The final votes have been cast—if not counted—in the election to approve or reject Referendum 1. All sides agree that this is the first up or down vote on the proposed deep bore tunnel option to replace the crumbling Alaskan Way Viaduct. One thing is for sure: No matter what the final vote count, we should all be winners; now we can move on to other big issues. If the tunnel is rejected, the supporters should back off. If the referendum is approved, opponents have done due diligence and supporters will reap the whirlwind of a financially troubled project. It’s time to move forward to tackle the bigger issues in our region, especially ensuring the success of light rail.
Let’s look at the post-election reality. We can now dismiss the idea that the tunnel is a win for all sides. In a previous discussion, I called the tunnel a devil child, born of the bizarre union of the Waterfronter party and the Capacity Crowd. The perverse beauty of the thing was that it gave architects and planners a chance to salivate over the great public spaces that could be created in place of the demolished viaduct, while tunnel advocates saw a replacement for freight and cars. But the participants in this compromise have already spent too much valuable time and money name-calling and bashing each other over the head with facts and figures .
And don’t forget the financing. Remember the Monorail, a project that fell apart when it became clear that the project was funded, essentially, with a 99-year mortgage and crazy interest rates? The Referendum 1 campaign exposed the tunnel’s complex financing scheme, which makes Monorail financing look like an ATM withdrawal. The tunnel includes bonds against sketchy toll revenue, financing contingent on state and federal dollars, and money from a federal government that’s about to empower a Super Committee to reduce debt. The recent downgrade of the United States’ AAA bond rating doesn’t help. As local credit ratings get downgraded the cost to borrow will get even higher (Tacoma’s bond rating has already been lowered). Budget shortfalls caused by increased costs of borrowing—along with budget cuts can put the project into tilt mode. The tunnel won’t happen; no matter how many votes we take.
But even so, if Referendum 1 is rejected, the Council will likely try to push it through, financial problems notwithstanding. And if the tunnel is rejected, opponents might want to soldier on.
That’s my greatest concern about the election: It won’t matter. Tunnel warriors will simply regroup, and lawyers, politicos, and others will stoke the fires for the next tunnel battle.
Sadly, because of our narrow focus, we’ve ignored far more important issues. Our greatest potential for progress in the region — for business, jobs, increasing tax revenues, and reducing environmental impacts — hinges on another big project: Light rail. Until the region gets its act together on supporting appropriate land use decisions and zoning around light rail stations, all we’re doing is building a fancy toy train.
As a city we should be channeling our civic energy into an animated and intense discussion about land use and zoning, especially around light rail stations — a debate that would find many tunnel antagonists back on the same side, pressing for more density around light rail stations. Let's shift our attention to create a firm and clear zoning policy decision that will apply to all station areas, rather than fighting them one neighborhood and parcel at a time, as we did the tunnel.
Whatever the final outcome, it should also be the final verdict, allowing citizens of Seattle to move on and to fulfill the promise of light rail. Personally, I will feel good that the Mayor stood up and asked tough questions about the project, even as I accept public decision or city council override. Even though I think it's wasteful, I can live with the proponents pushing on with it — especially if Seattle shifts its energy toward making light rail work.
Both sides of the tunnel need to reassess. It is time to set aside the project and the debate. The tunnel has drained away our energies for too long. Too many smart, motivated people have burned up too many hours fighting for or against it.
As Lincoln said at Gettysburg, let's “take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” That devotion, from both sides, is the improvement of our city. The tunnel fight won’t have been in vain if we can jump on the light rail opportunity. I hope we do and that a week from now we’re not back at it again, grinding ahead, digging deeper into that big hole called the tunnel.