The tunnel: Let's vote

Seattle activists are floating the idea of a Viaduct tunnel referendum. Good idea.
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Seattle activists are floating the idea of a Viaduct tunnel referendum. Good idea.

Local activists are floating the idea of a vote on the downtown tunnel to replace that Alaskan Way Viaduct. Two of the people exploring the referendum are Real Change's Tim Harris and the Sierra Club's Brady Montz.

The idea would be to allow voters to give the go-ahead on the project and its terms, specifically whether or not Seattleites ought to be on the hook for cost overruns. The tunnel project carries risks. Even a small percentage of cost over-run on the $1.9 billion project could run into millions of dollars.

We're beginning to hear more details about the risks involved. A city council consultant pegged the risk of overruns at about 40 percent, with a 60 percent chance of coming in on or below budget. He outlined some of the engineering challenges. Details of the risks and risk management are also coming into focus.

The mayor's own Viaduct consultant, Thom Neff, will be holding a press briefing on his findings today (July 15). At Crosscut's lunch with the mayor on Tuesday (July 13), I asked for a sneak preview of Neff's conclusions but all I could get spokesman Aaron Pickus to say, to laughter, was, "It's risky!"

Not surprising since Neff's charge was to look at risks in the $1.9 billion project. Pro-tunnel City Council President Richard Conlin has said that he doesn't see Neff's hiring as anything other than an attempt to stop the project.

I asked Mike McGinn if he thought a vote on the project was a good idea. McGinn has frequently cited public votes and polls as critical to taking the temperature of the people and finding the path to the politically possible.

During the campaign, McGinn suggested numerous times that Seattle had already voted on the tunnel concept and had rejected it. However, the tunnel the people voted on, and turned down in concept, was the waterfront tunnel backed by then-Mayor Greg Nickles. The viaduct replacement advisory vote never included the deep-bore tunnel.

The mayor's response now: "That's what we do in Seattle, we vote on big ticket items."

The voters have weighed in on spending stadiums, light rail, highway improvements, the monorail expansion, parks, libraries, community centers, the opera house, rehabbing (and saving) the Pike Place Market, and whether or not to entice sports franchises with public funds, to name a few. McGinn has also pushed for a vote on the seawall this year.

The downtown tunnel is a notable exception. In fact, it's success is partly because it has avoided a vote: it became the "consensus" choice of "stakeholders" because it was not the waterfront tunnel, an elevated replacement, a retrofit, or the surface option. It was the please-everyone- compromise that came over the hill like the cavalry when the viaduct process was gridlocked. Of course, it had the biggest price tag.

A public vote might be resisted by the city council, reports Dominic Holden at The Stranger. It could certainly complicate the council members' lives as they move toward approving the project, a project the mayor has reluctantly agreed to support if the state's overrun provision is removed, though that is unlikely to happen. A public vote could force the council to be more proactive in getting the legislature to remove or modify or clarify the overruns provision. The leverage is that there's a big risk to tunnel supporters by putting it on the ballot: It could lose.

While many people favor the idea of a tunnel, just as they favored the idea of more monorail, the price tag and risks haven't been vetted at the ballot box. McGinn has argued that the city has never had a full-flegded tunnel debate, and his resistance to the project has forced one. A public vote would bring everything into the open and focus people on the pro and con arguments.

Of course, a vote might not bring clarity. Voters could like the tunnel concept and simply hate the financial elements. A rejection of the tunnel might not be a rejection of the tunnel per se. And then there's the "what next?" problem. If the tunnel went down at the polls, would the whole debate simply be replayed? Or would we see other ideas return, such as the retrofit, a Golden Gate-style bridge across Elliott Bay, or the Choppaduct?

And for McGinn, who won election partly because he moved from being anti-tunnel to being tunnel-tolerant (his famous flip-flop), the risk would be that voters might approve a project he doesn't think is good for the future of the city. But McGinn is almost there already. He maintains the cost provision is the only thing standing in his way regarding implementation. He doesn't like the tunnel, but he'll do it if the price is right.

I wrote earlier this week that lawmakers ought to be personally on the hook for mega-project overruns. What I was trying to get at was that we need to find better ways of making elected officials more accountable, since there is a huge difference between their political life (and accountability) and the projects they approve.

Public votes aren't the same, but they are the next best thing to making sure that the people, right or wrong, are getting what they want. Mega-projects that have turned into financial boondoggles, like Sound Transit, have been made stronger by their ability to win voter approval despite overruns.

It's the elected officials' task to make the best of the outcomes. Surely in a city that likes to have its say, a public vote on the tunnel is completely in keeping with the "Seattle Way." Let the chips fall where they may.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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