The Tunnel: An earth-moving election for Seattle

Voters say "yes" to the tunnel, giving the project the sanction it needed from the people. Now comes that hard part.

Crosscut archive image.

A visualization of Seattle's central waterfront after construction of a tunnel.

Voters say "yes" to the tunnel, giving the project the sanction it needed from the people. Now comes that hard part.

There's a 1977 Marvel comic book in which Godzilla attacks Seattle. He smashes the waterfront and chomps the Space Needle like it's a Dick's Deluxe.

The writer must have known Seattle well. A group of heros, the Godzilla Squad, comes up with a plan to save the city by turning out the lights. But as the city faces imminent destruction, the politicians dither, taking time to vote on the plan. "STILL VOTING?! DON'T THOSE YO-YOS KNOW WHAT THEY'RE UP AGAINST?!" shouts the appalled leader of the rescue team, sounding like Tim Ceis.

So, the vigilante Godzilla Squad takes matters into its own hands and blows up City Light.

The voters have just played Godzilla Squad, finding a way to pump a few rounds (and hundreds of thousands of dollars) into Seattle's beloved process. Opponents of the deep-bore tunnel wanted a referendum, got one, and lost. Time to move ahead, says the governor, the state, the legislature, the county, the city council. Now Seattle voters have weighed in with an apparently lackluster turnout but a clear message: Move on.

For the tunnel proponents, their hand is strengthened. I always felt a vote was truly to their benefit because now, the high-cost, high-risk project is sanctioned with the stamp of approval of the people. There will be costly problems and delays ahead. Opponents (like Mayor Mike McGinn) might have a chance to gloat with an I-told-you-so or two down the road. But there is no doubt the people of Seattle are de-gridlocking the Alaskan Way Viaduct debate. If the tunnel works, we can all be working-class heros. If it struggles or fails or bankrupts us, we'll have only ourselves to blame. Delay will no longer be the whipping boy.

Surface-option proponents should not waste a minute pouting or moping because there is major work ahead.

One, the tunnel will still require its own surface option, as yet unfunded, to mitigate and handle more surface traffic as cars desert a tolled tunnel. Keeping downtown drivable and walkable, even with the tunnel, will be a challenge. The mayor stands ready with schemes to expand rail.

Two, there is the redevelopment of the waterfront, which promises to be an epic collision of competing private and public interests. Can it be done well, and done right? We're tearing down the Great Wall that the Viaduct created between city and bay, but it'll be sad if it were replaced by a bigger, greater wall of skyscraper condos. And it'll be worse yet if proposed lids (folds?), truck routes, plazas, boulevards and what have you make life on the ground unfriendly to actual people.

Oh, yes, and there's still the sea wall and the trouble with gribbles.

The tasks are huge, expensive distractions lurk (like the half-funded 520 boondoggle) and Seattle's track-record on major public re-makings is not good. Our will is weak, our visions outdated, attention spans short, and money scarce — and that's for the stuff we decide to do.

The makeover of Westlake was an opportunity botched. Seattle Center doesn't yet work, still struggling with issues that first reared their ugly heads 50 years ago. And the Center will soon face major questions about financing. Both are and were critical to the city, neither is as complicated as what is now being contemplated on the waterfront. Can we turn around our track record of under-achievement?

The tunnel solution to the Viaduct's "riddle in the middle" has been given a boost from the voters, which offers some relief from a debate grown tiresome. But it does not solve the riddle of making it all work.

But then the Godzilla Squad's job isn't to run things, just to shake them up.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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