Relentless opponent battles waterfront tunnel
City and state officials view Elizabeth Campbell as an exhausting and expensive opponent. The Magnolia resident has thrown everything she can at the Highway 99 viaduct-replacement project, often not to great effect. She's sued the state three times, launched two initiative campaigns and joined with the Sierra Club to qualify Referendum 1 for the ballot. Now she says she wants to recall Council President Richard Conlin.
Seattle Times staff reporter
At the end of a March news conference in which an angry Gov. Chris Gregoire denounced the efforts of Mayor Mike McGinn and his supporters to qualify an anti-tunnel referendum for the ballot, a well-dressed woman on crutches broke from the crowd and advanced toward the podium.
She was blocked by the governor's staff, who quickly declared the news conference over.
But for Elizabeth Campbell, a 58-year-old Magnolia activist with her own vision of a sleek, elevated highway to replace the aging viaduct, the gathering was one more attempt to tell elected officials that she will not go along quietly with their plans to build a $2 billion tunnel.
For the past five years, Campbell has thrown everything she can at the state's Highway 99 viaduct-replacement project.
She has sued the state three times, launched two initiative campaigns, joined forces with the Sierra Club to qualify the referendum for the Seattle ballot and, most recently, filed a recall petition against City Council President Richard Conlin for going beyond his authority, she says, to support the tunnel.
And she doesn't believe McGinn, who some call an obstructionist for his outspoken opposition to the tunnel, is obstructionist enough.
"He could do more," said Campbell, who ran for mayor in 2009, in part to publicize her objections to the tunnel. She received 2 percent of the vote.
So far, only the referendum has stuck. Courts rejected as premature Campbell's first two lawsuits over environmental reviews for the tunnel. Her first initiative campaign failed to get enough signatures.
The second, nearly identical initiative, Initiative 101, which would bar the state from using city streets to build the tunnel, received enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. But City Attorney Pete Holmes sued, saying a city initiative can't block a state highway project.
A judge will hear those arguments July 18. Campbell is undaunted. "I didn't think, early on, that it would be enough to go to meetings, talk nice and the state would listen to us. I figured it would come down to a legal fight."
Anti-tunnel activists say Campbell's previous initiative experience was a key to the referendum campaign collecting more than 29,000 signatures in one month.
"She is very good at logistics, at crunching the numbers, at mapping out the resources needed to run a successful signature-gathering operation," Sierra Club spokesman Drew Paxton said.
But city and state officials view Campbell as an exhausting and expensive opponent whose voluminous public-records requests to bolster her lawsuits — 131,824 pages since 2008 from the state alone — have consumed thousands of hours of staff time for little apparent result.
"She seems to be looking for any reason to sue and stop the tunnel," said City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, chairman of the council Transportation Committee and a tunnel supporter.
Campbell filed her recall petition against Conlin after the council president repeatedly declined to place Initiative 101 on the ballot, although she submitted the required number of signatures in April. Conlin has said the council can't act until Holmes' legal challenge has been decided.
Campbell argues the city charter doesn't contain exceptions to its directive that all qualifying initiatives and referendums be placed before voters.
Her recall petition lists two more alleged offenses: Conlin went beyond his authority when he signed the tunnel draft environmental review last year when McGinn delayed signing it. And he directed Holmes to file a lawsuit blocking the tunnel referendum.
A judge ruled that a portion of the referendum dealing with city-state tunnel agreements could go to voters in the Aug. 16 primary but also said Conlin lacked the authority to commission Holmes' suit.
Of the recall effort, Campbell said, "I don't know whether it will be count one, two or three, but we'll see what sticks."
A judge will decide on July 22 whether there are sufficient legal grounds for the recall to proceed.
Campbell previously worked as a property developer and ran a commercial baking business that ended in her filing for bankruptcy. She now works part time, she says, developing and managing real estate for a businessman who is the largest contributor to her initiative campaign.
Lee Rabie donated more than $62,000, allowing Campbell to hire paid signature gatherers. Rabie has given money to conservative candidates and causes, including anti-tax activist Tim Eyman.
She lives in Magnolia with her daughter's family, helping to care for a grandson with Asperger's syndrome and her longtime partner, who suffers from dementia.
Campbell first came to the attention of city officials when she formed the Magnolia Planning Council, which sued to block plans for a 150-unit housing development next to Discovery Park. The group won at trial, arguing the city hadn't completed state environmental reviews. The city appealed. When her lawyers counseled a negotiated settlement, Campbell refused.
Tim Ceis, deputy mayor under Greg Nickels at the time, said the federal government had not transferred the former military-base property at Discovery Park to the city when Campbell brought her lawsuit. The housing project was a long-range proposal and still could be built at some point, he said. "She successfully delayed that, but has she stopped anything? No," Ceis said.
As a child growing up on Queen Anne, Campbell loved driving along the Alaskan Way Viaduct and taking in the views across Puget Sound. When, in the wake of the Nisqually earthquake, city and state leaders said the structure was dangerous and should be replaced before people were killed, Campbell said she asked herself, "Why would they tear that down?"
New waterfront span?
On a trip to France she saw a sleek, stylish cable-stayed bridge that, if transplanted to the Seattle waterfront, would touch down in only four places. She believed it was the perfect solution: It would preserve the old viaduct's views and vehicle capacity, and cost far less than the tunnel.
"People want something inspiring," she said. "If they're going to spend that much money, they want something that makes the waterfront a better place."
Campbell acknowledges she hasn't generated a grass-roots movement that shares her vision. Many tunnel opponents don't want a new highway along the waterfront. Her organization formed to back I-101, Seattle Citizens Against the Tunnel, includes fewer than a dozen active members.
Campbell speaks somewhat wistfully of the young activists from the Sierra Club, The Stranger, Real Change and McGinn's staff who joined forces on the Protect Seattle Now campaign to place Referendum 1 before voters.
"It's a more robust organization," Campbell said. "They socialize, they're friends."
Campbell will earn a master's in public administration from the University of Washington this summer. She has used her research, including the reams of transportation documents released by the state, to write her thesis.
She is still on crutches from a knee injury in February. She hasn't had time for physical therapy, she said, and has no plans to give up her tunnel fight.
"I'm going down with the ship. Never say die."
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305
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