Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn told the city council this morning that he could compromise on his proposal to put a seawall replacement measure on a special-election ballot in May.
City Council Member Nick Licata noted that placing the measure on the primary ballot in August—rather than a one-issue ballot this spring, which would cost the city over $1 million—could save the city money and still net roughly the same voter turnout. “My request to you is that you consider that an alternative,” Licata said.
“We are happy to look at an August date instead of a May date,” replied McGinn.
To the city council’s ire, earlier this month McGinn had unexpectedly proposed accelerating the replacement for the downtown seawall from completion by the end of 2015, as the council had planned, to completing the project by the end of 2014. McGinn told the council of his plan to ask voters to approval a $241 million bond measure only the night before he held a press conference.
“I regret that we didn’t vet this more thoroughly, and I think we may have gotten this discussion off on the wrong foot. We do have a commitment to a collaborative style,” the mayor said.
However, McGinn stuck to his guns that the seawall needs urgent replacement to avoid a “catastrophe” in an earthquake. “I don’t regret at all moving forward on this issue,” McGinn said. In fact, he said, the seawall could potentially be completed by the end of 2013. “My goal is to accelerate it by as much as two years. To see if that is possible … it may not be possible,” he said.
McGinn cited huge support for the ballot measure in May, which would require the support of 60 percent of voters to pass. A poll paid out of McGinn’s own pocket and conducted last week by ConsituentDynamics found that 70 percent of voters would vote to approve a seawall replacement. Eleven percent of respondents were undecided, and 19 percent said they would vote no. The memo was authored by Bill Broadhead, a partner in the polling firm and partner in the Mercury Group, which conducted strategy for the mayor’s election campaign.
Accelerating the seawall construction comes with complications and additional costs. As Cary Moon wrote earlier today on Slog—saying, among other things, that a May vote was hasty--there is a lot of additional work to be done by experts already involved in the waterfront replacement project. ”Securing the financing through a May election does not preclude the design process," McGinn said.
City Council member Jean Godden, chair of the budget committee, asked what sort of additional costs the city would incur to this year’s city budget under his plan. McGinn estimated that the “accelerated design project might cost to an addition $3 million in 2010, in addition to the cost of the election itself. I do not today have a proposal about how to finance that.”
Although doubt lingered among city council members—most stridently in City Council Member Sally Bagshaw—that McGinn sought to decouple the seawall replacement from the downtown deep-bore-tunnel project in an attempt to kill the tunnel, McGinn found an ally in Licata.
Licata agreed that a bond measure was the best way to fund the project. That was a departure from a letter sent by the council 10 days ago asking McGinn to defend his property-tax-funded plan. The council cited other funding, including a local improvement district, a transportation district, and more commercial parking taxes. The Army Corp of Engineers was also cited as a potential funding source.
“The odds of getting money from Corps is very low,” McGinn said, based on his discussions with the city’s Office of Intergovernmental Relations. He said that funds from a local improvement district would be better suited for the city’s bicycle and pedestrian improvements, as required by the state and city’s larger waterfront replacement plans.
Indeed, saddling local businesses with paying for the seawall, when they already must face the burden of many years of construction inconvenience, seems onerous, particularly considering the entire city’s economy benefits from the waterfront’s success.
While the discussion was amicable—both sides trying to avoid establishing the adversarial relationship that defined former mayor Greg Nickels's dealings with the council—suspicions about McGinn's motivations for expediting the seawall plan came eventually reached a head.
“I feel like I’m still fighting with you over whether we are going forward with the tunnel,” Bagshaw said. She said that the seawall, although at risk of failing, was roughly as dangerous now as it had been for decades.
McGinn acknowledged that he and the council disagreed about the tunnel’s viability, but, he said, “That disagreement should not stop us from addressing a public safety risk now.” The seawall is a completely separate project from the tunnel, McGinn insisted repeatedly. Moreover, rebuilding the seawall had to happen before the dangerously dilapidated Alaskan Way Viaduct could be torn down, he said.