Skip to content

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.)