Tunnel Takes City Council Step Forward, Referendum Step Back

Seattle’s existing waterfront boulevard

This morning, “amid hoots and hollers,” the City Council overrode Mayor McGinn’s veto of agreements between the city and state to proceed on the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project. The vote was the anticipated 8-1, with hold-out Mike O’Brien saying, “I know I’m not going to convince any of you to change your vote…(but) the people of Seattle have a right to vote on it,” according to Seattlepi.com

To that end, O’Brien has asked the City Council to refer the agreements between the State of Washington and the City of Seattle to the ballot for a public vote in the August 2011 primary. He’s introducing this legislation at 2 p.m. this afternoon, and at around 2:01, there should be another 8-1 vote counted. UPDATE: It took ’til after 3 p.m., but it was 8-1 against O’Brien.

Meanwhile, two anti-tunnel groups have joined forces to put a referendum on the ballot. Protect Seattle Now will have 30 days, reports Dominic Holden, to gather 16,000 signatures. At the Council meeting, public comment ran two-to-one against the tunnel, and Nick Licata seemed to lose his temper. Reliably great commenter Baconcat provides this testimony: 

And you know what set Licata off the most?

He started in on “we don’t have anyone taking the lead –” and got interrupted by a shout of “then we’ll elect them!” 

He went beet red and said “THEN DO IT! THEN DO IT!”

Richard Conlin’s use of photos from the Loma Prieta quake, in a closing call for haste, reminded me that I’ve long meant to look more closely into the resistance to replacing the Embarcadero Freeway with a surface boulevard. Certain arguments for and against sound startlingly familiar. 480, as it was also known, carried about “60,000 cars and trucks per day to and from downtown” along its 1.7-mile length.

It may surprise you to learn that San Francisco had decided to raze such an important roadway years prior to the 1989 earthquake. Here, there’s impatience after ten years of process, but in San Francisco, “The idea of razing the double-decker highway has been kicked around for most of its 26 years…,” ran an AP story in the Spokesman-Review in 1985. The Supervisors voted 8-2 to “refurbish” the whole waterfront, and included $10 million for demolition of the elevated freeway.

But the demolition was opposed by a wide range of interests, including the Chamber of Commerce, Chinatown merchants, and even neighboring counties, who were concerned about the effects on business and “already bad traffic congestion downtown.” The city was facing a possible deficit of $76 million at the time, and no one knew where the money was going to come from.  In 1986, voters, told it would create gridlock, rejected the plan.

The Board of Supervisors voted on the very same thing in 1990, one year after the quake had cracked the elevated roadway’s columns. This time the vote was 6-5. Merchants whose businesses had been hit hard by the freeway’s closure were still bitterly opposed to its razing. Then-Mayor Art Agnos was determined to talk an extra $70 million in emergency earthquake relief out of the federal government. ($30 million had been initially offered for repair.) His plan to run a portion of the road underground was eventually scrapped.

In 1999, when the New York Times published “Freeway Gone, San Francisco Reclaims Waterfront,” a 6-lane boulevard was in place, split into two 3-lane segments with a trolley running between:

The 1989 earthquake ”was a tragedy, but it also opened up the whole city,” said Ms. Sobol, the port official, adding that it ”allowed us to connect the waterfront with the city again.” The removal of the freeway ”opens up the view of the water,” she said, ”and has reactivated interest in the waterfront.”

In 2000, the San Francisco Chronicle noted, “A decade later, it’s hard to find anyone who thinks ripping down the freeway was a bad idea.” 

10 thoughts on “Tunnel Takes City Council Step Forward, Referendum Step Back

  1. I’ve been pushing for a West Seattle-Magnolia gondola for years! As well as a Capitol Hill to Seattle Center zipline.

  2. Brilliant! You should present your novel, energy-efficient, and cost-effective solutions to the City Council. Our new tagline could be “Seattle: The Venice of the Northwest”.

  3. People *say* they want innovation, but when you stand up and suggest working *with* Seattle’s hills with a citywide roller coaster they just snicker uncomfortably.

  4. We seem to be in an age of anti-democracy in this city. What possible harm is there in having a vote? Well I can only think of one: we already had a vote and clearly, as a population, we said that we don’t want this tunnel.

    In all the years this has gone on, I’ve waited to hear anyone, anyone, tell me one, just one, good thing this tunnel does for the city that any other, cheaper option does not.

    The city council has assured us that there won’t be cost overruns. Uh huh. It’s a tunnel through water-soaked 100-year old fill dirt. No way that’s going to be a problem.

    The city council didn’t hear you fellow citizens. Sign the petition that calls for a vote. Vote these lunkheads out. Return sanity to our fair city.

  5. Does anyone support the idea of a republic anymore? Citizens shouldn’t have to vote on every issue. That’s why we actually pay these people to run the government.

    What harm in a vote? Well, it costs money, muddies the water and tends to be inconclusive (see that last idiotic ‘advisory’ ballot)

    Let the government govern. If you don’t like ’em, vote agin ’em. End of story.

  6. Ha! ;) I didn’t think that was your plan with 520, bilco. I gotta say, we vote on all sorts of levies that represent a few hundred million dollars. A few billion seems worth the time, even if all that we determine is a majority doesn’t want to spend a few billion dollars on a tunnel.

  7. Look, Mvb – I’m very displeased with how 520 is being handled. I believe speaking out about it, various citizen forums, citizen proposals are all fair game.

    But, the time comes to say ‘you win’. The new 520 is going to be rough on my Montlake community, but I don’t think the whole city (or state!) should vote on it. Informed constituencies have weighed in, the state DOT and UW has bullied themselves around, and we lost. Game over.

    We still should be active in tweaking whatever aspects are tweakable – that’s responsible citizenship. There’s a real safety issue at stake on 520 – I would argue not as severe as the viaduct, but that’s me. We need to make progress, not continually study and re-study our oh-so-fascinating navels.

    And that’s what elected officials are charged with doing. Vote the bums out when they deserve it – and they mostly do.

  8. bilco, I have to–respectfully–disagree that anyone’s “lost” on the tunnel and 520 until I see final EISes and the money to actually build either. Right now, there’s a political groupthink in evidence that makes weighing in more or less a charade. Would a public vote in either case change anything? I am not sure about that, but as I say, strictly in terms of past process, it’s not unusual. From my perspective, proceeding for the sake of “progress”–when we have yet to face up to how these projects in tandem break the state’s bank–merely postpones a reckoning with reality. But I am distinctly bearish on gas and property tax revenue for the foreseeable future.

  9. Yeah, well, the problem is you can cancel the tunnel and 520 and the state would still be broke.

    I’m tired of voting for all of this. Didn’t we vote for a tunnel a few years ago? Remember the FOUR rounds of votes on the monorail in, what, 4 years? Hell, even if the people of this city vote for the tunnel, someone will run another initiative out again the next year.

    I’d rather see an initiative saying that if nothing is done and the viaduct does collapse, there will be a fund established to pay compensation to the victims, and it will be funded first by the seizing of all assets of all Seattle politicians elected since 1989. And if that’s not enough to pay the compensation, then there’s a 10% surcharge thrown on all property taxes in the city until all claims are satisfied.

    The Culture Of Consensus is going to kill people on the viaduct. Let’s get on with doing something.

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