Seattle has been facing a quandary since the Nisqually earthquake in 2001. There is a large (ugly) viaduct that carries a major highway right through the heart of downtown and someday, when the right combination of tectonic plate movement strikes, it will fall down. We need something new in its place.
But what, then, to replace the viaduct? The governor of the state has endorsed a new viaduct - bigger, more stable and earthquake-proof, and allowing more and easier flow of traffic. Our stubborn mayor, Greg Nickels, has endorsed a fanciful tunnel set below sea level, which he claims would open up the entire waterfront to tourism (because that's the answer to everything, isn't it? More tourism!) and eliminate the eyesore of the viaduct.
After the governor explained (repeatedly, with use of sledge hammer to drive the point home) that funding was not available for a goddamn tunnel, the mayor suggested a smaller tunnel. A four-lane tunnel. With narrow 11-foot lanes. That would only run for eleven blocks (requiring an elevated road of some sort to connect the new tunnel to our existing Battery Street tunnel.)
After much political facing off and gnashing of teeth, they decided to have a public vote. Ah, but the results would be non-binding. In effect, Seattle voters were being asked what they think without it having any impact or meaning whatsoever. Except that it would demonstrate our intent.
The all-mail vote concluded yesterday. The questions were simple and straightforward. Yes or no, do we want a new viaduct? And yes or no, do we want a new tunnel to replace the viaduct?
Many advocates, including outgoing City Councilmember Peter Steinbreuck, have expressed outrage that a third option - removing the viaduct and not replacing it with anything - wasn't on the ballot. The third option would involve using existing surface streets - expanding some, rerouting and reassigning others - and expanding public transit to replace the viaduct. So many people were suggesting that the best thing for voters to do is to reject both options - in effect, saying that they wanted nothing to replace the viaduct.
Yesterday, voters did just that. No, we don't want a damned tunnel. No, we don't want a viaduct.
I have been lamenting for months that politicians in Seattle and Olympia (the state capitol) wouldn't just take action and do something. They punted again and again, and the final punt was when they insisted on going ahead with the advisory vote yesterday. Finally, the voters have done the same thing - handed the ball back to the politicians. The vote yesterday was a declaration - we're not going to make your decisions for you, and we don't like the options you're trying to force down our throats.
Finally, after the humiliating vote yesterday, the politicians seem to be listening.
"We're going to find that common ground. We're going to put aside the old answers and find some new answers," said Nickels, who declined interview requests.
And Peter Steinbreuck, the politician who has decided to leave politics (for the moment) to work on the surface/transit option, seems to recognize that the politicians needed a wake-up call.
Yeah, I'll go along with this. I'm relieved and impressed at the vote last night. And we might just get the surface/mass transit option after all - meaning one less obnoxious construction project downtown, and quite possibly, we'll get the transit upgrades that this city has needed for decades.
It's a new day for Seattle.