Citizens have a process to stop the tunnel-option in its tracks -- writing an initiative
Nov 3, 2010, Vol: 17, No: 44
Sometimes everyday people have to stand up to injustice and protect the public interest against rogue government spun out of control. That is why we have the right to citizens’ initiatives in our state. In moments like this, they’re the only tool we have to protect ourselves against a project built on broken promises and shady deals.
So how did we arrive at this surreal moment of spending $3.1 billion for a two-mile stretch of road? In 2001, the Nisqually earthquake severely damaged the Alaskan Way Viaduct, forcing the Washington Department of Transportation to pour millions of dollars into emergency repairs and igniting a political firestorm that continues to this day about how to replace the ailing structure.
After five years of arguing, and politicians on all sides failing to find a viable solution, Gov. Chris Gregoire declared that the unsafe viaduct would come down in 2012, with or without a solution. The politicians kicked the problem to the voters of Seattle, who answered, No, and, Hell No, to both of their highway proposals in 2007. Recognizing the city, county and state must find a solution together, the politicians set up a stakeholder process to help them do so.
In 2008, the 29-member Stakeholder Advisory Committee, made up of citizens from across the political and business spectrum, analyzed numerous different alternatives for replacing the viaduct. After a year of study, the committee leaders released the recommendations for two hybrid scenarios: the SR-99 Elevated Bypass scenario and the I-5 Surface and Transit scenario, which was generally preferred because of its positive effects on the waterfront.
Ignoring their commitment to follow the committee’s recommendation, our elected leaders retreated behind the scenes into back rooms for private talks with establishment power brokers. Less than one month later, in January 2009, the politicians announced they had struck their own deal to replace the viaduct with a four-lane deep-bore tunnel: the same tunnel that the stakeholder committee had ruled out because it was too expensive and risky.
Legislators in Olympia saw red. Why should the rest of the state pay for Seattle’s greedy, risky choice? They decided to stick Seattle with the bill and inserted a provision making “Seattle area property owners who benefit” responsible for cost overruns. The governor signed the cost overruns provision into law, while vetoing the transit funding promised as part of the original agreement.
Next, WSDOT skewed the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which helps politicians and the public make an objective decision based on project facts, by changing the definition of the need for the project and presenting hollow comparisons, so that only the tunnel could win. The department offered hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of incentives to the final two remaining bidders in a last-ditch effort to get bids on budget, leaving less than 10 percent in contingency funds for the risky project. It also spent $60,000 of public money on a push poll to develop messaging points to promote the unpopular project.
Last June, a coalition of social justice and environmental organizations asked the City Council to clearly communicate its plans for protecting Seattle residents from the risk of tunnel cost overruns; the council did not respond. The city, the county and the state are all broke and have refused to pay for cost overruns. The project is 40 percent likely to exceed the state’s price cap, with overruns costing us potentially hundreds of millions. This puts many human services and environmentally friendly projects in jeopardy. Here in Seattle, we’re poised to cut funding for lifeline services, while the City Council gambles its blank check for the tunnel won’t be cashed.
The tunnel is a project that serves a very small population, at huge expense, with very high risk. Politicians argue that the cost overruns provision is unenforceable, but refuse to remove the provision. We have to sort this out now, before we’re stuck with a giant hole in the ground and everyone is pointing fingers about how to pay for it.
Situations like these are why we have an initiative process. The people of Seattle have been ignored and cut out of a process built on lies and broken promises. If the state and City Council want a tunnel, then they must demonstrate that they can pay for it responsibly.
Move Seattle Smarter, our coalition of social justice, human services and environmental organizations is proposing an initiative to hold the politicians accountable to the original tunnel agreement and get this rogue project under control. Please join us in this important fight and let the voice of the people be heard.