The citizens of Seattle have indicated by initiative and poll that they'd like to express a collective opinion on the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, and in particular the deep-bore tunnel.
A judge found that most of the issues covered in the tunnel initiative were out-of-bounds for the ballot, but one portion was eligible for a vote. The technicalities are somewhat confusing, but the politics are not. People will have an imperfect but clear opportunity in August to say yes or no to the idea of the tunnel. It's not ideal, but it's there and important.
The Seattle Times, which abhors the process, calls the ballot measure a "dog's breakfast." The City Council, a majority of which favors of the tunnel, has not stepped in to provide any clarity by putting up alternative ballot measures that could offer more definitive choices. We voting dogs will have for a dog days' breakfast this lovely dish of hash.
But there is also a political advantage for tunnel proponents, like the Times and City Council, to portray the vote as meaningless and utterly confusing. Obscuring the outcome is an attempt to diminish the vote's significance. Imperfect as it may be, however, the vote will add political momentum to the winning side.
If voters say yes to the council's tunnel process, I have little doubt the Times editorialists will see a clear message from the voters to move ahead with the tunnel. If it's a "no," they will find nothing but gray and pointlessness. It reminds me of the pairing of headlines in the classic film Citizen Kane where Charles Foster Kane's newspapers have alternative headlines readied for the result of their publisher's gubernatorial race: "Kane Elected" or "Fraud at Polls!"
A rejection or rebuke of the tunnel decision-making process, especially by a significant margin, likely would not change the state's intentions, but it would shift political momentum by making support of the tunnel on the current terms riskier for City Council members, influencing council elections and perhaps redirecting the next mayoral race.
A vote even broadly interpreted as anti-tunnel would give force to the objections and concerns of Mayor Mike McGinn and City Councilman Mike O'Brien, validating their "obstructionism." It would put wanna-be mayors and council leaders like Tim Burgess or Richard Conlin in a more complicated political position. No one wants to run for election, or re-election, against "the people." And if, as is likely, the tunnel project goes ahead against the expressed wishes of the citizens, it could become politically untenable, especially when the project hits major bumps in the road, as it inevitably will (all such projects do).
On the other hand, if the anti-tunnel measure is defeated, it will amount to full steam ahead. McGinn will be rebuked, and it will be dig, baby, dig.
So the act of confusing or dispiriting people becomes a viable pro-tunnel strategy, just as scaring the people about tunnel risks is part of a viable anti-tunnel one. It might be ugly, complicated and messy, but it's what we have.
It is, I would argue, not without precedent. I have supported all along a vote on the tunnel, even a symbolic one. No one should take any outcome for granted. While it is often easier to scare people with the threat of cost overruns, it is also possible to scare people into thinking that no problem will ever be solved if the tunnel isn't built.
McGinn is right that there's a long precedent of voters getting to weigh in on big projects. Sometimes before the fact, occasionally after. Long battles have been fought over I-90, I-5, R.H. Thomson, the Monorail, Sound Transit and regional rail, Metro, Seattle Center, the World's Fair, the stadiums (Kingdome, Safeco, Qwest), the Commons, Pike Place Market, etc. Most of these involved votes, even multiple votes, and numerous court cases. Seattle has frequently rejected the idea that just because the feds or state says so, we'll do it their way. Likewise, the feds and state have often held back when Seattle backed an idea that they objected to (the Monorail Green Line being a case in point).
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