Richard Conlin was being heckled. The Seattle City Council president knew the crowd would be hostile and he came prepared. It was February 28 at City Hall, and the council intended to pass a bill that would commit Seattle to replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a deep-bore tunnel. Even after the public comment period, when citizens in sweaters and button-up shirts spoke two to one against the project, the crowd remained vocal, many holding signs reading "Let us vote!" or "Our Project, Our Vote" or "Stop the Tunnel."
As the crowd rumbled, Conlin asked to suspend parliamentary rules to show a Power- Point presentation. Did he seize the chance to show that the tunnel is worth $4.2 billion or that it moves traffic better than less- expensive alternatives?
No, he didn't do that. He can't do that.
Instead, Conlin projected a photo of Oakland's Cypress Street Viaduct after a 1989 earthquake. Forty-two people died on the freeway that day, crushed to death between collapsed concrete. Seattle's waterfront viaduct faces the same risk in an earthquake, and, he argued, the tunnel is our only option to avoid that risk.
"These pictures remind us that we are talking about people's lives," Conlin intoned.
The crowd groaned at this stunt.
Then the council approved the tunnel contracts with the state by an 8–1 vote (with Mike O'Brien dissenting). Now the viaduct—a human juicer in a seismically volatile region—will be left standing for at least five more years. But the council and the state don't even know if the tunnel is feasible yet, because the impact studies won't be done until this summer.
Conlin's grandstanding—his willingness to exploit tragedy to score a political point—wasn't just patronizing, it was dishonest. Building the tunnel means that the viaduct remains up longer. Demolition had been planned for next year—in 2012—but the tunnel plan delays demolition until 2016 (or later, if the project runs behind schedule, as projects like these often do).
"The city council has chosen the option that leaves the existing viaduct up the longest," says Mayor Mike McGinn.
Meanwhile, the governor, highway officials, and eight members of the city council all say that the decision to build a deep-bore tunnel is a done deal. That a tunnel is the best option for the waterfront. That the region's economy depends on a tunnel. That we have no other option.
They're lying to us.
On every metric you could use to gauge a transportation project—cost, liability, impact—the tunnel project fails. Replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct by optimizing surface streets and transit is cheaper and more effective. Countless cities—San Francisco, Portland, New York, Seoul, and many others—have torn down urban freeways without creating economic havoc or gridlock. Seattle can and should do the same thing. In fact, Seattle voters already rejected plans to rebuild Highway 99 as a tunnel or a new viaduct in 2007: After voters shot down a cut-and-cover tunnel, the governor, the mayor at the time, and the county executive at the time got together and decided on a deep-bore tunnel without asking voters.
Now the state is trying to shut down debate on the deep-bore tunnel—highway officials and the governor literally refuse to participate in debates—because, on its merits, the tunnel is indefensible.
For instance, we've been told that the tunnel will "open up the waterfront" while a surface option would clog it with traffic. But the Washington State Department of Transportation's (WSDOT) own research found that the tunnel and a surface/transit option produce identical traffic flows along the waterfront: 11,000 vehicles over three hours during the peak evening rush hour. And the state's estimate was based on the assumption that the tunnel would have no tolls. But a 2009 state law requires that $400 million for the project be raised by tolls. According to a Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS) released last October, 64,000 vehicles a day that currently use the viaduct would divert onto surface streets because the tunnel has zero exits and to avoid having to pay tolls. What does this mean for the waterfront? WSDOT reports, "The number of vehicles traveling on Alaskan Way each day is projected to increase by 6,000 to 7,000 vehicles" above the levels without tolls.
So it's the tunnel that would clog the waterfront with traffic.
Before we spend $4.2 billion (including $930 million from Seattle and $300 million from the Port of Seattle) on a tunnel we don't need, Seattle voters deserve a chance to weigh in. We deserve a real debate, an honest debate about whether the tunnel moves enough vehicles, whether it's worth the money.
There is only one way to do that honestly: put the tunnel on the ballot. Protect Seattle Now, a campaign launched the same day the council voted to approve the tunnel, has until March 28 to gather approximately 16,500 signatures to put the tunnel contracts on the August ballot. That's a lot of signatures to gather in a short amount of time. Protect Seattle Now is going to have to pay professional signature gatherers if it wants to make the deadline, which means it needs to raise money, too—quickly. If you can help, go to www.protectseattlenow.org.
Meanwhile, here's why you should care.
Governor Chris Gregoire insists that the only way to maintain traffic flow downtown and protect streets from a flood of cars that currently use the viaduct is by building the tunnel. "The bored tunnel preserves capacity," she argues.
But the state's own estimates contradict her. Nearly two-thirds of the 110,000 vehicles a day that currently use the viaduct won't take the tunnel. Tolls of $4 one direction and $3.50 the other direction would cause most drivers to avoid the tunnel. (The other reason drivers will avoid the 1.7-mile tunnel is the lack of exits—more on that in a minute.) Without tolls, the state simply can't pay for its share of the project; with tolls, most people won't use it. Most drivers will exit before getting to the 10-lane tunnel portal, clogging the streets of Pioneer Square.
"To build a giant, suburban- scale interchange next to a historic district with narrow, fragile pedestrian streets—knowing that this causes traffic mayhem, but not putting any money toward solving the problem—is absurd," says People's Waterfront Coalition director Cary Moon.
The state calls this "unworkable." The SDEIS says, "Slower vehicle times are modeled because vehicle volumes are expected to increase on these streets." (Yes, the project designed to move traffic through the city causes slower travel.)
Asked at a briefing in November how the state would manage the increase in traffic on city streets, Ron Paananen, project manager for the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project at the Washington State Department of Transportation, punted: "The City of Seattle has more power over city streets." Asked if the state had any money to mitigate this looming traffic disaster, Paananen answered, "No."
The state said this is the city's problem. So what's the city's plan to deal with the traffic pouring onto downtown streets?
City council Transportation Committee chair Tom Rasmussen hopes the state can help—the same state that says this is the city's problem.
"I think we will be working with the state, King County Metro, Port of Seattle, and any other entities that have a role in transportation to reduce the amount of traffic on those streets that could be caused by tolling," Rasmussen has said.
The city certainly doesn't have the money to mitigate the traffic diversion. Seattle is running annual deficits around $60 million and already has a $930 million commitment to the project (to pay for utility relocation, building a new seawall, and helping rebuild the waterfront). The state, county, and port will be no help: A 2009 law prohibits the state from chipping in any more money than the $2.8 billion it already committed, the Port of Seattle still hasn't found a way to pay its pledged $300 million, and King County Metro is running a budget deficit and has nothing to chip in. Not one of these entities has a way to manage downtown street traffic if the tunnel is built.
"The issues, left unaddressed, will impact accessibility to and the character of the Center City, particularly in the vicinity of Pioneer Square and the Seattle Center/South Lake Union areas," says a briefing paper presented to council members on January 25. The report, by transportation consultant Nelson\Nygaard, also finds that the uptick in traffic may result in longer travel times for transit and "will increase conflict between automobiles and vulnerable road users." (In other words, frustrated drivers confronted with clogged downtown streets and longer commutes are likely to run down more cyclists and pedestrians.)
"We are spending billions of dollars to make traffic worse and doing nothing for transit service," says Craig Benjamin, a transit advocate with the group Streets for All Seattle. The city would have to spend huge sums on improving surface streets—rerouting surface roads, adding lanes on I-5, timing lights—to mitigate this flood of traffic "or this is not going to work." But the city and state won't have the dough to do that because they will have spent it all on the tunnel.
What about freight and connecting the port to the rest of the region? Tunnel supporters argue that freight mobility is vital to a port city like Seattle. But the viaduct isn't a particularly well-used freight route. Medium to heavy trucks make up less than 4 percent of viaduct trips currently (4,000 out of 110,000 per day), according to the Urban Mobility Plan drafted for the city by Nelson\Nygaard in 2008. And three-fifths of that truck traffic begins or ends downtown. So the tunnel, which has no exits in downtown Seattle, wouldn't help with freight: It actually forces most of the freight traffic currently served by the viaduct onto city streets.
Seattle doesn't require a downtown bypass; it needs access into downtown. Consider the way we currently use Highway 99. Drivers take the viaduct—which has exits and on-ramps—to enter and exit downtown Seattle. According to WSDOT data from 2007, traffic rises sharply on the viaduct in the morning and evening commuting hours. Northbound traffic on the viaduct currently peaks 7:00 to 8:00 a.m., with 4,500 trips per hour, dropping to about 2,200 trips an hour through midday, and then rising to 3,500 during the evening rush hour. Southbound volumes reflect a similar pattern, but with less traffic overall; traffic peaks in the morning with 2,500 trips per hour and lulls midday until the evening rush hour around 5:00 p.m., diving by 7:00 p.m. This is the pattern of a morning and evening commute into the employment core of downtown Seattle.
Smart Mobility, a New England transportation engineering firm, studied traffic patterns on the viaduct and issued a report called "Alaskan Way Viaduct Analysis of No-Replacement Option." It found that 90 percent of the northbound Highway 99 traffic enters from downtown on-ramps. Likewise, 77 percent of southbound traffic gets on Highway 99 downtown. The report says, "Most of the viaduct traffic during peak traffic periods gets on or off SR 99 in central Seattle, and is not through traffic." What drivers need from Highway 99—what they use it for—isn't a bypass mechanism, but a downtown delivery system.
Despite this evidence, WSDOT has insisted, "The Alaskan Way Viaduct is a major regional highway corridor carrying long- distance trips through downtown." That's a lie and WSDOT knows it. WSDOT's own data proves it.
The project's total cost is estimated at $4.2 billion, assuming that it doesn't run over budget. But 9 out of 10 megaprojects do run over budget, and tunnel and bridge projects are particularly vulnerable to unexpected costs—running an average of 34 percent over budget, according to an analysis of 258 massive transportation projects by Bent Flyvbjerg, one of the world's foremost authorities on the subject.
The four-tunnel Brightwater sewage treatment facility in north King County that was supposed to be done in 2010 now won't be done until 2012 or 2013, and it's 24 percent over budget. Two of the tunnel-digging machines got stuck. If that happens to the downtown tunnel, the unsafe viaduct would be left standing until 2018, two additional years.
If Seattle's tunnel runs over budget, someone will have to pay. It's the state's project, with the city serving as a colead. But the state is facing a $5 billion biennial deficit and state lawmakers say they won't pay.
"Will Seattle voters be on the hook for [tunnel] cost overruns?" asked KIRO reporter Essex Porter at a luncheon at the Washington Athletic Club on January 7. Onstage were Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, Representative Larry Springer, and Representative Bruce Dammeier. Each of them had signs that said "Yes," "No," or "Waffle." They all laughed at Porter's question and lifted their "Yes" signs.
A state law passed in 2009 specifically states that any costs beyond $2.8 billion "shall be borne by property owners in the Seattle area who benefit from replacement of the existing viaduct with the deep-bore tunnel." The law also says, unequivocally, that the state won't pay more than $2.8 billion. If the tunnel exceeds those costs, the legislature has to act or leave the project unfinished. They can tap the state budget, which has been running multibillion-dollar deficits with no end in sight. Or they can do what they said they would do: collect from Seattle.
"I will be among those who make damn sure that deal stands in place," state representative Larry Seaquist told Seattlepi.com. Likewise, Democrat Jim Kastama said last summer, "I will try my best, as will a number of other legislators, to live up to the law that we passed that held Seattle to these cost overruns."
Representative Judy Clibborn, who chairs the house Transportation Committee, introduced the language that puts Seattle taxpayers on the hook. Clibborn says the intent was that "people who benefited from the facility would help pay for cost overruns." But Clibborn now says the state lacks a mechanism to collect from taxpayers in a specific geography or compel a city to pay. If there are overruns, she adds, the state "will pay for the cost overruns."
It's a legal gray area. If the state legislature, traditionally hostile to Seattle, can pin the overrun costs on Seattle, our city's taxpayers will have a $1 billion bill if the state's $2.8 billion portion of the project runs the average 34 percent over budget.
Governor Gregoire has said she'd veto a bill that makes Seattle pay—but she isn't running for reelection and will be long gone in 2013, 2014, or 2015 when cost overruns crop up. It may be Republican governor Rob McKenna by then, and don't bank on him to come running to Seattle's rescue.
Even if the project somehow doesn't run over budget, parts of the funding may not come through. For instance, the $400 million from tolls assumes that drivers will actually pay to use the tunnel instead of the free surface streets. That's not always what happens. The Australian reported a few weeks ago that RiverCity Motorway, a private tunnel and highway builder in Brisbane, had financially collapsed after construction was done on a recent project because too many users simply refused to pay the tolls. "River- City's initial traffic forecasts predicted the road would carry 60,000 vehicles a day and that this could increase to 100,000 within 18 months. But traffic volumes are closer to 20,000 vehicles, despite initial moves to discount the toll by as much as 50 percent to encourage motorists," the newspaper reported.
Right now, the state and eight members of the city council all assume the tunnel will be free of cost overruns and that every driver we expect to pay a toll will pay. That is insanity.
The state has been clear that it will dig the tunnel. "This project that we have been discussing for a decade will begin turning dirt next year," said Governor Gregoire at a press conference to announce the winning construction bidders. "Ladies and gentlemen," she added, "let's get 'er built." Ron Judd, project outreach director for WSDOT, told the Seattle Times, "The debate about whether or not we're going to do a tunnel is over."
Sounds like a done deal, eh?
But the law is clear: You can't actually decide to build until an environmental review is complete. Until the state "issues a final determination of nonsignificance or final environmental impact statement, no action concerning the proposal shall be taken by a governmental agency that would... limit the choice of reasonable alternatives," says the Washington Administrative Code.
The environmental impact statement on the deep-bore tunnel isn't completed. It's "expected this summer," says WSDOT's Paananen. So how can the debate be over?
"The state is trampling on our state's premier environmental law," says David Bricklin, an environmental attorney who represents cases under the State Environmental Policy Act. "We are throwing away our money on a document that is not going to be used to help make a decision, but instead to justify the decision that is already made. That is flatly illegal. Ron Judd should know better. The governor, who ran the Department of Ecology and the attorney general's office, certainly should know better."
Bricklin adds, "For the governor in a huge project to flout the law is—I am just almost speechless. I am amazed that the state would do this."
The state's actions so far—picking a construction conglomerate, signing contracts, refusing to study a surface/transit alternative—have predisposed the state to pick one option.
"A lawsuit that argues that this EIS process is a sham and that WSDOT has to change the way it analyzes environmental issues and change the way it makes decisions, I think that would be a very strong lawsuit, a very strong claim," says Bricklin.
There is a better option. Seattle can maintain its capacity to move people and goods through the city just as we do today—without a dangerous viaduct, an ugly replacement viaduct, or an insane tunnel.
The city hired consultant Nelson\Nygaard in 2008 to explore maximizing surface streets, optimizing lanes on I-5, and improving certain transit corridors through downtown. It concluded that it would cost $3.3 billion—almost a billion dollars less than the tunnel project—and would performs as well as, and in some cases better than, the tunnel.
The most compelling evidence for I-5/surface/transit is buried in the state's own SDEIS. In an appendix of a transportation discipline report, WSDOT cites the miles of travel, hours of travel, and hours of delay that would exist if we built the I-5/surface/transit option. To compare that data to the tunnel, The Stranger filed a records request with the City of Seattle to obtain the most recent data the state is using to forecast miles traveled, hours traveled, and hours of delay on the tolled deep-bore tunnel.
The data shows surface/transit performing slightly better in the downtown system overall, with fewer miles traveled, fewer hours traveled, and less delay. Specifically, hours of delay would drop from 37,500 hours with a tolled tunnel program to 36,700 hours with a surface option. Hours of overall travel drop from 106,600 to 103,600, and miles traveled drops from 2.5 million to 2.4 million.
Granted, these aren't huge differences. But this data proves something very important: The much more expensive tunnel doesn't perform any better than I-5/surface/transit.
That flies in the face of Governor Gregoire and other tunnel advocates who have insisted the I-5/surface/transit option won't work. When I asked about the traffic impacts of the tunnel at a press conference on October 29, Gregoire said, "The alternative [to the tunnel] is taking 110,000 cars and putting them on I-5 and the streets of Seattle. You want to see a stalled city, you take those 110,000 cars." But the state's own data shows that downtown is actually more "stalled" with a tunnel.
Here's how surface/transit would work: adding a new northbound lane on I-5 in the space already available between Seneca Street and the State Route 520 interchange (this alone provides capacity for an estimated 30,000 additional vehicles a day); converting Alaskan Way along the waterfront to a six-lane road south of Columbia Street and a four-lane road north of Columbia Street; placing timed traffic lights at intersections along the waterfront to maximize mobility while allowing drivers to turn east into the downtown core; making improvements for cyclists and pedestrians, such as redesigning certain sidewalks and clearly marking bike lanes; funding more bus routes; and establishing transit priority through Pike and Pine Streets, Madison and Marion Streets, and through Stewart Street and Olive Way. Meanwhile, Spokane Street and Mercer Street improvements would increase freight access to I-5.
The savings compared to the tunnel: $500 million to $700 million for the state and $200 million for the city, according to an analysis of city and state data by the People's Waterfront Coalition.
Simply tearing down the viaduct doesn't appear to have serious ramifications. Three University of Washington professors issued a technical report in 2009 titled "Assessing Uncertainty About the Benefits of Transportation Infrastructure Projects Using Bayesian Melding: Application to Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct." In it, Professors Hana Sevcikova, Adrian E. Raftery, and Paul A. Waddell studied the effect of viaduct removal on 22 routes through Seattle—14 routes didn't use the viaduct and 8 did. For the first 14, they wrote, "There is no indication that removing the viaduct would increase commute times for these routes." For the routes that did use the viaduct, they stated, "There is not strong statistical support for the conclusion that removing the viaduct would lead to any increase in travel times." They noted, however, that drivers who use the viaduct as a "core component" of their commute "may [experience] some measurable increase in travel time." The analysis refutes tunnel cheerleaders' predictions of "gridlock."
And while the state repeatedly insists the tunnel is necessary because its forecasts presume traffic is rising, they're wrong. Seattle traffic is dropping.
Congestion in Seattle has dropped by 32 percent since 2006, according to the 2010 annual report released this month by the Kirkland-based traffic-analysis company INRIX. Seattle's automobile trips are down, too. On February 18, Congress for the New Urbanism reported: "Trips [in Seattle] by automobile have declined by 6 percent from 2000 to 2009, while at the same time the population increased by nearly 10 percent. That equates to 14 percent fewer trips per capita."
Even if we did need to increase capacity in the city, a freeway wouldn't necessarily help. Freeways are designed to move people long distances very quickly. That's not what we need to do in the middle of the city. As mentioned earlier, lots of cities have gotten rid of their freeways: Harbor Drive in Portland, the Embarcadero and Central Freeway in San Francisco, and the Cheonggye Expressway in Seoul were all torn down and resulted in more vibrant downtown cores. In Seoul—which eliminated a freeway and an expressway and replaced them with a stream and park in 2005—"traffic has improved," the Korea Times reports.
Where would the viaduct's traffic go? Estimates show 30 percent diverting to Alaskan Way, 25 percent to north/south arterials, 17 percent to I-5, and 28 percent "disappears." This last category is the area of the greatest controversy. The knee-jerk refrain is that these trips are an indicator of less economic activity. But that argument is rebuffed in "Alaskan Way Viaduct Analysis of No-Replacement Option," which says, "[Some] people shop and use services closer to where they live," which is good for neighborhoods.
"It's also better for downtown, because you're actually providing access, options, and connectivity," says People's Waterfront Coalition's Moon. "And that's what urban traffic systems depend on."
City council member Nick Licata was having a rage attack. We're back to February 28, minutes before the council voted to approve three tunnel agreements with the state—the same meeting where Conlin tried to shut up the angry crowd by showing the collapsed freeway in Oakland. Licata was tripping over his words, flailing his arms, not making any case for why the tunnel was a good idea. His arguments were against surface/transit and they were purely political. "I don't know of any elected officials out there arguing for it," he said. "You have the risk that the tunnel may go over [budget], we don't know. We do know that we have $2.2 billion. We have zero—we have zero—for the transit and surface options."
Licata is wrong.
There are elected officials (including O'Brien, sitting a few feet to Licata's left) arguing for surface/transit. If Licata, who is opposed to light rail and supports rebuilding a wider viaduct, says we need a better tunnel alternative, he should be blaming himself and the rest of the council, who made the insane decision to pursue a tunnel.
And the surface/transit option does have money.
The state has already committed hundreds of millions of dollars to various parts of what could become a surface/transit project. Tearing down the old viaduct between South Holgate Street to South King Street and rebuilding a new road in its place has already begun, and that's covered by $476 million in gas tax and federal money, says WSDOT project manager Paananen.
"Some parts of the surface/transit/I-5 alternative—particularly the transit piece—could not be paid for with gas-tax funds," Paananen says.
But managing the soon-to-close Battery Street Tunnel, electrical line relocation, and other nearby work account for approximately $181 million, and the state must also tear down the viaduct (budgeted out of state funds at $290 million)—these elements represent roughly $1 billion in the state's commitment to the tunnel, and they would need to occur to build surface/transit, too.
"People say the state takes its $2.2 billion and walks," says O'Brien. But in addition to what's already committed, he argues, "Voters passed the gas tax, and that money was dedicated to this corridor. And if it needs to get moved over a few hundred yards in one direction or the other, then let's do that. Let's put it into I-5. I think you start taking state funds to other projects in the city and use them immediately." For instance, increasing capacity on I-5, the state's responsibility, would cost approximately $500 million. "That's a lot easier than building a deep-bore tunnel," O'Brien says.
If the tunnel failed and surface/transit were selected, would the state take all the remaining money?
It could, technically, but probably wouldn't. After all, the governor, legislature, and port have been braying for years about the need to maintain the capacity of the viaduct.
"I would fight to keep funding in Seattle to make that corridor work," says state senator Ed Murray, asked what he would do if the tunnel was nixed.
Where would transit funding come from? That's more difficult to answer. But on March 10, state senator Scott White introduced a bill that would give voters in local jurisdictions four mechanisms to fund transit, including vehicle excise taxes, licensing fees, tax rewards for efficient vehicles, and applying the sales tax to gasoline.
And some tunnel supporters could be won over. After all, many of the same people who now support the tunnel have supported surface/transit in the past. An e-mail chain from December 2008 includes the key players in a stakeholders group of labor, business, and environmental leaders who were united in pushing for a surface/transit option (before the governor began pushing for a tunnel).
"The S&T (including I-5) project should start today. It will give us the best shot at increasing the capacity of I-5 and transit, which we know will help the region," wrote Robert Sexton, the regional vice president of Seattle commercial banking for Wells Fargo and board member of the Downtown Seattle Association. Likewise, Jon Scholes, policy director of the Downtown Seattle Association, proposed a recommendation that called to "move forward with the Surface/Transit Hybrid alternative, including improvements to I-5." Scholes argued: "It is an affordable alternative. It has one of the shortest construction schedules, resulting in very limited closure of SR 99." Another benefit of this option: "Remove the viaduct by 2012."
Politically speaking, another charge is that the tunnel is a boon for employment ("We will create jobs building the tunnel now," Gregoire told a room of hard-hat-wearing supporters on December 9). But the truth is the tunnel doesn't do much: It creates 480 jobs interspersed across four years, according to the state's October study, which isn't a lot for the $3.1 billion the state is spending.
So much for the "jobs" argument.
I'm standing under the viaduct during the morning commute. Streets in its shadow are mostly empty. From down here, you can see the cracks under the lanes and across the concrete buttresses. The 2001 Nisqually earthquake caused most of the damage; a recent federal safety inspection gave the viaduct, out of 100 possible points, a rating of only 9 in its weakest spots.
"It's coming down in 2012. I'm taking it down," Governor Gregoire said in 2008. "That's the timeline. I'm not going to fudge on it."
It's now been three years since Gregoire said that. It's been two weeks since the council approved a tunnel plan that lets the viaduct stand four years longer, until 2016. It's been a matter of days since a 9.0 earthquake struck Japan.
Could we nix the tunnel and bring this thing down sooner? Yes.
Surface/transit could be two-thirds complete within three years, says Moon, including viaduct demolition. And surface/transit lacks the engineering complexity associated with the planned deep-bore tunnel (at 58 feet in diameter, the widest deep-bore tunnel ever attempted). The city has studied ways to close the viaduct in an emergency, and the reports show that closing the viaduct doesn't lead to gridlock.
So if this is about bringing the viaduct down sooner rather than later, we should build surface/transit. If it's about spending money wisely, we should build surface/ transit. If it's about the waterfront or bringing shoppers to downtown businesses, we should build surface/transit. If it's about saving lives, we should build surface/transit.
Now is Seattle's chance to stop a freeway it doesn't need. The city did that once before in 1969, when thousands of citizens protested the R. H. Thomson Expressway being built through the Arboretum. Officials kept up construction, but the protesters prevailed. Shortly thereafter, the mayor, several members of the city council, and downtown groups were committed to demolishing the Pike Place Market and building a commercial development in its place. It was a done deal. But citizens put Initiative 1 on the ballot in 1971, and voters saved the market by a three-to-two majority.
When it comes to the downtown freeway, the city council is trying to stop your voice from being heard. Council Member O'Brien introduced a resolution in February that would have allowed you to vote, but eight members of the council voted against it. Why?
They're afraid of losing.
A poll conducted last year by SurveyUSA found that 58 percent of Seattleites supported a referendum on the tunnel and 63 percent said that construction should wait until the state agrees to pay for cost overruns.
Is there a majority for any option (tunnel, new viaduct, surface/transit)? No. Voters have been divided for years. But part of the reason is that people—like the governor—have been overstating the tunnel's efficacy while untruthfully downplaying surface/ transit. And most of the council refuses to have a real debate.
"The folks who are making the decisions, the nine of us on the council, the mayor, the governor—we are not the ones who have to pay for the consequences of these decisions," says O'Brien. "This is a project that city and state taxpayers will be paying for in years to come and they deserve to have a say. I am convinced that a couple years from now, we will look back and this project will be going sideways, gas prices will be higher than they are today, and people will say, 'Why did we do this? Who decided to do this?' And the folks supporting the tunnel will be disappointed in themselves for putting us on this path."
What is the referendum on the tunnel, exactly? At issue is the paperwork that the city has drafted with the state. It addresses right-of-way to build the tunnel and two utility agreements, overall addressing who pays for what and assigning liability. Supporters on the council argue that these agreements protect Seattle's interests. But when the city tried to include language in the state contracts that explicitly said that the state would pay for cost overruns, the state refused (that would be illegal because of the state law that says Seattle taxpayers must shoulder cost overruns).
Tunnel supporters argue that if Seattle doesn't approve these contracts, the state will declare eminent domain and build a tunnel anyway, without the contracts. They further claim that if voters reject the tunnel contract, the state would build it anyway. "It's hard for me to believe that the state will spend billions of dollars on a project that the city doesn't even want," says O'Brien. And history shows that Seattle can stop a freeway it doesn't want.
Moreover, the state can't complete the project without Seattle, which needs to pay $930 million of the $4.2 billion bill. It also seems politically unfeasible that the state would send a tunnel-boring machine under downtown Seattle when voters have told them not to. Another tunnel was on the ballot once, and voters said no way. The only way to stop the city council from making this mistake is to let voters have their say again.
And the only way to let voters have their say again is to get Protect Seattle Now's tunnel referendum on the ballot. The newly founded coalition of organizations running that referendum (organizations that include Real Change newspaper, the Sierra Club, and Friends of Seattle) formed with only 30 days to gather signatures. They have less than two weeks left. At their own expense, they've inserted petitions into copies of this week's Stranger in some of the densest neighborhoods in the city. "People should sign it, get some friends to sign it, and then send it back to us immediately," says campaign manager Ainsley Close. The deadline to mail in signatures is March 25 (Protect Seattle Now, PO Box 17385, Seattle, WA 98127). The 16,503 signatures needed are within reach, but time is limited. You can contribute money to the cause online (www.protectseattlenow.org/donate) or help out by calling 257-2252. Editors and the publisher of this paper even donated to the campaign.
They need your help.
It has come to this. Stop the insanity.