On January 2, Mayor Ed Murray floated a curious proposition: If voters come to see Bertha as doomed and our downtown tunnel project as screwed, could future tunnels through downtown also be screwed?
In a phone call to The Stranger, the mayor explained his concerns: "My fear around Bertha isn't so much that the current tunnel can't be built, but I believe [its failure] will kill any opportunity to build a fourth tunnel through Seattle."
Wait. What? A fourth tunnel through Seattle? Turns out that when Murray, in the midst of the Bertha debacle, raised dreams of another major tunnel under downtown, he was talking about a tunnel for light rail. "The ultimate answer to transit through downtown Seattle is for light rail to come through downtown Seattle from West Seattle or Ballard," Murray said.
That much made sense. Seattle desperately needs more mass transit, and regional voters agree that expanding light rail should be a top priority. Sound Transit, the agency that can tax the region and serve up ballot proposals to expand light rail, has for months been exploring early proposals for building another transit tunnel through downtown. Sound Transit board members are considering light rail connections outside of Seattle, too. And the mayor, along with Council Member Mike O'Brien, sits on the Sound Transit board.
But could collective angst around Bertha really trash the opportunity to build a future transit tunnel that would fulfill the dream of light rail between downtown, Ballard, and West Seattle? To some, it seemed like the mayor was making a calculated play to get transit advocates on board with Bertha's car-tunnel program. After all, his statements could be read, essentially, as a light rail hostage situation. Tracks tied to the tracks, or something.
"This feels like a political move to try and get buy-in from transit supporters," Sightline Institute research director Clark Williams-Derry said. "It's like saying because we can't have apples, we can't have oranges either."
The story of how Seattle came to have any oranges—er, light rail—begins in the early '90s. Back then, the Washington State Legislature set about creating a regional transit authority for Snohomish, Pierce, and King Counties. By 1994, that transit authority had come up with a bus and rail plan to put before voters. And yet it was a rocky time for getting the public on board. A few months later, voters rejected the ballot proposal.
The regional transit authority regrouped, scaled down the extent of the plan, and tried again. In 1996, it worked. Voters in the three counties approved local sales and motor vehicle excise taxes to build Sound Move, a decade-long, $3.9 billion proposal for regional transit. Over the next 10 years, "Sound Transit," the new name for the agency, built out Sound Move, adding buses, commuter rail, and light rail.
By 2007, Sound Transit decided to re-up and get new permission from the state for more local taxes. The board had agreed it wanted to put another plan in front of voters called Sound Transit 2, which would have extended light rail by 50 miles and added all sorts of other transit amenities. But then the state butted in. It tacked on billions of dollars in new road and highway projects to the ballot proposal. The name of the new Frankensausage? Roads and Transit.
Council Member Mike O'Brien, then head of the local Sierra Club chapter, opposed the initiative. Anti-transit activists did, too, and surprise: It failed. But when offered to voters without roads the next year (a presidential election year), it passed.
Now, Sound Transit's in a position where it wants to expand light rail again. In November of 2012, the Sound Transit board started tossing around ideas about what that might look like. By the end of 2014, Sound Transit had completed a long-range plan and several corridor studies that featured light rail. One of them looked at light rail from West Seattle to downtown, and another looked at a downtown connection to Ballard.
That's what the mayor was referencing when he talked, in the context of Bertha's troubles, about light rail from West Seattle or Ballard. And if Sound Transit wants to build light rail soon, its best bet is to throw the option on a presidential-election-year ballot, since that's when Sound Transit's ballots have worked in the past (partly because it's when younger and more liberal voters show up). The next opportunity for that comes in 2016, but there's no guarantee that the light rail options the mayor spoke of will end up on that ballot.
"It's really just too early to tell," Rachel Smith, director of government relations for King County Executive (and Sound Transit chairman) Dow Constantine said.
Given this, should Bertha tunnel's completion and Sound Transit's ability to build more light rail actually be linked? Here's where it gets weird.
Spatially, the two are definitely not linked. Bertha's on the waterfront, and Sound Transit's early light rail tunnel ideas go beneath Fourth, Fifth, or Sixth Avenue. That's nowhere near the Bertha tunnel.
Light rail tunnels are also smaller in diameter than car tunnels, and in theory easier to build. Sound Transit's never built a tunnel downtown (only repurposed an existing one for buses), but it does have a proven track record in building them elsewhere. Its current light rail project linking Capitol Hill and the University District is $150 million under budget and months ahead of schedule.
The mayor's comments, however, did suggest that Bertha and a new downtown transit tunnel could be linked in voters' brains, somehow.
So, a few days after the mayor's first phone call, I called him back to ask how exactly, in his mind, this Bertha-transit linkage he was trying to warn about actually worked. Murray said that if voters from all three counties have to agree to finance (another) downtown Seattle tunnel after a Bertha failure, it could get messy.
"I'm concerned that if this tunnel is unable to proceed, and when we go to the voters and ask if there's a decision to include a [light rail] tunnel—and that's a big 'if'—I'm just concerned that would become a huge political issue," he said.
But why would voters be unable to separate one type of tunnel from another?
It's not that they couldn't, the mayor said. Then he declined to explain why they might.
It's not totally unreasonable to assume that some voters would be spooked by another big tunnel project after a Bertha failure. But that line of thinking also assumes that voters are too scared or too stupid to vote for something they otherwise overwhelmingly support. A Sound Transit poll from last summer shows that voters in three out of five Sound Transit subareas mark light rail as their first priority. According to the poll, those voters especially like "projects that connect parts of Seattle, or connect Seattle to the Eastside."
Presented with this context, the mayor, who was battling the flu when we spoke, changed his mind. "The more I think about this, I don't believe the potential failure of Bertha will have any effect on Sound Transit," he said. (Later, in a statement, a spokesman for the mayor said that Murray is, in fact, "concerned that if the highest-profile transportation project in the city fails, it undermines confidence in government and will have an impact on our ability to move forward on future Sound Transit light rail investments." So, you know, he has a lot of opinions on the matter.)
Earlier in our conversation, the mayor also dismissed the idea, advanced in comments on The Stranger's website, that his statements about Bertha and light rail were a coy attempt to join some pro-transit and pro-Bertha camps together like backwards magnets. "I realize that nothing I can do is correct with The Stranger," he added.
But the mayor's changes of mind and under-the-weather feelings aside, there is a possible link between Bertha and Sound Transit. Maybe, in this next legislative session, legislators will tie Sound Transit's taxing authority to some bigger transportation package. And maybe, because the public has started losing faith in the state's ability to get major transportation projects done—from the 520 bridge rebuild to the downtown tunnel to the Columbia River crossing—that pessimism, which would only be heightened by a Bertha failure, could end up jeopardizing the new transportation package and thereby doom the light rail expansion Seattle needs.
But in the end, legislators could screw over Sound Transit for a lot of reasons—Bertha, maybe, or because rural Republican legislators just hate Seattle and love cars, or hell, just because they feel like it. In sum, there could be a link between Bertha's failure and a grim future for Seattle's desired light rail expansions. But it's not exactly the one the mayor initially suggested.
So maybe the mayor really can predict the future, in a roundabout way. Or maybe he was just having a fever dream.