A process that needs to progress: decision-making in Seattle

As Seattleites react to the announcement that public officials agree on a bored tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, it's time to assess the process that makes a decision like this one drag on for eight years.

Crosscut archive image.

A cross-section of the proposed deep-bored tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

As Seattleites react to the announcement that public officials agree on a bored tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, it's time to assess the process that makes a decision like this one drag on for eight years.

Seattle's decision-making process has become the butt of jokes nation-wide as others poke fun at us for having too many studies, engaging in wishy-washy decision making, and sometimes, garnering lawsuits along the way. Critics say we would move faster if we didn't have so many hearings, studies, or opportunities for public comment — sort of a benign dictatorship with less democracy.

Mayor Greg Nickels, an admirer of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's machine politics, is said to admire Daley's strong-mayor decision-making style. There is little question he is following in Daley's footsteps.

More deliberate decision making certainly has its pros and cons. Those in a hurry always argue that the cost of projects rises while we fiddle around trying to decide. The credit card generation seems less patient, often saying, "Just do it and swipe my card."

On the other hand, Seattle has avoided some major boondoggles by having given more study and thought to large civic projects. There once was a plan to incinerate our garbage, the resulting air pollution be damned. The public resisted and opted for a recycling program that ultimately became a model for the entire nation.

We also, finally, rejected the monorail, albeit only after it was revealed that the financing was so flawed that the system of paying for it simply wouldn't work. In some ways it was little more than the classic ponzi scheme.

Currently the Viaduct and the 520 Bridge are the hot decisions to make — or not make. Both are big-ticket items with environmentalists, financiers, and big and small companies vocalizing that commerce and freight should be considered on an equal basis with commuters.

Seattle citizens, the County Council, Executive Ron Sims, Seattle City Council, Seattle's Mayor Nickels, Gov. Chris Gregoire, along with dozens of agencies, non-profits, special interest groups, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), and of course the Legislature are in hot debate about what should replace the aging Viaduct and the 520 Bridge.

The tough part is that it's very difficult to make good decisions without good information. In the case of the Viaduct, it's a special challenge because it's more about power and politics than it is about cost and engineering. Much of the information supplied to decision makers is, and has been, questionable at best. Every interest group has shaped the data to make its favored alternative look best, and they have ultimately tainted the clarity of the process.

For example, we rely heavily on WSDOT for supplying cost estimates. We tend to forget that this is the same agency which, until Boston's Big Dig, held the national record for the largest cost overrun in the nation for the stretch of I-90 going across the lake and through Mercer Island. We won't even consider that they screwed up and sank a floating bridge. This is also the same agency whose engineers designed the existing Viaduct without considering earthquake vulnerability even though geologists supplied ample evidence that earthquakes must be considered in design. This is the same agency responsible for designing the very earthquake vulnerable western approach to the existing 520 floating bridge that it now, in televised animation, says will fall in a quake. WSDOT was also responsible for the maintenance and replacement of our state ferry fleet, some now found to have been unseaworthy.

It seems reasonable to question whether the advice WSDOT is giving decision-makers might be confirmed by engineers from international firms who won't be involved in bids for the resulting work and might render a more neutral opinion. That may have begun to happen in the case of the argument for the deep tunnel alternative.

An example of how mushy information is delivered, is a recent presentation to the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC). Council members heard a report from a study group that insisted that most traffic was headed toward downtown Seattle and was primarily commuters. If the regional council were to make a decision based on this so-called study, they might have been badly misled.

First, there is no simple tool or instrument available that can measure where people are going or why. WSDOT can, and does count large truck trailers, but they don't count pick-up trucks, vans, light delivery trucks or even passenger cars that are dedicated to regional commerce. It simply isn't feasible. There are estimates that both the Viaduct and I-5 carry more commercial traffic through Seattle to destinations both north and south of central Seattle than have central Seattle as a destination. Seattle's Mayor would like to believe that Seattle is the center of all economic activity in the Puget Sound Basin, but that is a perception that is no longer reality.

There is ample reason to question whether the local political process we use to make mega-project decisions works as well as it should. But can we change the process?

We hear that Obama wants his cabinet and advisors to challenge his thinking, so every idea can be thoroughly debated and maybe vetted of unintended consequences. This is not a new idea. Thomas Jefferson tried it, and it has been said that Dwight Eisenhower insisted his staff bring experts on the opposite sides of an issue and debate the issue during cabinet meetings before final decisions were made.

Imagine what would happen in Seattle if our City Council, instead of listening only to mayor's advisors, theoretical planners, department heads, PSRC, WSDOT, or vested interests, were to sponsor debates with representatives of opposing ideas.

Currently, citizens get a whole two minutes at hearings to express challenges to documents the city puts out that are measured by the pound. Why not allow some neutral party, such as the League of Women Voters, to select serious critics of a proposed policy to debate with city spokespersons?

Instead of hearing only hours of two-minutes speeches, both the public and the City Council could also hear point and counterpoint arguments. Put it on television. There would be the opportunity to challenge data and rationale and question the full details of what might be unintended consequences of a decision. As it now exists, our City Council hears mayor's staff or the occasional expert that staff has hired to promote a civic plan, but it is rare indeed that our City Council will invite to their offices or subcommittee meetings known opponents to a plan they are considering.

Maybe it's passe to be reminded of old slogans like "haste makes waste," but when it comes to building things that we will need to use for the next half century, it seems reasonable to make every attempt to make the best possible decision. Sure, it's reasonable to set a time limit to make decisions, but it's also folly to dismiss those who might have a different opinion than those who will either profit or benefit from a concept that has been made on faulty analysis.

Without credible challenges to "group think" public policy decisions, we may well exceed Boston's record for boondoggle spending on their "Big Dig."  Our leadership appears to believe that our capacity to be in debt is infinite. Heck, maybe we should give our third graders the power to decide. It is they who will be paying for it.

If it's change the nation favors, let's begin in Seattle.


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