10 reasons we shouldn't vote on the waterfront tunnel

With two groups now pushing for a February vote on the tunnel, it's time to take a deep breath and think of the consequences.
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Crews perform an archeological dig as part of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project.

With two groups now pushing for a February vote on the tunnel, it's time to take a deep breath and think of the consequences.

1. At this point, no waterfront idea could win, so a no vote (the likely outcome) is meaningless. Once an issue gets this toxic, and there are all kinds of ideas on the table, no one proposal (such as the deep-bore tunnel) can get approval. Recall what happened when the cut-and-cover tunnel and the new viaduct were put on the ballot: both failed. Another reason almost any single idea would fail: the majority of voters would not benefit (non drivers, don't live on west side) and so would vote no, if asked. Further, with the stakes this high, the losing side is fairly certain to have enough legal firepower to challenge the election.

2. We already had a vote, during the 2009 municipal elections. That verdict, if it may be called that, was to go ahead with the tunnel plan. Mayor Mike McGinn owes his election to a last-minute switch to favor (technically, not to block) the tunnel, the same position of the runners up, Joe Mallahan and Greg Nickels. In the City Council races, three of the four winners were pro-tunnel (Sally Bagshaw, Richard Conlin, and Nick Licata), with one (Mike O'Brien) opposed to the tunnel.

3. The vote would not have legitimacy, so wouldn't settle anything. SR 99 is a state highway, so a local vote is mischievous and not exactly relevant. The idea of local vetoes of state highways is a bad precedent. The legislature would be miffed, dismissive, and punitively inclined.

4. It's not so much a vote as a political organizing device. Mayor McGinn and others would exploit the vote, and the battle to get a vote, and the battle over how to shape the ballot question, as a way of making the case that they "care for the Seattle taxpayers." The real point of all this positioning is to put pressure on the city council, making them look disdainful of the risk to taxpayers, in order to peel off a few more votes from the pro-tunnel council majority, and to mobilize an anti-tunnel slate to challenge councilmembers in the 2011 election.

5. Such a vote is bad governance, putting complex, engineering decisions in the hands of an emotionally charged up electorate. If the project fails, the voters will be able to punish the advocates at an election. Besides, putting issues like this up for a vote encourages all sorts of vote-getting concessions and compromises, likely pushing the bill much higher.

6. There's been a huge amount of public participation to date, with lots more to come. Every important stakeholder has been at the table for years; every step will be litigated and debated; the legislature has agonized for a decade. And one other thing: do participants who lose a fair vote get to keep appealing the decision forever?

7. No assurance that this vote would be the last word. Risk is everywhere in this mammoth project, so there might be still more votes on tough questions. The real risk to the city is the part it's on the hook for — the seawall, the park, the surface roadway — where the tab will come to about $1 billion and the city alone must deal with cost overruns. This city project is a better area to focus attention, even though the tunnel is the bigger attention-grabber. Moreover, if tunnel foes were to somehow lose a vote on the tunnel, they likely would attack another weak spot in the huge project.

8. Does Seattle really want to keep shooting itself in the foot? A recession is not exactly the best time for the city to be making more enemies in Olympia. By picking this fight and escalating it, Mayor McGinn is alienating himself and his causes from Gov. Gregoire and the legislature. Imagine how poorly disposed Olympia would be if the vote scuttled the project. And how ungenerous the lawmakers will be on other Seattle needs.

9. Civil wars have a lot of casualties. Forcing matters to a vote would produce a dramatic escalation of the war between McGinn and the council as well as the business community. The vote would be bloody, with many lasting wounds. Is this smart in a time of critical needs? Wouldn't the voters punish both sides for their sterile partisanship?

10. Stopping the tunnel would likely produce a worse solution. The legislature would be inclined to steal the money for other projects or to teach the city a lesson by ramming through a new viaduct. Finding consensus on a new solution would be impossible locally, with feelings rubbed this raw and recrimination politics in the saddle. The likely outcome of blocking the tunnel solution now would be to repair the viaduct and kick the can down the road a generation, hoping they can find the political unity to get rid of it and create a waterfront park. Such a defeat (resembling the Commons and the Monorail, with huge expenses of effort for naught) would be very demoralizing.


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