A coalition of social and environmental leaders filed paperwork with election officials last week launching a campaign for a city initiative on the proposed deep-bore tunnel. Calling itself Move Seattle Smarter—a name reminiscent of this campaign song last year—the group intends to let voters decide if Seattle taxpayers need more protection from potential cost overruns before allowing construction to begin.
"We believe that we are about a week away from filing our initiative," says Tim Harris, a board member and director of Real Change News.
The petition's exact language remains under wraps, Harris says, but it will attempt to leverage the city's power to make sure local taxpayers don't get stuck with an unexpected bill. "We believe there is a legal mechanism we can affect through the initiative process that will hold up to a legal challenge that will force the state to meet conditions around transparency and cost overruns," he says.
The group is working with attorney Knoll Lowney, who has been involved with several city initiatives over the last decade.
At issue is the now-notorious state law that says the legislature intends to collect money for overruns on the $4.2 billion project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct from Seattle area property owners. Megaprojects like this tunnel typically run about 34 percent over budget, and the state, before even accepting bids, has given away roughly two-thirds of its overrun contingency fund to the teams vying to build the tunnel.
Another sticking point: The mostly pro-tunnel Seattle City Council and state highway officials have been dodging public discussion on the tunnel. The council has resolved to approve contracts to let construction begin, but the council president Richard Conlin refused to debate the tunnel in summer, and this fall, the council's spokeswoman said the council members have decided not to discuss new information at a Town Hall. The latter forum will address the state's recent report that shows most of the 110,000 trips on the viaduct per day currently would be diverted to city streets if we build the tunnel; the city has and state have no plan or money to mitigate that additional traffic.
The initiative would require nearly 20,000 signatures to make the ballot and, if it qualifies, would likely go before voters next fall. That's after the council is slated to approve contracts for the tunnel and after the state's final point of decision next summer. So is fall too late for a ballot measure to have an impact? Again, Harris insists, "We have a legal mechanism that is going to hold up to a challenge."
He says there's money and organizing might for the campaign. The board includes members of the local chapter of the Sierra Club—which held sway in defeating the Roads and Transit measure in 2007—and the United Africans Public Affairs Committee. "Private donors have committed to this project," Harris says.