The tunnel and the 'Westneat dilemma'

WIth a new Sightline report predicting cost overruns on plans to replace the Viaduct, it's a good time to revisit the Times columnist's perceptive framing of the debate.
WIth a new Sightline report predicting cost overruns on plans to replace the Viaduct, it's a good time to revisit the Times columnist's perceptive framing of the debate.

In April, Danny Westneat wrote a compelling column in The Seattle Times about  the "victory" of a decision on the viaduct replacement. He suggested such decisions are often predicated on incomplete information about cost overruns. He cited a notable British study on the psychology of public works projects. He concluded with remarkable countervailing questions of how we get to certainty: Would we "accomplish anything" if we knew the truth, or "would it be better to be lied to?"

Fast forward to a mayor's race that no one envisioned at the time. Westneat foretold the dilemma that some say is at the election's core. Under this view, Mike McGinn (as part of a set of policies noted here last week) has taken the "Westneat dilemma" public and questioned a key public works decision. Joe Mallahan, claiming general, private-sector acumen, has pivoted his own campaign around the McGinn challenge to the decision's cost effectiveness and underlying premise.

And the dilemma continues. On Friday, Sightline Daily issued the latest entry (28th) in its "Great Viaduct Debate" series, with Eric de Place summarizing Sightline's report on several Seattle area tunnel cost overruns of the past.


The partisan blogs have been resplendent with chatter. The popular land use and urban design blog hugeasscity has undergone a temporary name change to "hugeasstunnel," and is running several pieces on the tunnel and its impact on the mayoral campaign. Anti-McGinn salvos fly regularly on the "Light and air" blog.

Most important to the "Westneat dilemma" is that pundits and candidates aside, the public will not let the issue die. Last week, as the City Council continued its consideration of an apparent pre-election move to sign off on a memorandum of agreement with the state, council staff unveiled a report associated with Mayor Greg Nickels' funding plan. In response, citizens began an online petition asking the council to wait for further information in 14 subject areas, including what impact Initiative 1033 could have on a deep-bore tunnel and any associated cost overruns.

Many scholars have written about single-issue candidates, voters, and campaigns. Religion, abortion, gun rights, tax issues, wars, and environmental issues often drive election results. My take? Public process, not elections, should continue to produce improved information to assure a sound basis for decision making. The citizen petition noted above raises several legitimate questions intended to "ground truth" Seattle's funding approaches, and more information would help to resolve the Westneat dilemma.

The election should not be decided in fear of these legitimate questions, but on broader terms, in favor of the candidate with more comprehensive vision and urban-issue expertise. Too much is at stake to impede the reinvention of Seattle in this century of sustainability.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Chuck Wolfe

Chuck Wolfe

Chuck Wolfe provides a unique perspective about cities as a London-based urbanist writer, photographer, land use consultant and former Seattle land use and environmental attorney.