On September 22, the Seattle City Council said yes to the Mayor Greg Nickel's $5 billion plus tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. In the process, the council denied Seattle residents the right to vote on what easily will be the single largest, most expensive, most complex project ever built in this city. The mayor and most Councilmembers withdrew their support for a vote only when they learned tunnel costs had risen $1.5 billion above the earlier $3.6 billion estimate and when polling indicated overwhelming opposition to the tunnel.
Now it's up to Governor Gregoire to decide whether to support or, in effect, veto the council's decision. She's promised a decision before the end of November.
A tunnel is not the only option for our ailing Viaduct. There is:
* The rebuild ($2.8 Billion) - replacing the current viaduct with a better-engineered structure in the same "footprint" along Alaskan Way.
* The retrofit ($1 Billion) - fixing the existing structure without disrupting traffic and waterfront businesses.
* The surface-only plan ($2 Billion) - not replacing the Viaduct at all but instead improving the street grid and expanding the bus system.
The council also passed a measure stating opposition to any above-ground (elevated) option, i.e. the rebuild or retrofit, if money is not found to go forward with the tunnel. They also committed to further investigation of the surface only plan.
Apparently representatives of the Sierra Club had a hand in crafting this fall-back position and were among those urging support for the tunnel while opposing the public's right to vote. Odd behavior coming from an environmental group with populist origins that routinely declares its opposition to the automobile. The tunnel is the most pro-car, gas guzzling, air polluting alternative and would take billions away from creating effective non-car transit solutions for Seattle and the region. It's also aimed at opening up the downtown to still more runaway growth with all its attendant impacts on our urban ecology.
What the Sierra Club and some (not all) of the surface-only supporters did was cast their lot with pro-tunnel interests in exchange for a promise that their preferred, more environmentally friendly option would be next in line should the Governor say no to the tunnel or if money ultimately is not found for it. Councilmembers Steinbrueck and Conlin championed this position.
Do these folks really believe that skyrocketing tunnel costs will force the mayor and downtown interests to eventually back away from their tunnel alternative? When have the mayor and the corporate establishment ever been deterred by cost overruns on big-ticket projects? These surface-only supporters have only served to move the tunnel project forward by giving it a "green" patina and helping fracture a loose-knit coalition opposed to the tunnel. They've also naively reinforced the cynical strategy now being employed by our mayor and several councilmembers, such as Jan Drago.
The governor's choice
The council's surface-only second choice is obviously calculated to make the tunnel look like a more attractive choice for the governor. Gregoire has already indicated she will support only those alternatives that ensure current levels of traffic flow-something that the surface-only option will never achieve.
Unless Seattleites flood her office with phone calls, letters and e-mails, we bet the 'Guv' is gonna go with the tunnel. She'll stand on her promise to limit the state's contribution, but she'll support the mayor's request for state legislation granting the city broad authority, including creation of a new local taxing district (like the port), tolls, impact fees and utility taxes.
Does anyone care about what the people want? In mid-October the Seattle Times released numbers showing that by a 2-1 margin voters supported a rebuild of the viaduct over the tunnel option. Only 15 percent of all voters said they would support the surface only option.
Only a stake through its heart will kill the tunnel. And right now it's the Governor holding the stake. You can call Governor Gregoire at (360) 902-4111, fax her a letter at (360) 753-4110, or send her an e-mail from her Web site at www.governor.wa.gov/contact/default.asp.
There is another way we all can send a strong message to City Hall and the governor. We can cast a decisive and overwhelming vote against the "Bridging the Gap" Transportation Funding Package (Proposition One) on the ballot in November. This measure would raise $365 million over nine years in added property taxes and is billed as a tool to help us address a backlog of needed street and bridge repairs.
All this is long overdue, as we've reported ourselves in earlier columns. But this levy wouldn't be necessary if the mayor hadn't been pouring what dollars we do have into the South Lake Union trolley, the Mercer "fix" and now the tunnel.
If the mayor can find a couple billion dollars in local revenues for his tunnel without first getting our approval, then let's use those dollars to meet our street maintenance backlog. Moreover, "Bridging the Gap" lacks sufficient oversight to prevent the funds raised by the levy from being diverted for more big ticket projects in downtown and South Lake Union.
If it's the only vote they'll give us, let's make Prop 1 our referendum on the tunnel. Oh yes, we forgot. We get to vote on lap dancing, too.
John Fox and Carolee Colter lead the Seattle Displacement Coalition. They can be reached at editor@ capitolhilltimes.com.