The State of Washington’s project to replace the aging, crumbling Alaskan Way Viaduct has just received its final political green light.
After enduring several months of debates, forums, and advertisements, Seattle voters have resoundingly chosen to bless the construction of a deep bore tunnel under downtown. Early returns indicate a landslide victory for Let’s Move Forward, the pro-tunnel campaign, which is commanding almost 60% of the vote.
The news was almost immediately welcomed by Governor Chris Gregoire, who has been defending the state’s decision to move forward with the tunnel for months.
“Seattle voters sent a message loud and clear with this vote – enough is enough,” the governor said in a statement.
“After ten years of debate, hundreds of public meetings and technical studies, and thousands of public comments, it is time to move forward without delay.”
“We are committed to this partnership and will continue to work with the public, the city of Seattle, King County, Port of Seattle, the contractors and many others to ensure that we complete the tunnel on time and on budget,” the governor added.
The lopsided returns seemed to catch the anti-tunnel campaign, Protect Seattle Now, off-guard. As of 10:30 PM, NPI had yet to receive an official statement from the campaign commenting on the results via e-mail.
The campaign has, however, have admitted defeat to reporters who are at its party. (The scene there has been described as subdued, and I don’t doubt that’s the case). Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, whose supporters helped engineer the referendum, was not at the Havana tonight, but his ally on the city council, Mike O’Brien, was, along with many of McGinn’s own staff.
O’Brien, at least, was gracious in defeat, acknowledging that voters had spoken decisively and that the project now needed to go forward.
For his part, McGinn issued a terse statement moments ago which simply read, “I worked to give the public a direct vote on the tunnel. The public said move ahead with the tunnel, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Actually, McGinn did more than attempt to give his constituents a chance to weigh in: he tried to persuade Seattle to join him in condemning the project so he would have ammunition for future battles with the City Council and regional leaders.
But the vote he and his supporters engineered has backfired.
Instead of giving him the political cover he wanted to continue his onslaught against the tunnel, Seattle has blessed the effort to build it.
McGinn and O’Brien have suggested for some time that their colleagues (the eight Seattle City Councilmembers who support the tunnel) were out of touch with the people they represent. But now they’re the ones who look out of touch. They staked a lot on this referendum, and they lost big.
It is true that they were outspent, but that’s not the reason they lost (they were very visible despite having less money). They lost because they misread the electorate. They campaigned confidently and forcefully, but their enthusiasm was more impressive than their arguments. I witnessed this myself when I attended a CityClub forum on Referendum 1 a couple weeks ago.
I felt Mike O’Brien (who spoke for Protect Seattle Now) showed more passion in attacking the tunnel than Kate Joncas (who spoke for Let’s Move Forward) did in defending it. On that score, he won. He appeared more adept and sounded more polished. But while his energy and passion made him seem like the more effective debater, the points he made just weren’t that compelling.
He tacitly admitted that Protect Seattle Now was trying to use the referendum to start the process of deciding what to do with the viaduct all over again. He hurt his own cause by inviting his constituents to imagine another decade of bickering over the viaduct at the local, regional, and state levels.
And he never presented a concrete alternative to the deep-bore tunnel. He failed to answer the question, If not this, then what?
All he had to offer was a well-rehearsed critique of what the state, the region, and his eight other colleagues on the city council have already committed to.
I was left thinking, Why don’t you just direct your energy towards trying to improve this project? Get the Legislature to approve the transit funding that’s supposed to be in the plan. Hold WSDOT to its promises. Look out for city taxpayers. But watchdog the tunnel instead of trying to kill it.
For too long, McGinn, O’Brien, and their supporters have allowed themselves to be distracted from a great many other pressing issues because they have been so fixated on trying to undo the tunnel. As a consequence, I sense that many people view them more as critics than as leaders.
They have an opportunity now to reverse this unfair characterization by directing their energy towards more fruitful endeavors… like expanding Seattle’s streetcar network, or working on replacing the decaying waterfront seawall.
The tunnel is ultimately the state’s responsibility, not the city’s. The city certainly must and should be involved. But this project shouldn’t have a monopoly on Seattle’s political oxygen. The city faces many other problems that it needs its elected representatives – including Mayor McGinn – to solve. Hopefully, some of the other problems will now begin to receive more attention.