Seattle's tunnel vote and the West Coast malaise

In stripping the elected leadership of authority, California and Washington are becoming economic regions unable to move forward on crucial investments, no matter how lengthy the public debate.

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Tax hater Tim Eyman drew boos at the transportation listening tour.

In stripping the elected leadership of authority, California and Washington are becoming economic regions unable to move forward on crucial investments, no matter how lengthy the public debate.

Why must we vote on everything? Aren’t we electing leaders to do something? Anything?

The controversy around the Alaskan Way Viaduct project is a stark illustration of the problems with direct democracy and why our Founding Fathers chose, after much debate, to develop a representative democracy, or a republic. The explosion of the initiative process in the West has handcuffed elected representatives and made it virtually impossible to move forward on any number of issues, especially transportation.

To understand where we’re headed in Washington state, just look at California. It’s not a pretty picture.

A recent special report in The Economist catalogs the troubles in California. Starting with the infamous Proposition 13, California has turned the initiative safety valve into an industry and a competitor to the legislature. The people have voted to restrict the ability of the legislature to raise revenue, mandated spending in other areas, and term limited legislators. All of this has reduced the ability of the government to get anything done and has reduced the once great and innovative state to banana republic status. The Golden State is now ungovernable, and in this power vacuum special interests are far too strong to rein in.

Polling from the Public Policy Institute of California, quoted in the magazine's essay, makes clear the people the outcome of all this: people are wildly unhappy with the legislature. In fact, the polling shows 81 percent of the people disapprove of the legislature while only 12 percent approve.

To be sure, California’s decline cannot simply be traced to the initiative explosion. There is also a staggering lack of leadership in that state which included the recall of Gov. Grey Davis. Will Jerry Brown fix things? Ironically, his plan A was to put an initiative on the ballot to extend emergency taxes for 5 more years to plug the gaping deficit. But becasue success at the ballot box is unlikely, he has moved to Plan B -- more deep cuts.

Our situation in Washington is not so different. In Seattle, initiative guru Tim Eyman is teaming up with Mayor Mike McGinn and the Sierra Club to let voters have their say — maybe even multiple says — on the deep-bore tunnel. The last ten years of public process and the exhaustive Environmental Impact Statement process do not seem to be enough. But instead of showing real leadership and proposing a viable alternative to the existing plan, the mayor, Eyman, and others choose to throw stones and create delay and confusion.

If this were only a Seattle and San Francisco peculiarity, it could be laughed off as something unique in our quirky locales. Just another circus animals, latte tax, or ban on circumcision. But there are larger issues here that threaten the West Coast’s ability to compete economically. Meanwhile, the East Coast, Gulf states, and Midwest do not seem to share in our love for over processing public policy decisions.

Consider the story of two ports: Los Angeles and Portsmouth, Virginia.  Both wanted to develop new container terminals. In LA, the terminal is called TraPac. Planning work started in 1997. The final Environmental Impact Statement was completed in 2007 — ten years! Construction has finally started and is slated to be completed in 2014. By contrast, the Portsmouth terminal in Virginia was planned in 2002 and was finished and opened for business in 2007: five years to a fully operational, state-of-the-art terminal.

There are many other examples of the West Coast's malaise, its inability to get stuff done. The Gerald Desmond  Bridge in southern California has needed repair for decades. It is so bad that they have diapers underneath it to catch falling cement. Seattle's South Park Bridge anyone?

The die-hard tunnel opponents and the radical defenders of public votes on properly legislative matters are all genuine in their beliefs. But they have pushed things so far that they are now all part of a larger, still mushrooming effort that is undermining our ability to invest in needed infrastructure, to sustain our competitive position with other cities, and to maintain a healthy trust in the legislative process. We are unable to make key decisions and move on. And if we can't make decisions in the public good, intense splinter groups will make them for their narrow benefit.

The tunnel decision is widely characterized as a case where the people never had any input; hence the need for this vote by Seattle citizens on a state highway. That's an impossibly high bar of public process. Just consider that the legislature approved this plan and voted the money after intense debate. The city, the county, and the port have signed off on it after an exhaustive process. A yearlong stakeholders process — drawing from neighborhoods, the Pike Place Market, environmentalists, industry, and plain citizens — shaped the process, debated all the fine points, and came out (in a split vote but with a clear majority) in favor of the deep bore tunnel and a grand waterfront park made possible by shifting traffic away from the shoreline. All this lengthy process despite the urgency of a Viaduct in danger of collapsing in an earthquake. Not good enough, apparently.

So now we will vote in August, and maybe again (on another initiative) in November. Some will think they are stopping the tunnel with their vote in August, which has been reduced to a technicality about City Council process. They will not. Accordingly, the mayor has put his supporters in a position that will only make them more angry and cynical about a vote so problematic as to be open to endless interpretation by winning and losing sides. The process will go on, maddeningly.

We now have some inkling of what it would be like to have Tim Eyman as mayor.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.