McGinn and Eyman, Sitting in a Tree, T-O-L-L-I-N-G

By Sandeep Kaushik July 18, 2011

Political consultant and PubliCola co-founder Sandeep Kaushik's recent stint as guest host at the Cola was such a hit that we're bringing him back by popular demand. Today, Sandeep argues that the anti-tunnel campaign is selling out their most deeply held environmental values by jumping in bed with anti-tolling initiative sponsor Tim Eyman.

To point out that Tim Eyman is willing to attack congestion tolling to score political points is a bit of a dog bites man story.

Eyman, of course, is sponsoring I-1125,  a wide-ranging transportation initiative that attacks tolling and is intended to delay or possibly stop the voter-approved plan to expand light rail to the Eastside across I-90, and which would undermine the financing for a host of important transportation projects across the state.(Full disclosure: I will likely have a role in the No on 1125 campaign). It would also, as Mike Lindblom of the Seattle Times recently pointed out, likely blow up the financing for the deep-bore tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

That is par for the course for Eyman. But the fact that Mayor McGinn and his Referendum 1 acolytes are willing to echo Eyman and sell out their long-term environmental goals to do the same thing? That’s something very different---a tunnel bites man story.

Is the tunnel such a threat that it is worth selling out some of your deepest held beliefs in order to try to stop it? That is exactly what appears to be going on with the battle over Proposition 1, the August ballot measure that is, depending on your perspective, a near-meaningless vote about a minor and technical step in the city’s tunnel approval process (the Richard Conlin view) or a major political opportunity for eco-urban activists to rise up against established downtown interests by voicing determined opposition to replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a deep bore tunnel (the Mike McGinn view).

In fact, in their zeal to win “reject” votes on the measure, the McGinn-ite, Sierra Clubber, Real Change shock troops (serious side question: how does a homeless newspaper justify spending thousands that could go to helping the homeless on a transportation campaign?) have decided to attack congestion tolling, an integral part of the financing plan for the tunnel. That until now they have been strong advocates for expanding the use of congestion pricing across the region, and that attacking tolls contradicts everything they purport to believe is, apparently, of no consequence. As is true with the truest of true believers, the ends in this case justify the means. [pullquote]In their efforts to win the Ref 1 vote, the tunnel opponents are seeking to win over more conservative voters by attacking congestion pricing.[/pullquote]

Fact #1: Last week on the way to work I passed a curious sight. The Reject Ref 1 campaign had set up a large cardboard cutout of a toll booth, complete with a black-and-white striped toll gate, by the side of Highway 99 at the Denny exit, just before the Battery St. Tunnel. The faux toll booth boasted a large sign, “$5 TOLL,” and was surrounded by smiling young environmental advocates waving “reject Referendum 1” signs. I’m sure the sign-wavers consider themselves environmental champions, fighting the good fight for a greener, more progressive city. So it was more than a little jarring to see them pushing such a reactionary, anti-environmental message.

Fact #2: At my request, the pro-tunnel (Approve Ref 1) campaign forwarded me a copy of their opponents’ voter guide statement. What stands out about it is how aggressively these enviros (Cary Moon of the People’s Waterfront Coalition is one of those who signed the statement) push an anti-tolling message. In a 400-word statement, they managed to shoehorn in five separate references, including in the first sentence, to the “tolled tunnel.” Not the deep-bore tunnel. Not the expensive tunnel. The tolled tunnel.

I’ve written more than my share of voter guide statements. Repeating a single phrase over and over in such statements a deliberate tactic, meant to drive (so to speak) a poll-tested message. So in their efforts to win the Ref 1 vote, the tunnel opponents are seeking to win over more conservative voters by attacking congestion pricing.

The contradiction is so blatant. Mike O’Brien, who faced off over the tunnel against Tim Burgess at the Interbay Community Council recently, again brought up tolling the tunnel as a major negative. But in 2007, O’Brien touted former county executive Ron Sims’ (disclosure: I used to work for Ron in the executive's office) region-wide congestion tolling plan, which included tolling the viaduct corridor, as a progressive alternative to the Roads and Transit package he opposed. In fact, the Sierra Club, where both McGinn and O’Brien cut their political teeth, has long been a vocal advocate for congestion tolling. In a letter to regional transportation and transit leaders before the roads and transit package was announced in 2007, the Club wrote: “We know you're considering congestion pricing, which we encourage. It can help solve our traffic problems, reduce VMT and the resultant GHG emissions, and provide a funding source.”

For me at least, the conclusion is inescapable. The desire of the anti-tunnel crowd to win the August Ref 1 vote has so warped their priorities that they are willing, even eager, to sell out their own principles and do Eyman’s dirty work for him. It puts me in mind of one of my favorite quotations, written by Alexander Pope in the early 18th century. I’d ask that the leaders of the anti-tunnel campaign think about these lines, from a royal dog collar, the next time they look at themselves in the mirror. Almost 300 years ago Pope gave the Price of Wales a puppy, and on the collar he wrote the following couplet:

I am His Highness’ dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, Sir, whose Dog are you?
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