Seattle: the tunnel & the mayor

It will be 1.7 miles long under the heart of downtown Seattle, pass under 158 separate buildings, has been in the planning stages for a decade, will require a payment for each journey undertaken and cost in all, with additional works over $3 billion.

Sounds like a good plan to clear the city of some traffic and pollution and encourage more use of its public transport system? You’d think so, but the building of this 56 feet wide underground tunnel up to 200 feet below the surface has been one of the most contentious projects in the city since settlers first landed at Alki Point in 1852!

At the root of the issue has been the future of the city’s two-storey six-lane Alaskan Way, built in the 1950s, which with adjacent rail tracks dominates the city’s waterfront onto Elliot Bay.

Imagine how the Embarcadero area in San Francisco has changed since this photo below was taken 10 years ago when a major renovation programme was just taking off. Then you can get a idea of what Seattle is now missing and what the waterfront could look like with the Alaskan Way removed.

The Alaskan Way viaduct is an ageing structure, but what brought this to the City’s full attention was the 6.8 Nisqually earthquake in 2001, which left many residents scared and parts of the viaduct seriously weakened as this video clip shows.

The Washington Department of Transport had to carry out urgent repairs but eventually determined that an ‘outside of the box’ solution was needed to confront the city’s transport infrastructure problems. This was to involve the construction of what would become the world’s largest deep bore tunnel, with behind it a new sea wall to hold back the waters of the Puget Sound. After all the delays, a new dawn beckoned!

The snag came when The State House of Representatives decided in 2009 that any costs over $ 1.8 billion would have to be met locally in Seattle. Although the Seattle Port Authority agreed to contribute $300 million for the project and additional monies were to be recouped from users of the tunnel, the issue became highly politicised in April 2009.

Newcomer Michael McGinn, who’d been involved in local campaigning in the city, decided to run for the post of Mayor and fought a successful campaign – in which opposition to the construction of the tunnel was a key element – and was elected.

Just two years later in Feb 2011 when the Seattle City Council voted 8-1 in favour of the tunnel, Mayor McGinn vetoed the decision, only to have his veto overridden by the City Council, again by an 8-1 majority. The Mayor responded by announcing a referendum on the issue, which resulted in a 60% vote in favour of the scheme and a defeat for McGinn. His populist politics had lost the day and the Mayor had now to back down and support the tunnel.

As the story in The New York Times (19 August 2011) last year put it: “the results will be one of the more ambitious public works projects in the country and a remarkable urban transformation.”

In October last year, demolition of the southern end of the Alaskan Way commenced as these photos on flickr show in great detail. It’s good news for Seattle, its residents and its visitors but the story shows too the danger of having an elected Mayor, who may get into a head-on fight with an elected local council.

Voters at next week’s referendums on the issue of electing mayors for some of England’s big cities should think carefully about this experience of costly long delays and political indecision in Seattle, before putting their X in the YES box for having elected mayors!


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