Petitions may be too late to kill waterfront tunnel
With Seattle's most ardent, anti-tunnel politician, Mayor Mike McGinn, rallying support among transit and environmental activists, a referendum campaign against the waterfront project could well deliver the required 16,503 signatures by the Tuesday deadline to qualify for a citywide vote.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Challenging the tunnelThere are two efforts to put the tunnel issue before Seattle voters.
The referendum campaign seeks a citywide vote on agreements between the Seattle City Council and the state.
The agreements detail the state's use of city rights-of-way, utility relocation, design review, environmental remediation and other aspects of the viaduct-replacement project. Supporters must turn in the signatures by Tuesday.
The Initiative 101 campaign would deny the use of city property or city rights of way for construction of the tunnel. That group's signatures are due next month.
On a recent Friday night, a dozen volunteers spread out around the Pike-Pine neighborhood, braving rain and the wariness of strangers to collect enough signatures for a citywide vote on the planned waterfront tunnel.
One passer-by in his 20s grabbed a pen to sign. Asked why he supports a vote on the state's $2 billion viaduct-replacement tunnel, the man fairly shouted, "I hate cars!"
With Seattle's most ardent, anti-tunnel politician, Mayor Mike McGinn, rallying support among transit and environmental activists, the referendum campaign could well deliver the required 16,503 signatures by the Tuesday deadline to qualify for the ballot.
That would leave the strongly pro-tunnel City Council with a choice: Send the measure to voters and risk outright rejection of a long-planned project — or refuse to allow a public vote on one of the most divisive issues in years.
The referendum also presents a more basic legal question: Seattle voters may not be able to stop a state project or undo the council's decisive 2009 vote to go ahead with the tunnel.
Indeed, the state already has signed contracts with a consortium to build the tunnel.
"Whatever happens, somebody will go to court," said Council President Richard Conlin. "Either way, it's not going to be fun."
The referendum campaign, Protect Seattle Now, began within days of the council's 8-1 vote last month to override McGinn's veto of the city's tunnel agreements with the state. The agreements deal with the state's use of rights-of-way, utility relocation, environmental remediation and other details.
Two McGinn staffers took leaves of absence from the mayor's office to work on the campaign, and his former campaign consultant, Bill Broadhead, has donated $5,000. On McGinn's private Facebook page, the mayor noted that his wife had donated $500 and challenged friends to "Match that!"
The mayor has repeatedly argued that the city could be on the hook for cost overruns and that the tunnel would dump traffic onto downtown streets as motorists avoid the tolls necessary to pay for the project.
Councilmember Mike O'Brien, a McGinn ally and the lone no vote on the tunnel agreements, co-hosted a campaign fundraiser with the mayor and Stranger newspaper editor Dan Savage. O'Brien has also collected signatures and donated $525 to the campaign.
O'Brien said the campaign includes some people who worked on McGinn's mayoral run and share the two politicians' "past life in the Sierra Club."
Others are newly energized people with a range of concerns about the tunnel, O'Brien said, from those who don't think the state should be spending $2 billion when it's also cutting funding for education and health care, to people who envision a transit-oriented city, not another highway that's only for cars.
Most of Seattle's business and civic leaders think otherwise. The Legislature, governor, City Council, King County government, Port of Seattle and labor unions say a waterfront highway — the tunnel — is critical to moving traffic and freight.
State officials "are not interested in revisiting the decision," said Ron Paananen, the project administrator for the state Department of Transportation.
"This is a state-funded project, authorized by the state Legislature," he added. "The referendum does not change that."
In all, Protect Seattle Now has raised $40,310, according to reports filed with the city's elections office.
The campaign has contracted with an Auburn firm, Petition Management Services, for paid signature-gatherers, and dispatched volunteers to events such as the "First Thursday" art walk in Pioneer Square, and to catch pro-transit commuters at the city's light-rail stations.
Ben Schiendelman, a software engineer who commutes to the Eastside by bus and doesn't own a car, stopped passengers at the Columbia City light-rail station last week. More than half of the people he approached agreed to sign the referendum petition.
Some were opposed to the tunnel project. Some were simply willing to put it to an up-or-down vote.
"If we keep dumping millions into highways, people will keep driving cars," said Schiendelman, a co-founder of the Seattle Transit Blog.
The Stranger has joined in, too, raising the volume on its anti-tunnel message. A recent cover story called on the city to "Stop the Insanity" and enclosed blank referendum petitions. Savage donated $500 to the campaign.
Early last week, the referendum had 24,473 signatures and was expected to reach 25,000 by Tuesday's deadline, well above the required number, said Elizabeth Campbell, an anti-tunnel activist.
Campbell is the author of another measure to block the tunnel, Initiative 101, for which proponents also are gathering signatures.
Last week, a pro-tunnel group calling itself Let's Move Forward registered with the city. Sheila Stickel, a former campaign consultant to Conlin, is managing the campaign.
Her group sees the tunnel question as asked and answered, and the referendum as a waste of time.
"We see the (referendum) signature-gathering effort as a cynical tactic to stall and cause gridlock, both on the streets and in the process," Stickel said in an emailed statement.
Court battle likely
Voters may never get to weigh in. Both the initiative and referendum could be subject to legal challenges.
Because the City Council first voted to go forward with the tunnel project in 2009, subsequent actions, such as agreements with the state, could be considered administrative.
"The power of initiatives and referendum is limited to decisions that are policy decisions," said Paul Lawrence, who specializes in municipal law at the Seattle firm K&L Gates and has represented the city in other matters. "Subsequent actions to implement that policy are not subject to initiative or referendum."
At some point, said Lawrence, "The city has a right to move forward."
O'Brien disagrees with the legal interpretation that the council's February vote was merely administrative.
"It authorizes the city to commit to a project that costs billions of dollars and will last hundreds of years. I'd argue that's policy," he said.
Another legal challenge could be over the city's authority to override a state project. Daniel Jack Chasan, an attorney who analyzed the complicated legal issues surrounding the tunnel for the website Crosscut, says a city has only those powers delegated to it by the state.
"It's pretty clear that ultimately, if a state wants to do a highway project, a state can do a highway project," he said in an interview.
City Council members do not think they are obligated to put on the ballot a tunnel referendum or initiative that may not be legal.
"If a referendum is certified, the council has a choice whether or not to place it on the ballot," said Councilmember Tim Burgess. He suggested that the eight members who have steadfastly backed the tunnel will continue to do so.
"There's not a strong majority of the public that favors anything (to replace the viaduct.) The issue needs strong political leadership. This council is united in being strong."
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or email@example.com
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