Don't Sleep Through this Tunnel Vote

By Erica C. Barnett June 6, 2011

This guest op/ed was written by Kevin Fullerton and Brady Montz, members of the Seattle Sierra Club's executive committee.

The Seattle Times editorial board literally said last week that it hopes Seattle voters sleep through the debate on Referendum 1, a ballot measure that will give voters the chance to say no to the proposed deep-bore tunnel.

That's not surprising. Tunnel supporters have always calculated that the less people know about the costs, financing, function, and motivations behind this project the better. But against all odds, fighting uphill against city and state leaders who closed ranks around a plan spoon fed them by industry lobbyists, the Sierra Club, Real Change, and other citizen groups have given voters a chance to weigh in.

Now that the debate has begun, it's time to debunk the myths the paper of record hopes to put you to sleep with.

“The experts have decided.” “It's a done deal.” “We're quibbling over technicalities.” Any astute observer of politics knows to worry when business and political leaders rally around those messages. The true story of how the public got saddled with this risky, costly, and  poorly designed deep-bore tunnel project shows the worry is more than justified.

There's a tragic side. City leaders regrouped after the humbling public rejection of both a tunnel and elevated highway in 2007, and painstakingly tried to avert further failure by teaming city and state transportation planners with local stakeholders to find better options. They discovered that an inexpensive, non-highway solution was the best solution, and then … they lost faith in themselves, and in us, and let the highway builders create another public failure.

Tunnel supporters would prefer you forget that the preferred viaduct replacement option initially put forward by the Viaduct Stakeholder Advisory Committee in 2008 was the one popularly known as “surface/transit/I-5.” Contrary to what the Seattle Times reports, this plan is very real, designed by our own Seattle Department of Transportation and subjected to judicious review by transportation experts, including those at the state department of transportation (WSDOT). Their conclusion: It works.

Although many on the committee did favor taking a look at the deep-bore tunnel, WSDOT planners put the kibosh on that proposal, pointing out that it would never fit within the existing budget. Moreover, WSDOT told the group, the state needs future transportation dollars to fix I-5 instead. “It would be disingenuous of me to sit here representing the state and say … let's go build a bored tunnel,” WSDOT project director David Dye told the group. “And so it's a cold dose of fiscal reality that I guess I'm the one that has to bring the bucket and pour on this.”

Subsequently, members of the Advisory Committee, including none other than the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Seattle Association—organizations that now pretend the surface/transit/I-5 plan was never a serious option—submitted a letter to Gov. Chris Gregoire that read, in part:
After considerable analysis, input and consultation with our constituencies we recommend & conclude the following:

• Move forward with an Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Plan that includes improvements to I-5, transit, surface streets and potential for construction of a deep bore tunnel.

• A state-funded Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement should include review of an I-5/surface/transit hybrid, including the proposed building block investments. Sufficient funds should also be included within the SEIS for design and necessary environmental review of construction of a bored tunnel with a commitment to bring it to a record of decision.

Some will read this as evidence that the deep-bore tunnel was also a sanctioned alternative, but they would be missing the point. The Advisory Committee recognized that the deep-bore tunnel was a long-shot option, a dream hinging on revenues that didn't exist. It was an alluring idea, but a half-baked one that needed more study. The facts on the ground supported the surface/transit I-5 option—and it was time to move on.

Think about it: At the end of 2008, we had a deal. The chosen plan fit within the budget, it would improve transit access, and it allowed restoration of the waterfront. And it could begin right now. Seattle leaders had joined around a solution appropriate for a city burgeoning with new people and new ideas for a livable city. State and city goals to reduce greenhouse gases had been taken seriously.

But the tunnel-building industry rallied. A project of unprecedented size costing billions now and likely much more in cost overruns was a prize too big to let go of. Tunnel builders came up with new cost estimates.

The revised estimates still didn't fit within the project budget, however, so business and political leaders decided to pull a rabbit: Tolls! Tolls, along with a previously unmentioned $300 million gift from the Port of Seattle, would bridge the gap. Tunnel supporters took the trick one step further, announcing that King County would raise money for transit service through the corridor.

The state legislature, for one, wasn't buying it. In 2009, it passed legislation asserting that the state wouldn't spend a dime more than the $2.8 billion it had already committed on the tunnel. If the project went over budget, the dreamers in Seattle would have to pay.

The legislature was right to be suspicious. And had the city council waited for a city-commissioned report to evaluate how these financial shenanigans were going to shake out, they would have seen the dream was folly.

The report, by consultants Nelson/Nygaard, reveals that tolls will divert as much as 50 percent of existing viaduct traffic onto city streets, including the Western/Elliott corridor that is vital for freight moving from Ballard to SODO. The tunnel is expected to worsen access to downtown Seattle instead of improving it, and it presents significant problems for transit and freight by concentrating all downtown bound traffic on two narrow, historic Pioneer Square streets.

Without tolls, the project falls $400 million short. And that supposed $300 million contribution from the Port? No one's seen it. Transit funding? Not likely either.

The Daily Journal of Commerce provides the best summary of the Nelson/Nygaard report and the resulting political fallout:
The report shows that under the tunnel and tolling scenario now in the works, traffic on downtown streets would increase slightly more than it would under the surface and transit option that was rejected by the state. … [Seattle Department of Transportation Director] Peter Hahn believes these impacts on the city — and possible mitigations — should be in the [Final Environmental Impact Statement]. … The FEIS will be released this summer, right before the “notice to proceed” is signed and construction on the preferred option officially begins. There is virtually no time allowed for impacts or mitigations included in the FEIS to influence any decision on the tunnel option.

It's worth emphasizing that last part: The final EIS will expose the tolling fallacy, but city leaders and WSDOT decided not to wait for it. Which brings us to the most recent myth put out by tunnel supporters – that a vote on Referendum 1 doesn't mean anything.

Early this year, the City Council decided to give themselves authority to proceed on the tunnel as though the issue had been settled and all subsequent decisions were “administrative.” A no vote on Referendum 1 says that the City Council was in no position to make such a decision because the FEIS was not complete and it was irresponsible and potentially illegal to act on behalf of the public at that point.

Those who believe in responsible government and want sanity restored to our transportation planning should wake up. The Sierra Club is proud to lead the campaign giving people a chance to say no to the irresponsible economic and environmental stewardship that has fouled this process.

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