnelite option because it offers all the Thrustian benefits with none of the Lesser impacts. It would be temporarily inconvenient mostly to motorists. Screw them and their precious pollute-mobiles.

Wells

Posted Wed, Aug 4, 3:32 p.m. Inappropriate

Thoughtful piece, but you ran off the rails at the end there, Roger, with your claim that the SR 99's section going through downtown is "a highway most people don't want."

If the "strange but promising coalition" you describe successfully blocks the construction of the tunnel or a viaduct replacement, you'll see an even stranger coalition of labor and business groups replace McGinn in 3 years and relegate him and his car-hating friends to the dustbin of Seattle history.

Trevor

Posted Wed, Aug 4, 6:17 p.m. Inappropriate

Seattle. America's biggest small town.

Posted Thu, Aug 5, 12:01 a.m. Inappropriate

The tunnel will be too costly, and too crippling.

Assuming they can get the bore not to get stuck, and acutally complete the damn thing, then this will be the last nail in the coffin of manufacturing and light industrial jobs in the Ballard/Fremont/Magnolia areas.

The so-called world class park? It will smell like urine and be full of vagrants, drunks and derelicts, just like EVERY other downtown Seattle park.

Posted Thu, Aug 5, 9:42 a.m. Inappropriate

I don't see what's so "promising" about Roger's "strange coalition". The tunnel opponents may believe their own blarney, but none of the rest of us aren't required to do so.

And this piece would certainly rank high on the old Blarney-O-Meter. Certainly there's "a lot to debate" about how Roger casts characters of the past. Debate hell, I LOL'd.

But that was just the warm-up, like when a dragracer spins his tires to heat them up and make them inflate to the full size before he takes off the brakes when the light flashes. Before you know it, we're wondering "Could the anti-tunnel urge form a kind of opposition party against the seemingly dominant group that is pushing the tunnel?" Why, of course it could! America has a long history of single-issue parties emerging in economic downturns to fight some shadowy Mr. Big. Heaven forfend that Seattle should somehow escape this experience!

With that, Roger's really burning up the quarter-mile, and we're almost instantly in the land of "downtown business interests" and "old leadership cadres" who are teaming up with "outsiders" to build a highway "most people don't want". Gee, Roger, why don't you tell us how you really feel?

Now, strange to say, we've seen none of this opposition to the current tunneling project, which is probably riskier and more expensive than the proposed tunnel. None of the DBT opponents are complaining about the Sound Transit tunnel to the second largest industry in the state, the U of W, which is run by unelected regents (no homeless advocates here!), and has historically kicked Seattle around like a soccer ball. Or the fact that the third and fourth extensions of Sound Transit will be to (you guessed it) historically white suburban middle class neighborhoods.

Maybe the saddest thing about the whole tunnel argument is that it has not enriched our political process- it has poisoned the well. In discussing the risks, tunnel opponents never refer to the real anticipated cost of boring the tunnel, under $500 million, or the contingency fund in the budget that would cover the cost of a 100% overrun in boring the tunnel and still bring the project in on the advertised $1.9 billion. The rest of the tunnel work is simply highway building, which the state does exceptionally well. A sort of dishonesty has been baked in the cake of the opposition and regularly shows up in statements like Dominic Holden's opinion that a 50% overrun could mean a $1 billion increase in cost.

I'm guessing the tunnel opponents will live to regret having encouraged this form of argument.

Posted Thu, Aug 5, 9:41 p.m. Inappropriate

I consider myself a progressive and to me the retrofit seems like the
best idea. First off it is the least expensive option which is a reason i
like it. Secondly the viaduct can still be used while it is being retrofitted
and thirdly if traffic is ever reduced then the top of the viaduct can be closed and
turned into a giant park for all the hippies. So you see the viaduct retrofit really
pleases everyone if they would only realize it. I think im going to start
an initiative to retrofit the viaduct. Whose with me.

thundarr

Posted Sat, Aug 7, 4:27 p.m. Inappropriate

"The question is, can tunnel opponents find common ground to move beyond the tunnel and, for example, elect a slate of new like-minded members of the city council next year, when there will be five seats up for grabs. Do they even want to?"
The answer is no, the tunnel opposition can not find common ground. There are the Dan Bertolet and the "Surface+HopethereisTransit" proponent group, and the rebuild/replacement Viaduct proponent group. They mainly agree in their opposition to the tunnel. It breaks up at that point. No matter how you (any of you) move the pieces around you will not end up with a majority of proponents.
The ONLY thing a majority of people will agree to is that they want something for nothing, or even the hint that it could cost them something (cost overruns).

Mr Baker

Posted Sun, Aug 8, 1:58 p.m. Inappropriate

[b]How many homeowners are there in Seattle to split this tunnel overrun bill?[/b]

These government projects usually go from 3 to 10 times over budget, up to 10 times and even more for the Pentagon and the Feds, the Big Dig in Boston being 6 times from a budgeted $2.6 billion to $15 million, I figure this one estimated at $4.2 billion will cost us about $25 billion +/- 3 billion in the end...if we're lucky. This is a project bigger than anyone here has ever done before with potential overruns to equal. This is the height of arrogance for our politicians and their egos.

Most of the people for this are the contractors, sub-contractors, engineers, unions, government agencies and everyone else who will financially benefit from it.

We've already got the first $100 million years before we start. The Gates Foundation has reported a problem with it going under their $500 million campus.

Also already spent is $200 million of the $415 million cushion for the road connections at the north and south tunnel entrances and street grid near Seattle Center.

Sound Transit estimated its Beacon Hill Tunnel contract at $240 million. As of June 2010 it and has paid out $312 million, with scores of unsettled claims remaining. This will end up at least 50% over budget.

Brightwater wastewater treatment project started out at $1.3 billion and as of July, 2010 it at $1.9 billion and counting and well into the 50% overrun category.

Good luck to us Seattle taxpayers.

ezeques

Posted Tue, Aug 10, 9:11 a.m. Inappropriate

A large part of the cost over run for the big dig was caused by the same bubble that the entire construction industry experienced - labor and material costs tripled! But more importantly, is Boston still complaining about the "cost?" No-they received a huge improvement to their city and those overspent dollars will be soon forgotten. Boston is no worse off than any other city in these times and will be more ready to capitalize on it's future when we get out of these times! Lots of people made a great living off of that transportation project that vastly improved their city and it created jobs for thousands of people. Boston is a very smart city - why can't we be too and just get on with something we will all be proud of. Even those that do not have the imagination to see what benefits Seattle will receive from a new watertfront (and tunnel) will someday be strolling and sharing a great place in the Pacific Northwest that will seem like it's always been...

chuck

Posted Tue, Aug 10, 11:51 a.m. Inappropriate

Part of the story on Boston was the 20(?) year wait from the first estimate to completing the project, coupled with the completely different project scope between those two points.

Anyone who uses that to project Seattle's experience is embarassingly misinformed or a liar.

mhays

Posted Tue, Aug 10, 12:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Sorry, Mhays, but while the projects are certainly dissimilar, anyone who so casually dismisses the comparison strikes me as rather self-serving and disingenuous.

Posted Tue, Aug 10, 1:14 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree that some elements are relevant. Just talking about the cost story.

mhays

Posted Wed, Aug 11, 9:02 a.m. Inappropriate

Yes, what I wrote was not investigative journalism - it was an opinion. Ignorrance does not make me a liar but maybe you can offer some enlightenment to my "opnion?" But there are many similarities between these project, but the scale of the projects are vastly different. Here I go again...If it's 20 (40) years than we're already 10 years into this project, if it's cost, then Boston already built it and has benefitted and does not consider the cost issue anymore. If it's getting park space then Boston created several parks on top of the big dig and we'll get our waterfront. If it's a highway project than what is the tunnel and waterfront? Maybe it's fear that you are talking about. Boston did not fear that the project would cost, but you will find just a handful who do not appreciate what they now have...oh one more thing - the big dig replaced a "highway in the sky" called the central artery that was an elevated roadway built in 1959, so what does the tunnel replace? Maybe we can learn something from Boston's mistakes?

chuck

Posted Wed, Aug 11, 9:46 a.m. Inappropriate

Chuck, I wasn't referring to you at all. Actually agreeing with you.

mhays

Posted Wed, Aug 11, 11:08 a.m. Inappropriate

mhays, My mistake and glad to hear it! Anyone out there to add to this?

chuck

Posted Thu, Aug 12, 7:09 a.m. Inappropriate

Yeah, you're full of baloney. In the Seattle setting, the Big Dig would be like putting four miles of I-5 in a tunnel downtown, without interrupting the use of the highway during construction, and, in addition, building a tunnel under Elliot Bay to a new highway to the airport, and building a 36-acre park, four times the size of the proposed park on the waterfront.

Of course, that knowledge won't stop you from comparing the DBT to the Big Dig. I don''t think there's a power on earth great enough to stop the use of this pointless comparison.

Posted Thu, Aug 12, 8:52 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm sorry serial cat owner but if you cannot see the similarities between the two projects -except fort scale - than maybe you need to get a dog! :) (never used this symbol before)...

chuck

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