City of Seattle/James Corner Field Operations
City of Seattle
Note: the story has been updated with a quote from former Mayor Greg Nickels, highlighted below.
The debate over the Viaduct and the proposed deep-bore tunnel solution has reached what politicos call "saturation." The issues have been so thoroughly debated that voters are saturated with information and have plugged their ears. This explains, for example, why Mayor Mike McGinn's former key issue, the cost-overrun factor, has dropped from sight.
Instead, the final days of the campaign leading up to the August 16 vote on Seattle Referendum 1 (yes means go ahead with tunnel, no means tossing a modest monkey wrench into the juggernaut) will be aimed at pushing some simplistic buttons for the few remaining undecideds, and launching attacks that slice through the saturation.
For the opponents of the Big Bore, this means rallying Viaduct-rebuild advocates in West Seattle, Ballard, and Magnolia, tapping the strong local opposition to tolls (a tricky issue since greens favor tolls), disparaging the big-money interests behind the tunnel, appealing to fiscal conservatives who fear a Boston-style Big Dig, and summoning young greenies to strike a blow against cars and old-fogies transportation planning.
For proponents of the Big Bore, there are two big buttons to push. One is that, regardless of the merits of the plan, it's time to move forward, so let's stop all this dithering and plunge ahead with the one plan still standing, risky as it may be. (A corollary: if we scuttle the tunnel, we'll have another decade of debate to find a new "solution.") The second button/argument is that tunnel opponents are providing aid and comfort to Tim Eyman (now running an initiative against tolls and Sound Transit, though actually he tells me he's ambivalent about the tunnel) and "Mayor Gridlock."
One unspoken issue is Mayor McGinn's future political prospects. McGinn is lying low on the Big Bore, at least for now. He grasps that this issue is dragging down his popularity, so he's lately been talking about all kinds of new issues (coal trains, sex ads in Seattle Weekly, school levies) in a commendable effort to broaden his appeal and soften his obstructionist image. Similarly, the campaign against the tunnel knows that McGinn is a liability, and so it is also shunning the mayor. Not so the tunnel backers, who will try to make McGinn an issue by turning the race into a plebiscite on McGinn, weakening his chances of re-election.
Another looming issue is this: If the Big Bore is rejected decisively by the voters and the City Council and the state defiantly plunge ahead with the project, they risk the "Safeco Syndrome." That refers to the time when a large facility was constructed despite a narrow public vote against it — producing decades of voter anger.
So how did we get into such a Big War over what might otherwise be thought of as a complex engineering question modestly affecting a small part of the overall transportation system? To answer that we need to explore some recent civic history.
It might have been a simple saga. The earthquake in 2001 weakened the Viaduct enough to make the case, finally, that it had to be replaced or torn down. The legislature, surprisingly, was willing to fund a very expensive, very Seattle project (in part because SR 99 really is the blue-collar highway to industrial and Port-related jobs to the north and south of Seattle). But then it got very complicated.
The first complication arose around 2003 when the Seattle design community and downtown interests hatched (revived, really) plans for a grand waterfront park, leveraging state dollars to get this amenity. Speaker Frank Chopp was not pleased by this added expense, and seems to have gone into opposition early on. (One view of the infamous cost-overrun amendment, which Chopp may or may not have engineered, is that it was put in there to stop Seattle from loading on still more requests of this sort. At any rate, Chopp has been the bane of everyone's existence on this issue. )
The next complication was that Gov. Gregoire, who favored building a new viaduct, and Mayor Greg Nickels, who wanted a cut-and-cover tunnel with a park on top, could not resolve their differences and grew openly hostile to each other and more entrenched in their positions (Nickels wanting a park, Gregoire wanting a new viaduct).
A third complication was that Seattle progressives split, with the Coalitionists (led by Allied Arts) willing to keep the current through-put capacity for cars (the state's bottom line demand), while the Rejectionists, led by Cary Moon and later Mike McGinn, pressed their agenda for de-highwaying Seattle as old freeways crumble, thereby accelerating the shift to transit, bikes, and urban density.
The fourth complication was a split in the business community, with downtown interests led by the Downtown Seattle Association willing to trade off through-put capacity on SR-99 if that's what it took to get a waterfront park, and the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce (pressed by Boeing and the Port) insisting on preserving car and truck mobility.
So what looked at first like a dream political coalition — labor (wanting the construction jobs), business (wanting an urban amenity to stimulate development and tourism), design advocates wanting a world-class waterfront park, and environmentalists (restoring some of the waterfront to natural, salmon-happy conditions) — was in fact a great big dysfunctional, feuding family. Over the years, these internal wars bruised feelings and friendships, making compromise ever more elusive.
Many of these fractures eventually healed. Around 2007, the downtown interests and the regional business interests agreed to work together. Chopp was isolated after his tactical error of introducing an unpopular plan (the "Choppaduct") of his own. The same might be said of King County Executive Ron Sims, who marginalized himself by daring to oppose Sound Transit 2's bond issue. The left-liberal civil war just got worse (as usual). And the mayor and the governor grudgingly found a way to a common position.
The way to that compromise was a minefield, however. The first escalation of the war was an advisory vote in 2007, where voters rejected both the Nickels' cut-and-cover tunnel (70 percent against) and the governor's new-viaduct scheme (57 percent opposed). Gregoire was facing a re-election year in 2008, so wanted to avoid forcing the issue and offending some Seattle voters. An artful device was deployed where the city and the state departments of transportation decided to do elaborate (and often quite good) studies, and a broad-based stakeholders' group was enlisted to advise. Nickels and Gregoire agreed to shut up on the subject all during 2008, and to see if a solution would somehow emerge. Oddly enough, the solution did materialize, though not one to end the hostilities.
Gregoire always opposed the surface-transit solution (a plan calling for no viaduct and no tunnel but with new transit and various ways of diverting traffic to I-5 and downtown streets). Mayor Nickels, after seeing his cut-and-cover tunnel idea shot down by that 2007 vote, shifted toward the surface solution as seemingly the only alternative to building a new viaduct. Grace Crunican, the forceful director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, also became increasingly positive about the surface/transit/I-5 solution, while her planners also kept exploring a tunnel option. State continued to work on all options, and both parties interpreted the 2007 vote as taking the viaduct off the list and looking for options that were not on the ballot, namely surface and a tunnel that wasn’t built by cut and cover.
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