The Bertha mess: Did Seattle bring it on itself?

City residents voted, a couple of times. But what did the votes really say?
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Inside the tunnel

City residents voted, a couple of times. But what did the votes really say?

When Seattleites went to the polls about the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, they never really got to weigh in on Bertha, despite what some say.

In the current discussions over the fate of Bertha and the deep-bore tunnel project, we’re often reminded that the people of Seattle voted for the tunnel. City Council President Tim Burgess did just that at a recent council meeting when confronting criticism from Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who felt the public had not had enough input. “The people of Seattle voted specifically for this project, so it’s not accurate to say that the people did not weigh in on this project,” said Burgess.

There were votes, the tunnel project did go ahead, so isn't Burgess right?

Not so fast. The history of the votes is a little confusing, but worth examining in retrospect. What was Seattle asked? What did we say? Did we give a clear message, or a fuzzy one?

Seattle political pollster Stuart Elway, for one, is unequivocal: “Voters have never voted for, nor expressed a preference for, the tunnel,” he insists. In fact, the clearest vote we have — which wasn’t terribly clear — suggested voters were skeptical of a tunnel.

It begins with what Elway describes as “the convoluted-double-binary-advisory-ballot-on-vague-alternative-concepts election” of March 2007 in which a couple of ideas were tested with city voters. 

Given a “Prefer” or “Do Not Prefer” choice of two options, 30 percent of voters preferred the “surface-tunnel hybrid option” while 70 percent said no — a rather emphatic rejection of that proposal for a partially below-ground route along the waterfront. A tunnel with surface improvements is approximately what we ended up with, though, despite losing more than 2-to-1.

The second choice on the ballot was between an “elevated structure” or not. In that vote, 57 percent said they did not prefer a new, elevated Viaduct, while 43 percent said they did — 13 points higher than the surface-tunnel option.

Elway says that a poll he did in 2006 for The Seattle Times pitted a new elevated viaduct against both a tunnel and a surface option. In that poll, 47 percent said build a new viaduct, 29 percent favored a tunnel, and 13 percent said do a surface roadway. But people were also conscious about budget. “When costs were introduced,” reports Elway, “a new viaduct got majority support [51 percent] to 25 percent for the tunnel and 15 percent for surface streets.” In other words, a majority Seattle citizens wanted an affordable solution and didn’t mind keeping an elevated roadway when confronted with the expense of a tunnel.

I asked Seattle political consultant Ben Anderstone to look at the votes and where they came from. His election maps indicate that that the pro-surface-tunnel hybrid votes came primarily from downtown and affluent neighborhoods like north Capitol Hill, Broadmoor and Washington Park. North, West and South Seattle were the heart of the opposition to the idea.

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The 2007 vote against the surface/tunnel hybrid option ran largely against (orange) the proposal, with a few pockets of support (green). Maps: Benjamin Anderstone

The pro-elevated solution votes came heavily from Seattle precincts west of I-5 or south Seattle. A simplistic way to view it is that if you need Highway 99 to get in and out of downtown, a new viaduct sounded just fine.

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The 2007 vote also rejected a new Viaduct, but the proposal picked up a lot of support in West Seattle and north end areas that most rely on the Highway 99 route. 

Fast forward to 2011. The vote Burgess was undoubtedly referring to was an advisory vote in August of 2011, Referendum 1, which was set up so that, if approved, the city council would be allowed to proceed with agreements to permit construction, but in itself it was not a literal pro-tunnel option. It was explicitly explained in the Voter’s Pamphlet that: “This ballot measure will neither approve nor reject the deep-bore tunnel as an alternative to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Rather…your vote will affect how the City Council will decide whether to proceed with current agreements on the deep bore tunnel beyond preliminary design work, after environmental review is completed.” In essence, it simply gave the city council authority to proceed with its own decision-making process.

Still, that vote was understood by most people (me included) as an up-or-down approval of the tunnel because most people knew that the council heavily favored the deep-bore tunnel option. Even tunnel-opponent Mayor Mike McGinn admitted defeat. “I worked to give the public a direct vote on the tunnel. The public said move ahead with the tunnel, and that's what we're going to do,” McGinn said in a statement after Referendum 1 passed 60-to-40 percent. 

For all intents and purposes, Seattle said go ahead, but was it what we really wanted? Was the vote really pro-tunnel, or simply a “please just do something and fast” message? The tunnel/surface option was both expensive and not favored in the earlier advisory. We’ll never know what voters really thought, says Elway, because of the incomplete and convoluted options presented to the voters.

The main difference between the 2007 vote and the 2011 is that almost everyone — whether from pro-tunnel or pro-elevated precincts — wanted action. The only pockets of opposition that remained were in what Anderstone regards as “The Stranger Belt,” precincts demonstrably in tune with that newspaper’s orthodoxy of the moment (the precincts include pockets in Fremont, Georgetown, the U District and near Broadway), and in some south-end, blue-collar precincts. Elway says, “In order to interpret the 2011 vote as pro-tunnel, we have to believe that pro-tunnel opinion went from 30 percent to 60 percent between 2007 and 2011. Could be. It is also certainly plausible that 2011 was an ‘enough already’ vote.”

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The vote went largely in favor of 2011's Referendum 1, but there were pockets of oppostion.

The performance of Bertha has given rise to renewed tunnel skepticism as well as renewed determination to finish the project, no matter what, with reminders that the voters seemed to say, "Get 'er done." Still, if voter approval shifted dramatically between the two advisories, where would it be now?

Anyone want another vote?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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