Viaduct photo from the Seattle P-I
Viaduct photo from the Seattle P-I

Something that has frustrated me recently is the theme I hear from some politicians and commenters who say that the debate over the SR-99 tunnel replacement for the Viaduct is over. After all, our leaders decided back in January that we’d have a tunnel. This continued bickering is just another example of the Seattle Process.

When “bickering” reaches the point of a serious primary challenge, though, that means the debate isn’t over. Far from it.

When McGinn came to the blog meet-up last week, I was moved by some of his populist appeals. Politicians don’t tell us when the debate is over. They don’t threaten to withhold state money to get their way. They don’t move the city in a direction that we don’t want them to. That’s not their job. We don’t answer to them, they answer to us. I’ll admit, McGinn’s stump speech struck a chord with me.

It’s true that transit advocates should worry gravely about McGinn’s misplaced softness on rail transit (he’s wrong, it can’t wait). And it’s true that opposing a tunnel doesn’t mean that McGinn will be a functional mayor. We can argue his candidacy, but we can’t argue that he has renewed discussion about the tunnel and whether it’s really the agreement that Seattle should be a party to. How can one see an image like this and think the debate’s over?

63 Replies to “The Tunnel Debate Isn’t Over”

      1. Haha, yeah, McGinn doesn’t have the money to commission robocalls. We do call people, but every call is from a live person, and volunteers are instructed to talk up McGinn, not talk down other candidates.

  1. This isn’t good journalism. The tunnel debate’s not over because McGinn says it isn’t?

    Can you tell us what Obama things about Health Care reform too?

    1. The tunnel debate isn’t over because we don’t know even the ballpark for the costs and because legally WSDOT can’t choose a preferred alternative yet?

    1. I agree. I suggest searching Twitter for “BART” and reading lots of interesting real-time commentary.

  2. One problem with Mike McGinn’s plan is that the viaduct is a State road. State Goverment, rightly or wrongly, gets the final say. I myself, am against both the tunnel and surfase roads. I think that the current viaduct should be stregnthen. that way people will not be displaced to much by construction.

    1. That’s only true to a point… they’re asking us to pay $930 million in new taxes and to cover cost overruns. If the state wants to truly pay for the whole thing, fine… but otherwise, we have a say. And by we, I mean the people, not just Mayor McCheese.

  3. When does debate end? No matter what replaces the viaduct, there will be group of people that is unhappy with it. So at what point do you say that the time for consensus building is over, and it’s just time to move on? I don’t think you can ever move on and call something final if every decision must be constantly second-guessed.

    1. Here the debate never ends. There are people who still complain about Safeco field ten years on. 20+ years later the I-90 debate is still going and 40 years later people still complain about forward thrust.

      1. Quite so and both stadiums are great. In Seattle, not only does everyone have to have their say, but they are given a chance to revise their first opinion with a second one that may or may not concur with the first one!

    2. Thank you! I agree totally. The tunnel is over and done with for me, Yes, John, politicians are responsible to us, but at the same time, democracy is a contract between politician and voter and each side gives up something. The politician gives up dictatorial arrogance, while the voter delegates day-to-day running of governing and doesn’t second guess everything when he or she feels like it.

      As for McGinn, he just wants to be mayor and he has chosen the tunnel issue as his best way to unseat the current mayor. Call it politics or mischief making.

      1. I wouldn’t hold my breath until at least the Final EIS is issued and the dust settles from any lawsuits to stop the tunnel (and there will be some, especially if the state tries to ram the EIS through). Oh and the engineering is at least to 30% and the money is in place to pay for the damn thing.

    3. I would agree with you if what we were planning to build was the choice that there was consensus around. The tunnel . . . ain’t that.

    4. @Ryan

      “When does the debate end?”

      When something that was denounced by 70% of the voting citizens is still moving foward, then the debate will not end.

      I agree, if a minority is against something happenening, there is a time eventually to allow a process to move forward, but when not just a majority, but a MAJOR majority is against something, the debate must continue.

  4. There is still roughly 1.4 billion dollars that has yet to be raised to fund the tunnel. To me that says that the debate is not yet done.

    1. I think all the money needs to be raised. it’s not like it’s sitting in a trust somewhere. In fact, ST2 needs its money to be raised, too. I pray to god that debate’s over.

      1. Uh, we already approved those taxes. These tunnel taxes are totally speculative. Waiting on some federal grants is not the same thing as waiting for the political will to enact the largest tax increase in city history.

      2. That “largest tax increase” line is false: the monorail tax was way bigger.

        I’m just saying “the money needs to be raised” isn’t a great argument, as the previous post points out, even in the surface/transit world, new money needs to be raised.

      3. I see what you’re say but I think that it is a little different to say that the money has yet to be collected vs the port of seattle, city of seattle, and WSDOT need to raise funds through unusual sources. The port, who is dying right now is on the hook for 300 million, the city has to up the parking tax among other taxes. After this parking tax in the city will be over 30% o think. And WSDOT’s extra funding is coming from tolls at a yet to be determined rate and location.

        Those are a lot of complication. For example what if the tolling study comes back and says that I-5 has to be tolled to raise enough funds. What happens then? This is a much larger problem that sales tax coming in slower than expected. It is a deal breaker.

  5. Well duh! The only people complaining are those that didn’t get their way. The debate isn’t over to them. The rest of us are ready to see this project get underway.

    When is this blog going to get back to transit? Yes I know roads are one of the things transportation operates on, but is news really that dull that we have to start vocalizing all the anti-tunnel debates? And can’t this blog be two sided?

    1. Yeah, that 70 percent that is against the tunnel should just shut up already… they’re totally in the minority.

    2. I always thought the STB blog was on the side of the tunnel – we so tantalizingly came together in agreeing officially on something and then comes along Mr McGinn to tell us that we are all wrong. Is politics in Washington to be forever decided by the likes of those like Mr. McGinn or Tim Eyman. I’d rather have a vote on being able to keep the second 787 production line in Everett than I would have a further discussion on the tunnel. It would have more repercussions.

      Look, if the City, County and State had agreed on a surface option for replacing the viaduct, I would have agreed with that. This isn’t just about whether we should have a tunnel or a street, but how we want to govern ourselves or let ourselves be governed. I am tired of Tim Eyman and his ilk coming along every year with some stupid initiative challenging this aspect or that of governing Washington. What use elections, if we also have direct ancient Athenian style democracy.

      If the City, State and County can find the money for the tunnel, let them go ahead with it. If they can’t then let them provide an option they can afford. We should however, at least give them a chance.

      1. Surely people an let themselves be governed until a point. They have to be happy with the governance.

      2. “Look, if the City, County and State had agreed on a surface option for replacing the viaduct, I would have agreed with that.”

        Well . . . they did. That third column in the “McGinn Response” post? That’s SDOT and WSDOT’s combined, approved plan for a surface/transit option.

      3. By what metric is it better? It’s worse on all the metrics that the law says we need to care about.

      4. The Tunnel decision IS relevant to this blog… because we’re going to have an awfully hard time passing ST3 if all of our excess taxing authority in the city, county, and port are wrapped up in paying for this boondoggle.

      5. Why is it a boondoggle?

        If the various taxing authorities can pay for this thing, then let them get on with it. It has been an eight year discussion and longer if you count all the years people had to look at the existing monstrosity and weep over it.

      6. Which is why I devoted all day yesterday to trying to figure out if the surface/transit option is actually any cheaper for the City.

      7. It’s not just a comparison of costs, Martin….

        For example, work needs to be done on I-5 in the next 10 years or so, no matter what. If it’s included as part of a surface option, then it’s already covered. If not, then that’s one more project out there in search of funding post-tunnel.

        And, as I have said before, the Bored Tunnel proposal is less than 5% engineered so far. The opportunity for cost overruns is huge, while the risks for overruns on projects that are mostly occurring at-grade is much, much lower.

        That doesn’t even address the issue that the tunnel fails to solve a number of problems with moving people and goods through the corridor.

      8. Sure, there are other arguments, but your specific point is that all our resources are going to be tied up in this. I’m trying to figure out the known parameters of that case; what’s unknowable is the size of the overruns, who really pays for them, and what the state will go along with.

  6. John,
    Can you link to some evidence that McGinn ever said that light-rail could “wait”? That’s not the impression that I got when I saw him speak earlier this week.

    1. In the post immediately preceding this one, McGinn wrote to us and said, “I see streetcar expansion and light rail expansion in the city as desirable when we improve transportation financing regionally and statewide.” That sounds like an admirable goal, but Nickels is an advocate of rail without a “when.”

      1. I think this is a moot point. Unless he gets 4 terms, he won’t even get to have a say in new light rail planning: ST2 covers in-city rail planning and funding until 2020, right? U-Link and North gate are planned and environmentally reviewed, so I don’t think we have to worry about rail expansion stopping.

      2. That makes sense to me, too… I won’t support any further streetcar or light rail expansion while bus agencies in the region are losing revenue and making service cuts.

      3. Metro’s budget problems are going to extend far into the future. Light rail is the only thing that’s going to break us out of the death spiral of bus operating costs.

      4. I won’t support any further streetcar or light rail expansion while bus agencies in the region are losing revenue and making service cuts.

        Then you’re not going to support streetcars or light rail for a least another dozen years.

        Which is a shame, since building efficient LRT trunk lines is really the only way to free service hours for new routes.

      5. This really deserves a post, but you assume that ST is crisis-free over that time. Although I believe ST is a relatively well-managed agency, that doesn’t really fit with the history of transit in this region, nor does it account for several external factors that cause grief for rail expansion.

      6. You guys are kidding yourselves, then…

        Light rail cannot function to its best purpose if you don’t have good bus service available to get people to/from your rail spines. Especially when the density is not yet here to serve it.

        Are you planning on building parking lots next to every new station?

      7. The 1st Ave streetcar connects a significant amount of density to light rail. Even expanded light rail connects people to light rail. We all know that buses serve a valuable purpose in a transit network. But so does rail. And as Andrew Smith noted, since rail is generally faster and has higher capacity we free up service hours for other routes.

        We know that Metro is ran by the county and its funding sources come from the county tax base. There is a difference between investing $135 million of city money into a streetcar and investing that same amount in bus service. The difference is that after a few years that “investment” disappears for bus service — it mostly goes into operations & vehicle maintenance. You’re going to have to fund it on an on-going basis or face service cuts in a handful of years. So what on-going revenue source have we identified for picking up the county’s shortfalls?

        Buses are necessary and a great alternative to driving, I agree. I use buses to get almost everywhere. But let’s look at the long-term picture. Rail is cheaper to operate, has higher capacity, drives density, is more comfortable ride, is easier to rider, and is emissions free. (And remember the first hints of Metro’s budget shortfall came not from sales tax revenue problems, but from skyrocketing diesel prices.)

      8. In potential funding scenarios the actual city capital cost is as little as $10 million for the 1st Ave streetcar. That’s dependent on LID passage and some innovative funding sources (think sponsorships, naming rights, ads). The LID in particular is iffy right now but one can hope.

      9. “Transportation funding regionally and statewide
        That sounds like an allusion to the tunnel that McGinn opposes. This may be worth a follow up–McGinn might have thought he was being clever, and failed to realize that he was sacrificing clarity for wit.

  7. Well, one thing seems certain- everyone who hates the tunnel will vote for McGinn. The primary will be an instant straw poll on the tunnel, and I’m guessing the tunnel-haters will be lucky to break 30%.

    But who knows- this is Seattle, and the non=partisan civic government pretty much opens the door to a string of single-issue mayors.

    1. On the other hand 25-30% might be enough to put one in the top 2. I’d say McGinn stands a fair chance of making it into the general. On the other hand there is also a chance that like Schell, Nickels will be defeated in the primary.

      If it comes down to McGinn vs. Mallahan who is really going to be better from a transit and land use perspective?

  8. If you want to know when the debate will end, you need a refresher on Washington State political philosophy, e.g. from the Open Public Meetings Act that set up many of the open and endless public debates we see today:

    The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.

    There it is, confirmed repeatedly over almost 40 years by the State Supreme Court: The people do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them.

    In other words, the debate will be over when the debate ends of its own, not before.

  9. McGinn’s pro-roads stance seems to completely belie his “green” facade. Widening I-5 was last proposed by the likes of Tim Eyman, and was thoroughly debunked as something that would do much more than throw dollars out the window without helping traffic.

    Also, throwing more buses at city streets while disabling their ability to get around will likely negatively affect ridership. Northwest and West Seattle will find it takes much longer to get to work via bus, but of course they aren’t as voter-dense as Capitol Hill and Queen Anne. And without an advocate for transit other than buses, people living outside those nearby neighborhoods will find themselves high and dry.

    The fact that no one has recognized this (or chooses to ignore it due to an irrational hatred for tunnels or the ingrained, automatic Seattle response of “no” to large capital projects) makes me seriously question the credibility of anyone who has endorsed him.

    In fact, the ONLY winners in McGinn’s one-note platform are bike riders. However, I would not predict that this will turn us into a city of cyclists, and DO predict that there would be a long, long hangover after a “let’s kill the viaduct” party.

    And making this a “will of the people vs. mean overlords” issue is kind of petulant. Feeling like you’ve won something doesn’t help people move around the city. Our founding fathers created a REPRESENTATIVE democracy, and griping about exactly what a semi-related vote meant (“we were against the theory of putting things under the ground”??) is IMO sour grapes.

    1. This is what you find when you look at McGinn’s website or hear his ‘explanations’- more and better surface roads moving more traffic.

      There is no big ‘bus plan’. We’ve all known for years that some buses are full and some are empty. In fact, adding bus service just destabilizes a transit agency, and the more you add, the less stable the agency becomes. This has happened since the development of the bus, and the exceptions are so rare as to definitely prove the rule.

      McGinn has simply never thought seriously about transportation policy. Watching him interface with the industry and policy makers would be, how else can I say it, a trainwreck.

      1. All true–but also true of the other side. “We must have a downtown bypass” is no more of a serious transportation policy, and it’s a lot more expensive.

        I have a hard time believing McGinn could do any worse for KC Metro, and he’s at least proposed to have SDOT find ways to help Metro buses (as Nickels is doing for the streetcar by closing a couple blocks of Westlake to auto traffic).

  10. It is clear that McGinn is perceived as all about opposing the tunnel. If he wins, which is unlikely, he’d be a Mayor who throws up roadblocks to spending money that’s not within his control, I guess. The state controls the purse strings on the state facility. The debate over the past several years has already demonstrated that McGinn will lose and the deep bore will be built.

    The only thing he could probably succeed at is delay, which would simply drive up costs and divert the civic discourse into another round of wasteful dither.

    Don’t we need a Mayor who is focused on what’s next? Is opposition to the tunnel really what we want the City of Seattle to focus on for the next four years?

    This City will continue to grow. We’ll need a much better transit system to get around, not just in Seattle but across the entire county and beyond. That will be a big lift that will require leadership within the City, working with the County, and support from Olympia powers.

    Why elect someone who starts this necessary work on a losing battle that launching a new City administration committed to launching into a losing battle that alienates everyone who we’ll need to do something real?

    If McGinn wins, does Frank Chopp emerge again with his Viaduct proposal? Do the people who have passion for retrofit re-engage? Do we get more drawings of bridging Elliott Bay? Do we get the old tunnel ideas back? Do businesses along the waterfront live in more fear of ruin for more years? Does the waterfront become vacant while we wait for the dithering to end?

    We won’t get the surface option McGinn advocates. The only thing we get, for sure, is a big ugly barrier between the City and the waterfront for more of our lives. Along with a silly sideshow that diverts time and resources from doing more important things.

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