Tunnel or no tunnel, this city needs a leadership makeover

What we have is a City Council that's determined to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel regardless of what voters say. The real focus should be on electing a different council.

Crosscut archive image.

A sketch of the Seattle waterfront, minus the Viaduct.

What we have is a City Council that's determined to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel regardless of what voters say. The real focus should be on electing a different council.

The effort to stop the deep-bore tunnel appears to have some grass roots after all. Protect Seattle Now has delivered 28,000 signatures in support of putting the tunnel on the ballot in August. And already speculation has started on ways the tunnel-committed Seattle City Council might stop the tunnel from ever getting to the ballot or nullifying an unfavorable outcome.

Will the tunnel make the ballot? Will it make a difference legally or politically? Unless Seattle elects a new City Council it may not matter.

Let's remember how this all began. One side of the argument said Seattle needed to replace lost car and freight capacity when the viaduct came down. If we didn’t replace the lost capacity we'd be, in the words of one Port of Seattle commissioner, committing "municipal suicide."

On the other side was a group with visions of kayaks and sandy beaches downtown. This group held that Seattle needed to tear down the viaduct and replace it with a waterfront park to "weave the city back into the waters of Puget Sound.”

When these two sides met and mated, their devil child was the deep-bore tunnel: burying a highway would be a "win-win," creating a waterfront park and allowing replacement road capacity for freight and cars. The Seattle City Council rallied around this “solution.” This was where a previously aimless Council would become united and of single purpose.

Never mind that the tunnel offers arguably less capacity and that every government from the federal level on down is working to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by cars. Buying a buried highway is like a smoker promising to quit while stockpiling the garage with cheap cigarettes; if he keeps his promise they're a waste — and a lure for using more of the thing he'd been trying to quit.

What about a waterfront park? Been there done that. We already have Myrtle Edwards Park and Alki Beach, which put urban dwellers close to the water. What is needed downtown is more density, not a windswept plaza or patches of greenery. Redevelopment of the waterfront with new housing and retail would spur the economy and activate the area now being used by the viaduct.

Years from now people will marvel that we simply didn’t close down the viaduct, demolish it, and allow redevelopment of the new space. What appeared to be a compromise solution was really the perpetuation of an outmoded transportation mode at a time when what the city needed was a new vision for land use. Councilmembers talk about carbon neutrality but vote for more roads.

So here we are with anti-tunnel forces having gathered signatures from, at last count, 28,929 registered voters out of a total 189,694 voters in the city. That means more than 14 percent of all the voters in Seattle said, in just 30 days, that they want to vote on the tunnel. That is either a shocking indicator of the gullibility of 28,929 people, or something the City Council should heed as a warning. But this is Seattle.

Even if the tunnel goes on the ballot, is voted down, and is ultimately thwarted, we'll still have eight Seattle City Councilmembers left standing (nine minus Mike O'Brien, who has steadfastly opposed the tunnel) — each of whom refused to listen to the popular upheaval against the tunnel. Unless some Councilmembers change their minds, or face credible and well-financed opposition in this year's election, we’ll have a different recipe and ingredients but the same chefs a year from now. Why are we not seeing more efforts to unseat sitting Councilmembers?

The answer can be found in the operating system that runs Seattle politics. Here’s how it works: Some group of city leaders travels to another city where they see great things being done. “We should do that in Seattle!” they exclaim. After rushing home, committees are formed, town halls are held, and there is widespread agreement that we should be more like that ideal city, with streetcars, good planning, effective transit, and a simple land use code and permitting process.

But then come the people with worries. “We love these ideas and agree that we should be more like that other place you visited, but we have a few concerns.” Inevitably the great ideas for making us more like Portland or Copenhagen or wherever run aground of the realities of breaking a few eggs to make an omelet. The enthusiasm becomes a pilot, which becomes a study, and we and our leaders decide it can’t happen here.

Whether you have liked our last two mayors or not, each of them broke that mold. Greg Nickels played political hardball and got things done. Mike McGinn has never stopped challenging the status quo. But Seattle can’t seem to go all the way. We’ll vote down the tunnel, back the mayor’s efforts for fiscal accountability and sustainability, but keep the crowd intact that tried to shove the tunnel down our throats.

Let’s face it: Seattle's political operating system needs a major update. Moving beyond false “win-win” solutions and towards consistent, visionary leadership takes more than voting down a tunnel. It takes putting new people on the City Council. Candidates who file today are likely to inherit a tremendous political windfall when the Council flouts the will of the people. What politician wouldn’t want to run against an incumbent who invalidated 28,000 signatures? Where are those candidates?


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