There's a forum coming up at Town Hall that the governor doesn't want you to know about. Tunnel supporters on the city council, like the governor, hoped to shut the forum down by refusing to show up and defend their troubled megaproject.
For those reasons alone, you should go.
The forum is Wednesday, December 1, at 7:30 p.m., and you would think that backers of the tunnel would welcome the opportunity to talk about their project with the public—there is, after all, a lot of new information to discuss.
In October, officials released an exhaustive report on the tunnel's impacts in Seattle (most important are impacts on traffic). It turns out, nearly two-thirds of the traffic that currently uses Highway 99 won't take the tunnel, because the tunnel will have no exits and roughly $4 tolls in each direction. All those cars would instead clog already-jammed downtown streets. There's not a plan or penny to deal with all that new traffic.
The state is supposedly accepting public comments on the tunnel project until December 13. But the state refused to participate in the forum—during the comment period, a time when the state is supposed to be soliciting public opinion, in an iconic venue for dialogue about city business. And this event, which will be broadcast by Seattle Channel, is the best chance to reach a huge audience about the tunnel study. Fair-and-square C. R. Douglas, the Seattle Channel's lead political anchor, invited the state secretary of transportation, the project managers on the tunnel project, and the eight tunnel supporters on the Seattle City Council.
All of them—after consulting each other—refused to show up.
Why won't the council members or the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) talk about their own project?
"WSDOT declined to participate in a debate about the tunnel because we are in the middle of a public comment period," said WSDOT spokeswoman Amy Grotefendt (emphasis added). So let's get this straight: Nobody at the state will show up at a public forum and answer questions from the public during an open public debate because the state is in the middle of the public comment period?
Grotefendt defended the state by pointing to three "public hearings" that provided the "opportunity for the public to tell us what they think."
I went to one of these public hearings.
It was held in a big room at Plymouth Church on November 18—one block from Town Hall—and there were 11 state employees in attendance and only four members of the public. (It turns out, among all the three meetings, only 100 people showed up.)
Twenty-three colorful boards were set out on easels around the room. But not one of the boards explained that most drivers wouldn't be using the $4 billion tunnel. It was possible to read every display in this big, empty room and never know that the tunnel doesn't do the only job it is designed to do: move people and cars along Highway 99.
One signboard suggested that tolling might divert more traffic to city streets, but it didn't make it clear that tolls must be charged in order to build the tunnel. And while one signboard indicated that 46,000 vehicles a day were predicted to use the tunnel, not one signboard indicated that 110,000 vehicles a day currently use the viaduct—so there was no way for a member of the public to figure out that the state's plan would shove 64,000 vehicle trips per day off Highway 99 and onto clogged city streets.
"We can't have every detail on the boards," said KaDeena Yerkan, a WSDOT consultant, when asked why the primary transportation impacts of a transportation project weren't detailed. "We tried to put things on the boards that we thought people would be interested in, like how you would build the tunnel." She said people could ask any question and the state "experts" in attendance would answer.
How could attendees know what to ask? For instance, how would they even know what's buried in the report if it's not presented at the public hearing?
"People could potentially read the material online in the document or they could read articles in the newspaper," she said.
Another state employee, Angela Freudenstein, said, "Our hope is that people can come here and get informed about what we are doing."
Valerie and David Enger attended one of the state's public hearings. Asked as they were leaving what they learned about the tunnel's traffic impacts, David said, "I have not studied their numbers."
And those numbers—buried in the report—weren't displayed on any of the "informational" signboards. You could find them only if you opened the report and looked at the fine print in chapter 9. Even then, you'd have to extract numbers from different chapters of the 258-page report and do some math—and know what numbers you're looking for—in order to make sense of them.
"They are obviously putting their best face forward," Valerie said.
And putting their best face forward requires avoiding rooms filled with people who know anything about the tunnel. Unlike the state's sham public hearings, the upcoming Town Hall forum is likely to be filled with people who know about the tunnel.
Council Member Mike O'Brien, who was on the state's official stakeholders group that recommended a surface/transit alternative in 2008 (but the state went with a tunnel anyway), will be attending the Town Hall forum. O'Brien has also read the entire state tunnel study (called a Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement, or SDEIS for short), and he knows about the problems with it.
O'Brien will explain other portions of the SDEIS that the state wants to keep quiet: The project will create only 480 temporary jobs, which isn't a lot for the $3.1 billion the state is spending; the Western Building and Polson Building face "the need for demolition to avoid the possibility of collapse"; an extra 40,000 vehicles a day would attempt to pass through the already jammed streets of Pioneer Square; and lots more.
Doesn't the Seattle City Council, which passed a resolution to approve the tunnel contracts in January or February, want to talk with citizens about whether the tunnel makes sense during the comment period?
"I don't know that we need a public forum with the mayor to discuss the SDEIS," said council spokeswoman Laura Lockard, explaining why other council members are boycotting the Town Hall event. The council has no hearing scheduled on the tunnel. In other words, not everyone on the forum panel (including tunnel critic Mayor Mike McGinn) thinks the tunnel study shows a rosy return on investment—and tunnel backers "don't know that we need" the public to be informed by critics of the plan.
When asked personally, Tom Rasmussen, chair of the Seattle City Council's Transportation Committee, said that he can't speak at Town Hall about the state's report because "I have only read the first page."
He must be an awfully slow reader.
The state provided the city advance copies of the study this spring, again (in more complete form) in September, and (in final form) in October. The Stranger posted copies of a draft (obtained from a public records request) in July, O'Brien sent comments about that draft to all of his colleagues in midsummer, and several groups have been sending letters to the entire city council about it since last winter.
"Letters in the past year have been raising all of these issues, telling them what to watch out for," said People's Waterfront Coalition director Cary Moon. "It's unconscionable for him to pretend like he's not aware of the serious risks."
The SDEIS details the city's biggest transportation project, and Rasmussen—again, the transportation chair of the city council—hasn't read it. But he has, since it's been available, voted to pass a resolution to let the state build the tunnel and for the city to chip in $930 million, and potentially much, much more if this project, like all megaprojects, runs over budget.
"My primary interest is to protect Seattle's interest," Rasmussen said.
"If this is his watching out for our interests, we're in deep shit," said Moon.
Show up to the forum at Town Hall, hear about the stuff they're not telling you, and fill out a public-comment form. We'll send it in to the state. (Wed Dec 1, Town Hall, 7:30 pm.)