Tunnel Vision in Seattle

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is proposing plans that focus less on roads and more on public transit.

Mike McGinn campaigned for mayor of Seattle in 2009 as a foe of expensive road projects and of automobiles in general. To the surprise of the Seattle political establishment, he actually meant it. The result is a foundering relationship between the mayor and City Council just six months into his tenure.

The biggest issue is one that has roiled Seattle and Washington state for almost a decade: how to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a key piece of roadway that was damaged in the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. The solution, agreed to in 2009 by state and local officials, is to replace it with a $4.2 billion tunnel.

McGinn's campaign was propelled by his view that this was the wrong approach. He didn't want the viaduct replaced at all. He thought the city should instead strengthen its transit system and network of secondary roads to compensate for the lost viaduct. But supporters of the tunnel were comforted when, just days before the election, McGinn said he would abide by the deal.

As it turned out, though, the establishment wasn't listening carefully enough to what McGinn, an environmental activist and political neophyte, was saying. In the same breath, he'd pledged to fight a provision in the agreement that requires Seattle property owners to pay for any cost overruns. "It was a long campaign and he said it a lot," says Aaron Pickus, a McGinn spokesman, "and now he's still saying it." The mayor is vowing to veto legislation that moves the tunnel forward unless the state picks up the cost overruns.

The viaduct dispute is just one sign that, in his fervor to get people out of automobiles, McGinn is unlike any big city mayor in the country. He's pushing for Seattle to reopen plans for another major road project--a new bridge on Highway 520--so that it can accommodate light rail, even though the city's existing plans don't call for light rail there for years. McGinn also has pitched an expansion of light rail to the city's west side. He's launched an initiative called "Walk, Bike, Ride," declaring in a statement, "We cannot sustain the financial, environmental and health costs of a transportation system that is overly reliant on automobiles."

For now, these proposals represent a bold vision, but little more. The main result of the mayor's stands is that he has alienated most of the Council, which faults him for trying to reverse decisions that already have been made. McGinn has played the role of outspoken activist, even challenging the Council president to a debate on the tunnel. He hasn't built consensus. As a result, the Council may override McGinn on both the tunnel and the 520 bridge. "You can't really go it alone when you're working on regional and state projects," says Council Transportation Chairman Tom Rasmussen.

Andy Kim is a former GOVERNING staff writer.
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