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Do What You Have To Do

2011 March 20
by dan bertolet


< Downtown Seattle and the beloved Alaskan Way Viaduct; Photo: Dan Bertolet >

Start with two knowns:

  1. If our goal is to create a Seattle fit to thrive through the coming century, the deep-bore tunnel is a bad investment.
  2. Relying on public referendums to make important, complex public policy decisions is usually a bad idea.

So then, what about a referendum to kill the deep-bore tunnel? My short answer: Number 1 trumps number 2. When, as in the case of the tunnel, there is so much at stake, you do what you have to do. You use every available strategy. You make no apologies.

Has there been too much process already, and should we just move on, as the tunnel boosters endlessly howl? No! The tunnel is a 100-year decision. New scientific data tells us that the climate change crisis is escalating more rapidly than anyone anticipated. New demographic data tells us that more and more people want to escape car-dependence. We can afford more time to make sure we don’t make a massive mistake with how we invest our dwindling public funds.

And no, this is not about sour grapes. This is about having strong convictions and not giving up. The people who are supporting the initiative—most notably Mayor McGinn and Councilmember O’Brien—have been consistent about their opposition to the tunnel since day one.

I suspect that in recent months some tunnel opponents have begun to feel like it’s futile to fight it any longer (me, for instance). But no folks, this isn’t over. And currently, the most important battle in the war is the initiative effort. There’s a week left. Do it.


Spending billions on a 2-mile-long underground bypass freeway for cars when we are facing the prospect of catastrophic climate change and we know that road vehicles are the region’s single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, when road building only further locks us into car-dependence, is quite simply, insane.

But is putting the question to a popular vote any less crazy?

Ideally, a complex, long-term, transformational transportation project like the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement should not be subject to the vagaries of a public vote. It is a decision that should come from visionary leaders driven by concern over the long-term greater good, grounded on the input of experts with a clear grasp of critical future trends.

In my view, a choice made with that perspective would have an obvious answer: the I-5/Surface/Transit alternative, as I have argued previously. But if we had a three-way run-off vote between the deep-bore tunnel, a new elevated highway, and I-5/Surface/Transit, the latter would likely come in last, simply because so many people have incorrect, knee-jerk attitudes that it could never handle the traffic—and nothing is more universally loathed than traffic jams.

While the majority of the public has the best intentions, the fact is that most are not engaged enough to appreciate the complex interplay between transportation investments, land use, car-dependence, greenhouse gas emissions, and urban livability. In short, car culture still rules the day, even in “green” Seattle.

Fortunately for the anti-tunnel crowd, the initiative being called for by Protect Seattle Now focuses on the humongous cost of the tunnel, and on the question of who pays if it ends up costing more than anticipated. Perhaps even more importantly than the sustainability angle, it taps into people’s passion over fairness, and their hostility to being bullied (i.e. by the State).

Mayor McGinn, who is supporting the Protect Seattle Now initiative on his own time, has demonstrated good instincts on referendums in the past, scoring big wins on the 2007 Roads and Transit initiative, and the 2008 Seattle Parks Levy. Mr. McGinn has a way of sneaking up and surprising people. Remember when he got elected Mayor? With a campaign that revolved around opposition to the deep-bore tunnel?

Ultimately, rapid and meaningful progress on transforming Seattle into a sustainable, carbon-efficient city is  going to take more than referendums. Success will hinge on inspired leaders sticking their necks out to shake up the status quo, while at the same convincing others to get on board. In other words, that magic combination of bold leadership and skillful politics.

But right now, for the deep-bore tunnel, the Protect Seattle Now referendum is the best shot we have.


(A final aside: I’m not too worried about the elevated coming back, because I am convinced that Seattleites would never allow it to happen. Consider all the current resistance to the tunnel and step that up an order of magnitude. It would not be unprecedented for a local movement to stop a freeway project.)

19 Responses leave one →
  1. March 20, 2011

    You know, I feel like we can use this momentum to finally break through the transit funding ceiling and get some things done around here.

  2. March 20, 2011

    I am one of those average citizens not engaged enough to understand “the complex interplay between transportation investments, land use, car-dependence, greenhouse gas emissions, and urban livability.” Agreed, public referendums on transportation and city planning seem inane.

    From a pure feelings standpoint: My gut instinct on this topic has remained unwavering: I personally would not want to be traveling (via train OR car) in an underground tunnel, next to or beneath Puget Sound, in the midst of a catastrophic earthquake (and earthquakes have a high likelihood of occurrence in Seattle).

    The strong opinions expressed above are, quite frankly, refreshing. Surely, pausing the project to take time to ascertain the most wise expense of public funds, will cost less in the long run. And surely, there must be a more logical answer for the future of the city; and enough local intellectual talent in the fields of urban planning and sustainability, to envision a better approach.

  3. March 21, 2011

    Is this just another anti-tunnel site?

    Or, are you going to bother to seek and post anything from the people who think that great cities are built when waterfronts embraced, not blighted with noise and traffic jams on waterfronts?

    Or, how about the idea that cities fail when they spend decades fighting about the future instead of doing anything about it – sending investment in cities to exurbs?

    Or, how about recognizing that a fight is over and spending time and resources on the best ways to capture the next wave of growth in the right places?

    Or, maybe having an original idea instead of carting out the old reliable tunnel bash?

    I was for the surface alternative too. It died for lack of support. The tunnel is the next best thing.

    For the good of the city, let’s get on with it.

    (It actually reduces the number of freeway lanes we have today and limits expansion. There’s no growth in Greenhouse gases. For the good of the earth’s climate, let’s put more jobs and people downtown now, not drive them away with endless fighting.)

    • dan bertolet permalink*
      March 21, 2011

      Who are you SM? Do you want to write a post on the tunnel for Citytank? Only with your real name though.

      The list of people I’ve invited to contribute to Citytank is a long one, and includes pro-tunnel people such as Dave Freiboth and Sally Bagshaw.

    • Anon (For fear of Bertolet reprisal) permalink
      March 22, 2011

      Yes, this is another anti-tunnel site. Mr. Bertolet no longer has vibrant discussions about zoning or architecture or city planning, as he did back in the glory days of hugeasscity.

      Instead, he rails against cars and anything relating to them. Sigh.

      I have an idea for your ilk: just do us all a favor and move to Portland since you hold that as the golden example of everything right with the world. Just don’t expect to find a job there. Unless, of course, you can make a living by riding a bike around or sitting on their pristine light rail trains.

  4. Jakers permalink
    March 21, 2011

    Everyone’s number one (no matter what it is) always trumps your number two.

    • Matthew 'Anc' Johnson permalink
      March 21, 2011

      True. However you have to work with the system you have. I say use the initiative process when you must, but also push to limit it/get rid of it.

  5. mars permalink
    March 21, 2011

    How is a surface option supporting the sustainable mission? Why would one want to see traffic on the waterfront? Wouldn’t the tunnel option provide more opportunity for pedestrian and a heightened bike culture at the waterfront? If the opposition is all about finances (which is the biggest rant I hear about), then it’s not forward thinking enough to stop the tunnel. These are all key arguments that tunnel opponents should be making more clear.

    Forget the budget – I want to hear more details about the alternative surface option. How is it to be ensured that we wont end up with an Aurora-like version on our beloved waterfront?

    I’m sick of the hold-up. Seattle wants traffic busters and mass transit options but NO ONE wants to PAY for them.

    • Wells permalink
      March 22, 2011

      The elimination of access to SR99 in Lower Belltown leads a long list of concerns that make the DBT engineering highly questionable. Redirecting traffic from the suitably commercial corridor of Elliott/Western through the unsuitably residential and pedestrian-oriented corridor of Mercer inconveniences a broad demographic of motorists and pedestrians.

      The additional traffic on Mercer will spill-over to Denny Way. Both thoroughfares traverse full, complex intersections with a high volume of traffic from side-streets. Elliott/Western has fewer intersections, many 1-sided, with much less side-street traffic. The number of stoplights between Mercer Place and SR99 via Elliott/Western is 7/9. Stoplights on the Mercer corridor to the DBT portal are 12/13, stoplights on the Denny Way corridor, 15/16. The ‘steep hill’ of Mercer Place must be widened and traffic there will become more hazardous. Widening Mercer will induce additional traffic between I-5 and Elliott.

      The Mercer Mess and Denny Way cannot handle more traffic. Engineering this questionable can lead anyone to the conclusion that strings are being pulled by the wealthy 1% who favor the DBT only because they don‘t realize the DBT benefits no one.

      The surface/transit option keeps traffic rolling through the most suitable corridor, including Alaskan Way which will more than triple anyway with the DBT. The surface/transit option has more potential to fix the mess of traffic downtown than the DBT. Wsdot is mostly to blame. Sdot is also responsible for their LOUSY work on Mercer West, AND, their design for Alaskan Way goes back to the drawing board BEFORE Waterfront redesign.

  6. March 21, 2011

    Please note, an initiative makes law where a referendum affects a law that is already made. Therefore it is a mistake to conflate the two, they are distinctly different in process and effect.

    In addition, PSN’s referendum is only one effort to stop the tunnel through the ballot box. I-101 is alive and well and progressing towards a vote.

  7. SuperSteve permalink
    March 21, 2011

    You can’t have a serious conversation if you begin with “two knowns” that are really two opinions.

    Do I agree with these opinions?

    I have mixed feelings on the first, and absolutely agree with the second – as opinions.

    But I have to admit that I stopped reading there for the same reason I don’t watch Fox News – I don’t see much value in listening to someone who expresses their personal perspective as an objective fact.

  8. Eric B permalink
    March 21, 2011

    Stopping the tunnel and getting surface/transit requires a public vote on the tunnel, and no public vote on surface/transit. You’ve come closer to saying this than any surface/transit advocate.

    I salute your candor.

  9. GregoryWade permalink
    March 21, 2011

    There has been too much process? Really? Please provide a time-line of events that represents a process.

    As I recall, there was an ambiguous, non-binding vote on a cut and cover tunnel and replacement elevated structure. The outcome was meaningless. Then the Discovery Institute presents the Deep Bore Tunnel on Crosscut Blog. In less than a year, the Mayor and Council move ahead with the deep bore. WSDOT even produces an animated video. Again, all in less than a year. As a note, the element of the Discovery Institute that presented this plan primarily deals with Regional Transportation issues, is financially backed by Vulcan and Microsoft, and not affiliated with Intelligent Design, at least to my knowledge. Correct me if I am wrong.

    I grew tired of the whole affair some time ago, but I’m certain about this fact, because I wasted too much time arguing about the bait and switch at the time. Talk about what ever you want, a lot of money will be wasted either way, but the financials simply DON’T work. I’m certain it WON’T get built. The problem with admitting the fact, is that a whole lot of Urbanisms pet ideas rely on many of the same financing assumptions as the tunnel advocates–whether its a clean energy build out, or rail transport build out, electric vehicle build out, or waterfront park,etc. Let’s get real–when employees are being laid off, services cut, and parks closed. The cost of gas alone is KILLING Metro. Wake up.

    • GregoryWade permalink
      March 21, 2011

      Or alternatively, the tunnel gets built to the exclusion of virtually everything else intended to mitigate the ills of Urban living.

  10. Sudden Nut permalink
    March 21, 2011

    I might be wrong, and I know the SDOT is exempt from it, but this seems to me to clearly be a case where the project runs afoul of the transportation concurrency requirement of the GMA. Is there any way we can get the GMA amended to require the SDOT to adhere to the same concurrency requirements that cities have to, at least for projects that take place entirely within a city’s borders?

  11. Wells permalink
    March 21, 2011

    The bored tunnel’s extreme risks are many, its engineering ludicrous, its environmental impact egregious! None of its questionable drawbacks are presented honestly to the public by government agencies and mainstream media. Battle lines drawn between supporters and opponents with a voter referendum underscores how Washington State and the City of Seattle DOTs behave more like rogue agencies serving automobile-related business interests rather than the public in our democratic process.

    Later this year, a supposedly final environmental impact statement for the DBT will be the topic of discussion. Instead of air pollution, traffic hazards, pedestrian fatalities and negative economic impact, it will be presented for discussion in terms of cotton candy and rainbows.

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