Dig it, Mr. Mayor: Voters say viaduct talk is over
Well, how about that. Seattle finally made up its mind about something. Which is: We hate our mayor! No wait, Mike McGinn, only 1 ...
Seattle Times staff columnist
August 16 primary election results
Well, how about that. Seattle finally made up its mind about something.
Which is: We hate our mayor!
No wait, Mike McGinn, only 1 ½ years into his first term, wasn't on the ballot Tuesday.
We decided: We want a tunnel!
But that's not precisely it either. This being Seattle, what was on the ballot, Referendum 1, wasn't a clear up or down vote about anything. It was loosely related to the tunnel, but what it said was gobbledygook about the City Council authorizing agreements in open public meetings after conducting studies.
But make no mistake: The overwhelming — and surprising — vote Tuesday to turn back a tunnel-recall effort marks an epic failure for our mayor. Just as it all but guarantees that the decadelong debate over what to do with the Alaskan Way Viaduct is coming to a close.
Voters finally made a choice. We're digging a tunnel, for better or worse. It took 10-½ years, more than 700 community meetings and three, count 'em, three, advisory votes — this latest one brought in rebellious style by the mayor himself against the rest of the political establishment.
Why did voters suddenly come around to backing the tunnel? It's not like the idea has ever been popular before. The context is that no plan to replace the viaduct — with an elevated rebuild, a surface boulevard, a tunnel under the city or a soaring bridge over the bay — has ever gotten majority support in previous elections or in polls.
This specific tunnel plan — a 1.7-mile tube with four lanes for traffic and plenty of risks and flaws — usually clocked in at only 35 percent or less in polls. So why was it drawing nearly 60 percent in the first returns Tuesday night, a landslide endorsement?
"I think it's, 'Just move on,' " said Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata, himself a tunnel skeptic who came around to support it almost by default, because nothing else was going to work politically. "I think that's where the momentum is right now in the city. It's the 'We've talked enough' vote."
Or maybe it was a vote to try to get the mayor to talk about something, anything, else.
McGinn's single-minded obsession with the tunnel — not to mention his 23 percent approval rating — made him so radioactive that he was nowhere to be seen during the campaign for a referendum that he got on the ballot in the first place.
Check that: He was all over the pro-tunnel group's ads. They used McGinn as a sort of anti-progress boogeyman, including linking him to initiative king Tim Eyman. In one ad, McGinn could be heard saying, in a loop: "You better believe we're going to keep talking about the viaduct."
No, we're not, city voters ruled Tuesday.
One pro-tunnel campaign adviser told me that whenever McGinn opined about the project, or the pro-tunnel campaign mentioned McGinn's opposition, the pro-tunnel polling numbers shot up.
What a difference that is from two years ago, when McGinn rode his anti-tunnel views to an insurgent primary-election victory for mayor. Other anti-tunnel candidates, such as City Councilmember Mike O'Brien, walloped the field that year. But on Tuesday? There was only one anti-tunnel council candidate on the ballot, Michael Taylor-Judd. He finished last.
I think what also happened in those two years is people began to realize that McGinn's idea for replacing the viaduct — with a surface road, more transit and an extra lane on I-5 — had next-to-no support. Only two elected officials in the region supported it — McGinn and O'Brien. I couldn't find any freight-hauling business that did.
I like some of the surface-transit ideas — we should do them in addition to the tunnel — but at some point you have to drop pie-in-the-sky and build something.
So there you go: Dig the tunnel, Mr. Mayor! You don't get definitive election results like that very often around here.
Best news of the night? Tomorrow we finally get to talk about something else.
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to email@example.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
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