Something about the Seattle waterfront tunnel brings out the formidable feistiness in Gov. Chris Gregoire. Thursday afternoon at Union Station, before a packed crowd of onlookers and tunnel-backing politicians, the state picked the apparent winning team, Seattle Tunnel Partners, for the job. No one knew the winner until the points were announced for each team's design and schedule bonus points, and these were matched against the sealed bid prices. Both bids came in just a hair below the $1.09 billion price limit.
"Faster, cheaper, wider!" glowed Seattle Councilwoman Jean Godden, offering her headline to the media.
Once the team was picked, Gregoire went into some justifiable gloating. She crowed that the winning bid would promise to finish the job nearly a year before the state requires; that the tunnel would be 58 feet wide, wider than planned and so enabling full 8-foot shoulders, and that design changes in the south end would narrow the impact. The governor had high praise for her state department of transportation, the Seattle City Council, King County Executive Dow Constantine, legislative leaders, labor unions, and the Port. Mayor Mike McGinn, her nemesis on the tunnel, went unmentioned. The governor slapped down media questions, going into her law-professor mode. Hard hats grunted a loud approval. Chamber of Commerce suits and swarms of consultants smiled very broadly.
The governor also crowed about two other bits of good economic news, before heading back to Olympia to help compel the caucuses into a special session on Saturday. She announced that the state had just got $161 million more for planning high speed rail along the Vancouver, B.C. to Portland corridor, thanks to Ohio and Wisconsin turning aside the money after electing stingy Republican governors. And that the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz would be homeporting in Everett, shifting all those dollars up the coast from San Diego. Not a bad day on the economic front, for once.
Tunnel opponents usually try to rain quickly on Gregoire's parade, and this time they did it by filing a new initiative by a coalition including the Sierra Club that will try to prevent the City Council from signing land-use and other agreements with the state unless the legislature agrees to protect local taxpayers from cost overruns. But the agreements are likely to be signed well before the initiative is even voted on next fall. And the tunnel contract could be signed, pending appeals by the losing party, Seattle Tunneling Group, in a few months, taking away the danger of a legislative raid of Seattle funds.
It's not that tunnel politics will go away at least for another year. The Sierra Club initiative, largely symbolic, is helpful in rallying the anti-tunnel vote in next fall's city council races, where McGinn might want to help elect a few councilmembers more to his liking. The opponents will also be able to raise objections based on the final EIS documents, but are not likely to prevail in the view of most observers. (EIS documents, meant to spell out problems and tradeoffs, make good debating points but the more honest they are about problems, the more legally sound they are.)
Another reason the tunnel debate won't fade away, even as opponents run out of trump cards, is that highway debates are some of the best ways to polarize voters and score cultural points, at least in Seattle. The battles began with the R.H. Thomson Expressway, cutting through the Arboretum and therefore radicalizing Montlake (seemingly forever), continued with the I-90 wars (solved by vast shipments of federal dollars), the blocking of the Bay Freeway in South Lake Union, and now, since 2001, the waterfront replacement for SR-99. In the early wars, the issue was sprawl and suburbanization, rather than costs (since the feds were paying so much of the bill). The new thematics concern cars versus transit, climate change, and costs.
One reason the debate is so hot and personal is that it is a fraternal and generational war among Seattle liberals. At the outset, a coalition of moderate environmentalists, urban design groups (such as Allied Arts), labor unions, and downtown property interests (looking for enhanced land values) pretty much agreed on the goal of a spacious waterfront park, knocking down the Viaduct, and putting the new road in a trench or a tunnel alongside a new seawall. A younger and more radical group of greens, led by Cary Moon of the People's Waterfront Coalition, then split the coalition by making the case for "de-highwayization" — getting rid of any replacemtn for the Viaduct by dispersing the traffic through downtown and adding new transit.
Faced with a greener-than-thou group, Seattle's liberal consensus had a long nervous breakdown that infuriated Olympia, spawned all manner of new configurations, and divided Mayor Greg Nickels (who tried to placate both liberal groups) from Gregoire. Vast efforts at finding consensus ensued, until finally Gregoire put her foot down and made a decision for the deep-bore tunnel.
An unknown political candidate, Mike McGinn, then realized how the issue could carry him from obscurity to the mayor's office. Part of the appeal of the issue is the radical imperative of climate change. There's also the charge that "We was robbed" hovering over the peremptory way Gregoire cut short the endless debate among stakeholders. And McGinn has understood polls that show the public is very alarmed, given its distrust of government and the example of Boston's "Big Dig," over the cost-overrun provision inserted by the legislature in order to get the remaining last votes. One theory about that mischievous, unenforceable, but politically very useful amendment is that it was put there to prevent Seattle from loading up the project with still more non-highway goodies such as the park, beaches, salmon runs, and the like — a most reasonable concern — and in this regard the amendment has worked.
The issue, in my view, is mostly settled, but it remains politically salient and journalistically juicy.
One paradox in all this is that the "faster, cheaper, wider" outcome is partially owing to Mayor McGinn. His shrewd and often maddening opposition has put all the tunnel forces on alert, spurred the City Council into unwonted coherence, turned mild-mannered Tom Rasmussen, the council transportation committee chair, into a most unlikely tiger, and rallied the Seattle establishment into one mighty last hurrah. It has also given Gov. Gregoire what will probably be her most visible, lasting, and hard-fought legacy.
It is unlikely that Mayor McGinn is amused by this paradox. But that clever rascal might be.