Seattle's tunnel quandary: not a perfect vote, but a vote

An August ballot measure on the tunnel might be messy, but it is meaningful. It'll either be a signal to "dig, baby, dig," or a plea to go back to the drawing board.

Crosscut archive image.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct

An August ballot measure on the tunnel might be messy, but it is meaningful. It'll either be a signal to "dig, baby, dig," or a plea to go back to the drawing board.

The citizens of Seattle have indicated by initiative and poll that they'd like to express a collective opinion on the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, and in particular the deep-bore tunnel.

A judge found that most of the issues covered in the tunnel initiative were out-of-bounds for the ballot, but one portion was eligible for a vote. The technicalities are somewhat confusing, but the politics are not. People will have an imperfect but clear opportunity in August to say yes or no to the idea of the tunnel. It's not ideal, but it's there and important. 

The Seattle Times, which abhors the process, calls the ballot measure a "dog's breakfast." The City Council, a majority of which favors of the tunnel, has not stepped in to provide any clarity by putting up alternative ballot measures that could offer more definitive choices. We voting dogs will have for a dog days' breakfast this lovely dish of hash.

But there is also a political advantage for tunnel proponents, like the Times and City Council, to portray the vote as meaningless and utterly confusing. Obscuring the outcome is an attempt to diminish the vote's significance. Imperfect as it may be, however, the vote will add political momentum to the winning side.

If voters say yes to the council's tunnel process, I have little doubt the Times editorialists will see a clear message from the voters to move ahead with the tunnel. If it's a "no," they will find nothing but gray and pointlessness. It reminds me of the pairing of headlines in the classic film Citizen Kane where Charles Foster Kane's newspapers have alternative headlines readied for the result of their publisher's gubernatorial race: "Kane Elected" or "Fraud at Polls!"

A rejection or rebuke of the tunnel decision-making process, especially by a significant margin, likely would not change the state's intentions, but it would shift political momentum by making support of the tunnel on the current terms riskier for City Council members, influencing council elections and perhaps redirecting the next mayoral race.

A vote even broadly interpreted as anti-tunnel would give force to the objections and concerns of Mayor Mike McGinn and City Councilman Mike O'Brien, validating their "obstructionism." It would put wanna-be mayors  and council leaders like Tim Burgess or Richard Conlin in a more complicated political position. No one wants to run for election, or re-election, against "the people." And if, as is likely, the tunnel project goes ahead against the expressed wishes of the citizens, it could become politically untenable, especially when the project hits major bumps in the road, as it inevitably will (all such projects do).

On the other hand, if the anti-tunnel measure is defeated, it will amount to full steam ahead. McGinn will be rebuked, and it will be dig, baby, dig.

So the act of confusing or dispiriting people becomes a viable pro-tunnel strategy, just as scaring the people about tunnel risks is part of a viable anti-tunnel one. It might be ugly, complicated and messy, but it's what we have.

It is, I would argue, not without precedent. I have supported all along a vote on the tunnel, even a symbolic one. No one should take any outcome for granted. While it is often easier to scare people with the threat of cost overruns, it is also possible to scare people into thinking that no problem will ever be solved if the tunnel isn't built.

McGinn is right that there's a long precedent of voters getting to weigh in on big projects. Sometimes before the fact, occasionally after. Long battles have been fought over I-90, I-5, R.H. Thomson, the Monorail, Sound Transit and regional rail, Metro, Seattle Center, the World's Fair, the stadiums (Kingdome, Safeco, Qwest), the Commons, Pike Place Market, etc. Most of these involved votes, even multiple votes, and numerous court cases. Seattle has frequently rejected the idea that just because the feds or state says so, we'll do it their way. Likewise, the feds and state have often held back when Seattle backed an idea that they objected to (the Monorail Green Line being a case in point).

Seattle is not alone in being contentious, but we just don't pay close attention to the long, drawn out civic fights in other cities. We somehow carry an illusion that we are uniquely dysfunctional. But cities are complicated, visions of civic perfection often differ, and big money interests are often on different sides of a solution. Many are driven by real estate plays among competing developers, or by unions wanting jobs at any cost, or planners wanting more power.

We are not suffering from big-project gridlock. Seattle has changed radically in the last 50 years despite a longer, more drawn-out process that has largely resulted from having to take environmental or community impacts into serious consideration. A sometimes raucous, imperfect, and grassroots opposition has long been part of the equation.

Tunnel opponents should not be sanguine about getting a win in August. There is a lot of force behind the "let's just get on with it" argument. Playing to "process fatigue" is a pro-tunnel strategy. The Times editorial headline was "Wake us when it's over," an odd reaction to what is, with all its imperfections, a classic Seattle political story.

If tunnel proponents are so certain of the rightness of their faith — that the deep bore is indeed the only or optimal way to go — they should embrace rather than fear the ballot. A pro-tunnel vote would make the project a lock. They could seal the deal, dog's breakfast or no. Gov. Christine Gregoire is doing her bit: she's going to be visiting the tunnel contractor in Spain in June to reassure herself and everyone else that they can deliver the tunnel on time and on budget.

And while a rejection doesn't mean a full stop-the-tunnel win for anti-tunnels folks, it could signal a significant political shift in their favor, if not explicitly for a particular alternative. So far, polling has shown that Seattleites are not yet unified behind any particular outcome, even the one that's already moving ahead. That's not so much gridlock as a cry for a better solution, one a majority of the people can support.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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