Exceeding the speed limit on Mercer

The City Council tries an irregular maneuver on the Mercer West project, leaving opponents (and the new mayor) little chance to weigh in.
Crosscut archive image.

A two-way Mercer Street, as envisioned by City Hall. (Seattle Department of Transportation)

The City Council tries an irregular maneuver on the Mercer West project, leaving opponents (and the new mayor) little chance to weigh in.

Film enthusiasts will remember the classic World War II films entitled Why We Fight, giving both our military forces and civilians reasons to defend home and hearth against Nazi and Japanese aggression.

A present day local version, providing reasons to make a fresh start in 2010 with a new mayor and city council, exists in the video of last Monday's Seattle City Council action taken before its regularly scheduled budget hearing. It greased the way for $9 million in spending from the 2010 budget for design and planning for the so-called Mercer West segment of Mayor Greg Nickels' proposed Mercer Corridor Project, which has been a prime subject of debate in the current mayoral race.

Roll the first reel, please.

Council budget chair Jean Godden, a steadfast supporter of Nickels' version of the Mercer Project, announced that the normal budget hearing would be delayed a bit while a hearing took place on the Mercer West project. She said this was in line with a provision, passed in 1999, requiring such a hearing before allocating the first $5 million of a large capital project. Most council members — and the many citizens waiting to testify on other aspects of the budget — were unfamiliar with the provision.

Godden then conceded that e-mail notice of the Mercer West hearing had only been made earlier that day. Many stakeholders in the issue have been vocal in recent months but, formal notice not having been disseminated via the usual channels, only four people in the chamber were prepared to address the matter.

Kirk Robbins of the Queen Anne Community Council protested that it was inappropriate to squeeze the Mercer West hearing into the wider budget hearings. The present estimated cost of the Mercer West Project is $100 million, but this was an estimate based only on 5 percent engineering so no one knows the full projected cost. Robbins called for a separate, additional hearing to be held solely on Mercer West, with all involved parties able to participate and comment. The other three speakers, associated with Vulcan Inc.'s development plans in the area, all supported allocation of the $9 million. Unlike others, they had received advance notice of the session.

Nickels, his Department of Transportation, Vulcan, and council supporters Jan Drago and Godden all argue that the Mercer West Project is a necessary adjunct to the planned deep-bore tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. That issue is in doubt. Critics point out that initial Mercer West plans were devised more than seven years ago, when a deep-bore tunnel was not a serious option under discussion.

That is not the major principle at issue here, however. The overall Mercer Project will need to be considered early in 2010 by a Mayor Mallahan or Mayor McGinn and a Seattle City Council with at least two new members. The Mercer West segment will receive consideration within that changed political context. Moreover, with a $72 million shortfall in this year's city budget, the price tags of the two Mercer segments threaten to overwhelm other public priorities. I would think that not even the initial $9 million in planning monies should be allocated for a project that should be judged on a first-principles basis by our new mayor and council several weeks from now.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.