Updated: The Viaduct issue looms in Seattle races

Voters seem opposed to the expensive tunnel solution, giving candidate Mike McGinn an advantage. But do they want to reopen the fight?
Voters seem opposed to the expensive tunnel solution, giving candidate Mike McGinn an advantage. But do they want to reopen the fight?

Is the Viaduct issue, long a hot-button concern in Seattle politics, alive or dead in this race? Evidence that it's still out there growling comes from a poll taken in late May by Constituent Dynamics. For starters, the poll found voters opposing the deep-bore tunnel idea by 55-37 percent, while they narrowly favored (40-31 percent) the defeated alternative, pushed by greens, of a surface-only solution with enhanced transit.

The poll tested how the Viaduct issue plays in the Seattle Mayor's race. At the outset it asked the poll takers who they planned to vote for in that race, getting these results: Nickels 20%, Jan Drago 19, James Donaldson 11, Mike McGinn 10, and Joe Mallahan 7. Then it explained, negatively, the Viaduct issue, particularly the city's being on the hook for cost over-runs, and pointed out that only McGinn opposes the tunnel option. Knowing that, the pollster says, now how would you vote in the Mayor's race. The results changed dramatically: McGinn 29, Nickels 21, Drago 12, Donaldson 6, Mallahan 4.

Those figures help explain why McGinn works the Viaduct issue and its financial liability into nearly every remark, and why Drago can't really tout one of her signal achievements and differences with Nickels. Drago, alone on the City Council, favored the deep-bore tunnel idea years before it seemed a plausible alternative to the streets-only solution or building a new viaduct; and she was an effective negotiator to get the idea enacted once cost estimates had dropped enough to make it a contender.

Evidence that voters may be tired of the issue, or figure it's too late to relitigate the whole matter, comes from the tone taken by Mike O'Brien, a City Council candidate. O'Brien, for the past three years chair of the local Sierra Club chapter, fought for the surface solution while on the Waterfront Stakeholders group advising the transportation departments examining Viaduct alternatives, and he opposes the ultimate tunnel choice just enacted in the Legislature and pushed through by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

But asked about the issue in a session with Crosscut writers yesterday, he downplayed any role he might play in overturning the decision, agreeing that the horse is pretty much out of the barn. He still thinks the tunnel option might fall apart from its own high costs, as the monorail plan did. But he was certainly not saying that by electing him to the Council voters could expect him to work to reverse the decision. McGinn would face the same dilemma if he survives the primary on August 18 and runs against Nickels in the November election. Voters oppose the decision but probably want to "move on."

UPDATE: Candidate O'Brien disputes my characterization of his views on the Viaduct/tunnel in a post in the comments below (scroll way down to a starred pick). I made the remark about the horse being out of the barn, and thought I detected a nod of approval from O'Brien or at least a kind of shrug in his answer. He explains his views below, which suggest he's going to make much more of this issue in the campaign than I thought.


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