It's the final turn for the election horse race on the Viaduct and its tunnel, with ballots due on August 16. What's a campaign manager to do, in these waning moments?
The voters at stake, late in a low-turnout election, are those few who haven't made up their minds yet. Such wafflers are likely to be alienated independents, suspicious of authority. One way to break through to such voters is to tap their negative emotions. The handiest current raw feeling in these days of economic anxiety: anger. Voters are clearly mad, even panicky, looking for whom to blame. So what's the best back to pin a target on?
For the anti-tunnel folks (a "no" vote on Referendum 1), that target would be the assorted fat cats who stand to benefit by the huge tunnel project, and the associated corporate interests (the Port, tourism, Boeing, downtown developers, Japanese tunnel-boring companies, etc.) who are pushing for it. In short, the populist card — always a good source of votes when the populace is upset.
For the pro-tunnel forces, the handiest targets are named Tim Eyman and Mayor Mike McGinn. Eyman is obliging by continuing his microphone-hogging ways, stirring up votes against tolls for his Initiative 1125 in November. (Tolls play a supporting role in the tunnel debate, since opponents point to the way tolls, if set too high, would push traffic out of the tunnel and onto the streets.) Mayor McGinn has not taken the bait, keeping a low profile on the tunnel for now, lest his current unpopularity scare more tunnel-supporters into voting. Both Eyman and McGinn are lumped together as forces for "delay," and that word has a handy subtext of congestion and traffic jams.
Another way to reach late-deciders is to tag along behind a current headline issue, in this case the economic jitters in the wake of Europe's problems and the dithering in D.C. The pro-tunnel forces were quick to play this card Tuesday, rolling out advocates for the city's industrial and manufacturing workforce to stress how important it is to move freight and get to customers. Here's how King County Executive Dow Constantine put it:
“We have tremendous industrial and trade assets, including Boeing, hundreds of smaller manufacturers, and the North Pacific fishing fleet. By approving Referendum 1, we retain an essential north-south corridor through downtown and create a working waterfront that will sustain tens of thousands of jobs for years to come."
The flip side of this issue is that with tax revenues plummeting, we can't afford the tunnel and its risks of cost-overruns. And further, that some of the contortions of the tunnel solution — particularly the connections from its north portal near the Gates Foundation to the Ballard industrial area — may make freight mobility worse.
Underlying such appeals is the tactic, used by both sides, of painting a dire picture if the other side prevails. Vote for the tunnel and a $7 billion abyss opens before our feet. Defeat the tunnel and the city becomes an economic basket case (or a political bedlam). Sen. Ed. Murray (D-43) used to chair the Senate Transportation Committee, so he's been through all these battles, including getting the legislature to put $2.4 billion of state money into the SR-99 project. At a Crosscut editorial lunch Tuesday he was asked what would happen if Referendum 1 is defeated.
"If there's a 'no' vote, the entity that has to act is the Legislature," Murray said. He said there would be three paths to follow. One, "if Seattle can present a unified plan," would be to accept that, adding that unity would be unlikely if the tunnel receives a thumbs-down. Second, "the most responsible thing to do" and most likely, is the Legislature sticks with the deep-bore tunnel. The third, the dire-picture one, is that the state decides to tear down the current Viaduct, a safety hazard, and then washes its hands of the whole mess. That means letting the city figure out its own routing of traffic, and allocating what remains of the $2.4 billion (maybe half) to projects in Spokane and elsewhere.
Could that happen, letting the city stew in its own mess? It's unlikely the City Council would let go of the issue it has steered these past years, and bonded over. Even more unlikely that the Legislature wants the thankless task of coming up with a new solution, even if it had the satisfying flavor of sticking it to Seattle.
Murray also provided a larger context to think about the war-ravaged landscape if the tunnel gets a no vote. He and others are working on a comprehensive new statewide transportation funding package, probably not ready for prime time before 2013. Among its possible components: a way for local districts to impose tolls (should Eyman's anti-toll initiative pass); a way to fund the missing $2 billion on the 520 bridge, maybe with a redesign that is more transit-friendly (for bus rapid transit) and less costly; and a way to fund billions of statewide highway and transit needs. If so, it's possible that some of that money could go to fund a solution to the wreckage of a demolished Viaduct — bailing out a city stuck with the mess of no Viaduct, no tunnel, no transit, and no money.