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Seattle's Referendum 1: A Congested Debate About The Viaduct

Derek Wang

It's been the subject of debate for more than a decade, thousands of pages of studies and hundreds of public meetings. We're talking about Seattle's earthquake damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct. Many Seattleites, including rock star Dave Matthews, are tired of all the arguing. In a recent chat with KUOW's Steve Scher, Matthews joked that he just wants the issue to be settled in a street fight or a boxing match.

Matthews: "Maybe televise it? And if both people feel passionately about the conflict, then it's not really violence, it's not like gun violence, it's not like attacking someone, hitting someone with a bat. They should just go at it. We should turn it into a thing like that."

Naturally, there will be no boxing match. Instead, the issue is before voters on the primary ballot.


On a recent afternoon, opponents to the tunnel gathered underneath the viaduct in SODO to plan a march to City Hall.

Protestor: "Who thinks this is a project we can't afford? [crowd cheers] Who thinks Seattle can do better than this? [crowd cheers]"

Chanting: "No tunnel! No tunnel! No tunnel!"

What the tunnel critics want is a vote to reject Referendum 1. The referendum has to do with how the city will work with the state to build the tunnel.

A vote to reject the referendum wouldn't necessarily stop the tunnel, but tunnel opponents are hoping that it will cause policymakers to support a different option.

So naturally, tunnel supporters are urging a vote to approve. Here's a piece of their latest campaign ad:

Ad: "I help take care of my granddaughter, which means driving on the viaduct to school and practice. I wish we could avoid it because the experts warn that it could collapse in the next earthquake. After 10 years of debate it's a big relief they're finally doing something about it. Enough is enough, we must move forward. I'm voting to approve Referendum 1."

The ad ends with the campaign's logo, a logo that prominently shows a bus, suggesting it's the best plan for transit. The tunnel plan originally called for hundreds of millions of dollars for new buses, but that funding hasn't been allocated yet.

This tunnel is different from the one voters rejected in 2007. The southern end would start in SODO, near where these guys have gathered —

Protestors chanting: "No tunnel! No tunnel! No tunnel!"

— on Alaskan Way, near the Seahawks football stadium. From there it would run northeast, diagonally under downtown streets, for 1.7 miles until it emerges a few blocks east of the Seattle Center along Sixth Avenue.

Supporters say the tunnel would provide a reliable trip through downtown. And they say there would be other benefits. Kate Joncas is the president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association.

Joncas: "It enables freight mobility to the Port 'cause those are good paying Port jobs. It creates an incredible waterfront park; there's $300 million in the package to help us get forward on our waterfront park, it would be such a great thing for downtown. It includes bicycle and pedestrian improvements. It restores salmon habitat, makes storm water improvements and most importantly, it has funding."

Funding has been a big argument all along: There are worries about the overall price tag and cost over runs. The latest funding squabble is about tolls.

Part of the state's plan to pay for the tunnel calls for tolls. Under one scenario being considered, a round trip during peak hours could cost as much as nine dollars.

Critics say that will just create more traffic problems because drivers would avoid the tunnel and the tolls. Colin Maloney is with the campaign against the tunnel, urging a "reject" vote on Referendum 1.

Maloney: "If we had to close the viaduct tomorrow because of an earthquake and did nothing, we would see similar congestion levels if we spent $4.5 billion to build the tunnel. Because people are going to avoid the tunnel and clog the nearby city streets."

Maloney backs up his claim by pointing to the state's Environmental Impact Statement, a study that's thousands of pages long.

State planners admit that the tolling plan could use some work and is still being refined. Also city and state planners say they'll work to come up with a plan intended to discourage drivers from taking city streets: A plan that could include electronic reader boards about travel times.

Some tunnel opponents prefer re–working city streets and Interstate 5 and boosting transit service. But the state's latest study did not put that option in a side–by–side comparison with the tunnel, and state lawmakers have not allocated any money for it. That's a point Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata, a tunnel supporter, hammered home during a council meeting earlier this year.

Licata: "The state Legislature has not given one dollar towards it. So you have a risk of a tunnel that may go over, we don't know."

Unidentified man in audience: "May? [laughter]"

Licata: "We do know, we do know that we have $2.2 billion; we have zero, we have zero for the transit and surface option. So making decisions isn't easy. And it's easy to be against things. It's hard to be for something."

Still tunnel opponents are hoping that they might find funding for the surface transit plan if enough people reject the referendum. Tunnel supporters say that will just create more delay.

One of the few areas of agreement between supporters and opponents is that the viaduct needs to be replaced; they agree the current structure is a safety hazard.

One of the reasons why this debate has gone on so long is because it affects so many people. It's a literal connection between people across different neighborhoods, socio–economic classes and professions. It's a connection that for many in Seattle has been a major division.

I'm Derek Wang, KUOW News.

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