Yesterday’s council meeting was supposed to give voters a chance to decide how to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct while satisfying Gov. Christine Gregoire’s demand that the city send a clear message to the state about whether it will accept a new elevated freeway, Gregoire’s preferred option. Instead, it did neither. The result of the meeting—two separate up-or-down votes March 13 on a new viaduct and a four-lane “Tunnel Lite” (renamed, for PR purposes, the “surface/tunnel hybrid”)—will not be binding. Gregoire and the state legislature can do whatever they want, with or without a Seattle advisory ballot. Moreover, the outcome may be inconclusive. Because the two votes will be separated on the ballot, people can vote yes for both, yes for one and no for the other, or no for both; it’s conceivable, perhaps even probable, that both options could either fail or win. And even if one option does emerge the clear winner, unless the vote is overwhelming, it will hardly be a mandate either.
Yesterday’s hastily scheduled council meeting began inauspiciously, when council president Nick Licata (an elevated option supporter) refused to allow public comment because the meeting was technically a “special committee meeting,” not a meeting of the council. After a flurry of discussion over whether the council could and should amend its rules (Tom Rasmussen and Peter Steinbrueck said yes; Licata and David Della said no), Licata backed down and allowed about 20 people to speak. Reflecting every opinion poll to date, almost none of yesterday’s speakers supported the tunnel; most favored a new viaduct, a retrofit or the surface/transit option, which the council has so far refused to consider. Larry Todd of Friends of Seattle spoke eloquently in favor of the surface/transit proposal, noting that if a “progressive” city like Seattle can’t come up with a sustainable solution (i.e. one that doesn’t cater exclusively to cars), “who will? To look at this as merely a transportation issue is to miss the significance of what we’re about to do.” Todd also noted that, by putting two advisory measures on the ballot, the city would be “wasting a million dollars on something that isn’t binding anyway.” Council member Peter Steinbrueck picked up that theme, calling the election “political tyranny” and an “expensive, glorified opinion poll.”
“It may seem populist to have a ballot measure, and I come from a very strong family tradition of populism. … [But] it’s disingenuous to be putting options before the voters … for something the state has told us they will not honor.” Nonetheless, the council approved both ballot measures, with Licata, Della and Steinbrueck dissenting. (Licata, as mayor pro tem, had to sign the measure because Mayor Nickels was absent.)
After the vote, Steinbrueck stood up and made an extemperaneous, emotional speech about the future of Seattle if we, unlike 85 other cities that have torn down elevated freeways, decide to build a new viaduct on our waterfront:
We will be a laughingstock. We will be an embarrassment. We will not be able to stand on our leadership. We will not be able to be taken seriously when we talk about sustainability and the environment if we do this. There is a solution that’s more cost-effective and more financially responsible that we can develop. It would save the state money if they would just free us from this stranglehold of focusing on auto capacity. Twenty-five years from now, if we proceed with this plan, this elevated structure will be congested, backed up to West Seattle the day it opens. If we don’t take steps to address our transportation problems now, it will be gridlock. This is not a choice about my political future. If I could trade this job today and stop that elevated freeway I would do it in a flash. It is that important to our city, this beautiful place, the environment we live in that is so envied by people the world around.”
For months, the council and mayor have been under enormous pressure from Gregoire and the state legislature to make a decision about the viaduct. (They’ve voted four times to support the six-lane tunnel, but Gregoire has said that option is financially “infeasible.”) Initially, Gregoire insisted on a March vote between a new viaduct and the six-lane tunnel option; two weeks later, however, she recanted, telling the city to accept a new viaduct or lose $2.2 billion in state money to the SR-520 bridge replacement. That put the city (viaduct supporters excluded) in a nearly impossible position: If they did nothing, Gregoire would move forward with a new viaduct. But if they put the $3.6-$5.5 billion tunnel on the ballot next to a $2.2-$3.3 billion viaduct, the elevated option would almost certainly win. The decision they made yesterday—two side-by-side ballot measures—muddies those waters by allowing the possibility of an ambiguous vote. As Drago noted yesterday, “If we do nothing, the governor will go forward with the elevated [option]. Voting in March is our only chance of changing that.”
Well, that may be overstating it. There are four possible outcomes, only one of them even potentially good for the tunnel.
First, the tunnel could win. If it won by a small margin, it would almost certainly have no impact on the governor’s decision. If it won by a large margin, supporters hope it might convince the governor to reconsider. However, the state house of representatives remains extremely hostile to the tunnel; the senate, meanwhile, is considered a bit more open to the idea.
Second, the elevated could win. If it won by a large margin, the governor would have a mandate to move quickly to start construction. If it won by a small margin, the city could try pleading its case to the state; however, any win for the elevated is bad news for supporters of both the tunnel and the surface/transit option.
Third, both options could win. If that happened, the state would likely take the vote as a message that Seattle voters are fine with either option—a victory for the elevated replacement.
Finally, both options could lose. That would send the state the message that voters don’t like the choices they’re being given—a potential boon for backers of the surface/transit option, which neither the city nor the state has been willing, thus far, to consider.
Ballots will go out in about three weeks, giving supporters of all three options almost no time to gear up their campaigns. (The mayor has a jump on his opponents; his Waterfront for All campaign has already raised $164,000.) Tunnel supporters clearly hope that supporters of the surface/transit option—about 10 percent of Seattle voters, according to the most recent poll—will go for the “surface/tunnel hybrid.” However, most of the “surface” elements of the new tunnel could be built in any scenario, including alongside a new viaduct, and aren’t actually funded as part of the proposal.
The city council, for its part, has repeatedly stated its support for the six-lane tunnel. Weeks ago, the council passed a resolution stating that the proposed rebuild violates state and local law (including the city’s own Comprehensive Plan and the state Shoreline Management Act), opening an avenue to litigation by environmental groups and waterfront businesses if the state decides to move forward with a new viaduct. (The city itself would be hard pressed to sue if the tunnel wins, however, as that would be seen as violating the will of the voters). Yesterday, the council supplemented that resolution with one explicitly rejecting the elevated option.
Because the vote will probably be inconclusive, the council also voted yesterday (unanimously, for a change) to move forward with construction south of King Street (where there’s no debate about how to proceed) and to start implementing mitigation measures that will have to be done no matter what option is ultimately chosen.