The mayor who hates cars

Seattle Soundings

At first glance, the downtown-tunnel standoff between Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and virtually every other state and local elected official is fairly simple, centering on a gray area in the enabling legislation passed by Olympia last year.
McGinn wants lawmakers to repeal the section that sticks Seattle taxpayers with any cost overruns. Everyone else says that since the construction contracts would be between Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and its contractors, and the city would't be a party to those contracts, so there's no way the city can be held liable - so what's the big deal?
McGinn and his backers retort that they want protection in case the Legislature passes more legislation taxing Seattle for those overruns, using the clear intent of the previous language as justification.
McGinn has a point. It's unimaginable that any other jurisdiction in the state would be singled out to pay for a major state project in its area in this way. But for state legislators outside Seattle, bashing the state's dominant city is always good (and fun) politics.
As for the insider types who dominate the city's own Olympia delegation, they're only too happy to make McGinn, the new kid in school, squirm.
The welfare of city taxpayers is way, way down the list of their concerns.
But, to be honest, it's not McGinn's top concern, either.
There are, at this point, three main groups of reasons for trying to derail the express train that's hoping to ram home the downtown bore tunnel as a political fait accompli.
One set of reasons is concern over logistics, particularly the price tag and the unproven technology.
One is concern over process, namely that a solid majority of Seattleites don't want the darn thing and have said so repeatedly, voting 70 percent in opposition to a tunnel in 2007 and then fueling McGinn's campaign last year primarily due to his tunnel opposition.
(Those proponents who claim the 2007 vote irrelevant because "that was a different technology" overlook that, first, many voters don't pay attention to that level of detail; and second, the ones who do would also have noticed that it was a still more expensive project and an unproven technology. Voters might well have rejected the newer package by an even wider margin.)
McGinn really does seem to care about the well-being of Seattle taxpayers and deserves credit - perhaps uniquely so - for that. And, obviously, representing the sentiments of a majority of Seattle voters when nobody else will do it is also good politics for McGinn - particularly in a city still bearing psychic big-ticket project scars from having lawmakers ignore successive anti-stadium votes 15 years ago.
But all that's just gravy because McGinn owes his strongest loyalty to the third camp of tunnel objectors: the folks who think that cars and anything that facilitates their use should inherently be discouraged.
I'm not sure there's a major elected official anywhere in the country who is more viscerally anti-car than McGinn. He represents a Seattle archetype: the Sierra Club-loving, local-organic-produce-buying enviro who considers bicycling and public transit a moral good, and driving any sort of vehicle with an internal combustion engine (especially as a single-occupancy driver) an evil somewhere right up there with pedophilia and smoking.
In theory, of course, he's right. McGinn's oft-repeated alarm over global warming also seems unique among a universe of American elected officials mostly content to twiddle their thumbs and raise money for reelection while the planet burns or at least roasts. Since taking office, McGinn has implemented a host of measures to promote urban density and to make it more difficult and more expensive to drive.
However, while treating driving as an eighth deadly sin may make environmental sense, it's still never, ever going to be winning politics or very popular - even in Seattle. Seattle is (at least nominally) still part of America, and overwhelmingly, Americans like to drive. There's a reason why Detroit markets its cars by appealing to would-be buyers' personal identity: It works. Insult cars, and you insult voters, and you don't get reelected.
So McGinn's trying to have it both ways: dog whistles to the enviro crowd, while he couches his tunnel opposition in the more prosaic world of probable cost overruns.
But even though McGinn deserves credit for his climate concern, he also needs a reality check. It's not just that in our culture, people love cars; a lot of us also need them.
Our cities are built on the assumption that people drive; our work schedules are predicated on it.
Most senior citizens, single moms with three kids and eight sacks of groceries, or disabled people aren't going to bicycle everywhere the way McGinn likes to - they can't.
And increasingly crowded public-transit needs not only more funding (good luck on that), but more frequent schedules and better accommodations for the frail before a lot of people can - let alone, will - use it.
Until then, the sort of social engineering McGinn and his environmental allies would like to pull off is, in crass political terms, all about making life more difficult for other people.
McGinn has the support of a solid majority of Seattle residents in his skepticism over our civic elders' latest big-ticket, real estate-friendly boondoggle. But not for the same reasons - and if he were more open about his motivations, he probably wouldn't have that support.
Geov Parrish is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on "Mind Over Matters" on KEXP 90.3 FM.[[In-content Ad]]