PubliQuestion: Few Voters Support McGinn's Surface/Transit Option

By Sandeep Kaushik March 29, 2010

A three-way poll of 681 registered voters, conducted by EMC Research, Precision Polling, and Aristotle for PubliCola last week, found that replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a surface street and improvements to transit (the "surface/transit option," supported by Mayor Mike McGinn) is the least popular option among Seattle registered voters. The full demographic breakdown and complete cross tabs are available for a nominal $5 charge here.

Among the three choices, surface-transit finished a distant third, with only 21 percent support. The tunnel garnered 35 percent support, and a rebuilt viaduct fared best, with 36 percent support.

Worse news for supporters of the option like McGinn: The surface solution appears to have no significant base of support to build on. It does better (29 percent) among the under-35 voters that make up McGinn’s political base, but even among those voters trails the rebuild and the tunnel (33 and 31 percent, respectively). And surface-transit also does surprisingly poorly among self-identified Democrats, with only 21 percent support. Support for surface-transit is weakest among Republicans (9 percent) and the perfect 4/4 voters (13 percent) who turn out in primaries, likely a crucial voting bloc if, as expected, McGinn faces strong challengers in the next mayoral election.

The remainder of the Seattle electorate splits almost evenly between the rebuild and the deep bore tunnel, with neither generating anything close to 50 percent support. That marks a significant pro-tunnel shift from March 2007, when the cut-and-cover tunnel was overwhelmingly opposed by Seattle voters in the up-or-down advisory vote (70 percent opposed) while the rebuild fared better (57 percent opposition).

A rebuilt Viaduct – which would be substantially bigger and noisier than the existing structure – does best among voters over 60 (40 percent support) – essentially, from those who were alive when the Viaduct was first built – from Republicans (58 percent), and from those 4/4 voters, who tend to be older (45 percent). The deep bore does best among middle-aged (45-59 years old) voters (42 percent support), and among Democrats (41 percent support).

Some background: On March 13, 2007, as the state of Washington was pushing forward on a plan to tear down and rebuild Seattle’s earthquake-damaged elevated state highway, Seattle voters went to the polls in a special advisory election on the viaduct. Rather than a simple head-to-head vote among the various replacement options (which local leaders rightfully feared would show the rebuild outpolling other options), voters were given two separate ballot measures, one asking for an up-or-down vote on the rebuild, the other for an up-or-down vote on the cut-and-cover tunnel favored by then-Mayor Greg Nickels.

Neither option was able to muster 50 percent support, and after lengthy negotiations, state and local officials settled on a compromise deep-bore tunnel replacement for the Viaduct. But while that option has drawn strong support from the political and business establishment, McGinn capitalized on opposition to the deep-bore compromise, making it a major issue in his successful campaign for mayor. (Full disclosure: I worked on the reelection campaign of former mayor Greg Nickels, who lost in the primary).

McGinn's preferred option calls for tearing down the viaduct and replacing it with a surface boulevard, while handling displaced traffic through improvements to city streets and I-5 as well as enhanced transit capacity. While McGinn tempered his opposition to the deep bore tunnel in the waning days of the campaign, since he took office, many observers (myself included) believe that he is still maneuvering to kill the tunnel plan in favor of a surface-transit solution.

Our PubliQuestion results ought to be a major warning for McGinn, revealing that the rebuild still has significant public support in Seattle, far more than the surface-transit option that McGinn hopes to implement. If McGinn is somehow able to derail the deep-bore tunnel, Olympia – which fiercely opposes the surface-transit option – is likely to revive the rebuild as the fallback option. And with public support for surface-transit so weak, McGinn will be playing a very weak hand in his efforts to stop them.
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