In defense of Mike McGinn's tunnel position

Seattle is not gridlocked, tunnel doubts are legit, and the mayor is no "birther." If fears are truly groundless, as the city council would like to think, why not test the tunnel at the polls?
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Mayor Mike McGinn

Seattle is not gridlocked, tunnel doubts are legit, and the mayor is no "birther." If fears are truly groundless, as the city council would like to think, why not test the tunnel at the polls?

Seattle City council member Jean Godden has come out with guns blazing, comparing Mayor Mike McGinn to the looney birthers who question Obama's presidential legitimacy. Or Stalinist propagandists who brainwash.

The only ammo she left in the box was comparing McGinn to Glenn Beck. There's always the next column.

The comparisons show just how woozy someone can get on tunnel Kool-Aid.

The tunnel project has some virtues, but it also has serious risks, risks everyone has acknowledged, including the consultant hired by the pro-tunnel city council. Even the council, in deferring its approval of the tunnel agreements until after the bids are in, is acknowledging such a course is less risky than rushing into agreements. That's a point scored for tunnel worriers.

Is it birtherism to be alarmed by tunnel risks? To worry about the potential fiscal impacts of the risks? To worry about the consequences of fighting in court and in Olympia over who is on the hook for potential cost overruns (which, research suggests, are virtually inevitable in $1 billion-plus megaprojects)? Is it counterproductive to intensely debate the worthiness of the project before it's started?

No. The burden of proof here is on the doers, not the doubters.

Raising concerns and insisting on safeguards is perfectly appropriate, if uncomfortable for those who have made up their minds. It's essential given the cost of the project and its potential to reshape the city for generations. Even former mayor Charles Royer, who supports the tunnel and has been working on setting guidelines for the post-Viaduct design of the waterfront, told a meeting of Crosscut writers this week that the fevered blog debates and media coverage are appropriate for a project of this size and consequence.

I sense part of the frustration of Godden and other council members is they've been losing the public opinion battle. Polls suggest the city's citizens are not enthusiastic about the tunnel, and they are against the legislature's cost overrun provision that talks about making Seattle-area property owners responsible for unanticipated expenses.

Tunnel proponents fear a public vote because it might bury the project; if they thought Seattle voters agreed with it being a great idea, the tunnel diggers would be happy to have it, and a "yes" outcome on the tunnel would strengthen their hand. A recent poll shows a strong plurality, nearly half of those polled (48.8 percent vs. 32.5 percent), support a tunnel vote.

Godden's case against McGinn is that he's winning the public relations war in an underhanded way, by appealing to people's fears. But raising doubts is legit, and even more so if you have viable alternatives to offer, and McGinn has those, ranging from the surface option combined with improved transit and I-5 fixes, not to mention more light rail in the city. In other words, the mayor has his own megaprojects in mind. One hopes they will get the same scrutiny the tunnel is getting, should they ever be seriously in-play.

The city council pooh-pooh's the enforcement of the cost overruns language from the legislature, and they have legal opinions that back up their contention that it would take more legislation before Seattle could be held to the legislature's intent. But there's little disagreement about what the legislature does intend, and Seattle's attitude about it should underscore their concerns.

No local jurisdiction wants to be held liable for state project overruns, so in that sense, every city in the state should hate the provision. But most cities also hate Seattle. We're seen as a city, fairly and unfairly, that demands more than its fair share of resources.

Insisting on an expensive tunnel option as opposed to a vanilla elevated Viaduct replacement is a prime example to those outside the city of Seattle demanding that its projects be gold-plated at state taxpayer expense. The legislature said, okay, we'll put you on a budget; if your idea goes over (because tunnels are inherently risky) or if you try and add additional stuff to the project, it's on you.

The fact that the Seattle City Council is essentially saying, no, we want a tunnel and you the state (or contractor) will be responsible for whatever it takes to please us, is exactly the kind of arrogance that drives support for such a provision in the first place. We know what your legislation means, but we'll see you in court if push ever comes to shove. That's not a great working relationship for a megaproject.

McGinn at least acknowledges that the legislature means what it says and wants the chance to change minds at the source.

Tunnel proponents are not beyond pushing their own fear-mongering myths, the idea, for example, that a public vote and further debate are examples of Seattle gridlock. But there is no gridlock, especially on the voters' part. If you look at what greater Seattle voters have approved just in the last decade, you will see mass transit, expansion of Metro and bus rapid transit, massive road and bridge repairs, affordable housing, expansion of city parks and green spaces, and overhauls of major infrastructure (like the Pike Place Market).

That's over $19 billion in projects, most of it on transportation. People, this is not political, civic, or transportation gridlock.

Seattle voters are very capable of being picky, of not voting for every tax that comes along (down with Seattle bag fees and the latte tax), choosing transit plans that aren't highway-heavy, and bailing on boondoggles (the monorail Green Line).

I don't think the public is subject to Mike McGinn's "brainwashing," nor do I think his so-called "obstructionism" on the tunnel is counterproductive. The council has already proved the point by taking a more cautious course. Even if they don't take the warnings against defying "legislative intent" seriously, they can read polls, including one that suggested that a vote for the tunnel project without overrun safeguards could be costly come election time. A majority of voters (51.6 percent) said that they would be less inclined to vote for a city council member who had approved a deal without the right safeguards.

Forget fear-mongering. Sometimes a poll can produce genuine fear in politicians. That can be a good thing, if it's a reality check.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.