Seattle's impending car-centric mega-tunnel: a chat with urbanist Cary Moon
DR: Gregoire’s a Democratic politician. Isn’t Seattle part of her political base? Does she really want to flip it off?
CM: That’s an issue for her. But this debate’s now gotten polarized. The Downtown Seattle Association, the regional Chamber of Commerce, and the King County Labor Council are in heavy-duty cheerleading mode. The people who are opposing it are the good governance types, environmentalists, city types. I think Gregoire’s just made a political calculation that we’re not as important.
DR: Explain to me why downtown merchants want to build something that enables cars to bypass downtown.
CM: I have no idea.
DR: That seems against their interests, doesn’t it?
CM: I think their political calculation is that state highway department and certain legislators like those who run both transportation committees are hell-bent on some kind of highway. If they don’t do the bored tunnel, they’re going to force an elevated. And they don’t want the elevated because they want the benefit of a great civic waterfront, so they’re willing to put up with all the shortcomings of the tunnel, and all the risk, because it gets the waterfront they want.
DR: They don’t think the surface option is a serious option?
CM: Well, they signed the letter saying, let’s do the surface option and keep the door open for the bored tunnel. A pretty large group of downtown business leaders went on a field trip to San Francisco and learned about the Embarcadero and realized, OK, this can work. But they weren’t the majority and they probably felt a little bit too aggressive and progressive for their comrades, so they compromised on the bored tunnel. That’s the way I see it.
DR: I went to an event a few years ago and heard Gregoire talk about clean energy and climate change with great passion and eloquence. Yet there’s this disconnect when it comes to reducing vehicle miles traveled and building out transit. How does she square it?
CM: My guess is that she’s not an urban person. The argument that you can solve this problem with transit and demand management, and the city will be fine — she just doesn’t believe it. She’s been in Olympia her whole life. She doesn’t get why Amsterdam works, why Copenhagen works, and why New York City and San Francisco work. She just doesn’t think that way.
So when the Chamber of Commerce and Boeing say, you don’t understand, this is absolutely vital for us that we have more highways, she doesn’t have the tools to argue. In some ways that’s a failure of our side [to communicate that] good cities are about transit and walkability. It’s this mix of urbanism and environmentalism that we haven’t quite got right yet in Seattle.
DR: The Seattle City Council has proclaimed that Seattle is going to be carbon-neutral by 2030. Nickels started the Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement. We’re known all over the world as a green city, and we’re getting ready to build a highway mega-project.
Seattle Climate Protection Initiative: Progress Report 2009CM: We did an assessment a year or two ago of our progress on Kyoto goals and found we’re on track in all the areas but transportation. Until we confront that issue, we’re not going to make our goal. Everybody looked at that and just walked away from the commitment. We don’t even talk about the Kyoto Protocol anymore in the Mayors’ Climate Initiative. It faded from reality.
DR: In welcome political circumstances like these, why can’t smart urbanists and environmentalists win these fights? What’s going wrong?
CM: That’s such a hard question.
The debate too easily gets polarized into what’s good for business vs. what those wacko environmentalists want. Having a platform on job growth and economic growth and a green future together would help bring people together. We haven’t done that successfully yet, that’s one criticism I’ll take for our side.
Second, the status quo protection machine is incredibly powerful. With a city like ours that’s strong and wealthy, there are a lot of people who are happy with things the way they are. It’s hard to get them to aim for a different future, because change is scary and they’re not sure they’re going to make as much money in that future.
DR: I don’t get Boeing. They just want people to be able to get from Seattle to their factories in the suburbs north and south of the city?
CM: They freely admit they don’t even use the Viaduct.
CM: They just have this worldview that two highways is the magic number, not one highway and 10 good streets. Even though the data showed this is not true, they predicted that I-5 will turn to gridlock if the Viaduct is not replaced with another highway. The data proved that that wouldn’t happen, but that’s what they believe.[Climate activist] K.C. Golden and I met with the Boeing people. We had all the facts in front of us, and they just looked at us and said, no, we don’t believe that.
DR: How long will the tunnel take?
CM: Gov. Gregoire first said she’s going to tear down the viaduct in 2012, no matter what. Then she moved it to 2015. She recently moved it again to 2016. That’s when the tunnel would open.
With surface/transit/I-5, in 2008 they said it could be done by 2012. I guess that puts us at 2014 now.
DR: Seattleites voted for the Monorail twice, against the stadium, against the tunnel. We’re getting the opposite. Why is that?
CM: We’re a big enough city to have one power cabal downtown that basically does what they want. We’re not big enough to have two. If we were big enough to have two business groups fighting against each other, everything would be in the open, and maybe the public would get listened to.
DR: So what’s the next big event?
CM: On Dec. 16, [Seattle City Councilmember Tom] Rasmussen and [State Sen.] Ed Murray are going to be defending the tunnel plan. That should be interesting. Then the EIS comment [period]. A lot of organizations are looking at how bad this thing is for the city.
I think SDOT’s going to distance themselves more and more from the project [SDOT did just that yesterday], let WSDOT move forward on their own. That’s going to affect the politics of City Council.
Then, the governor thinks she’s going to sign a contract [with Tutor-Perini, which is currently facing fraud and racketeering charges] in January or February. That’s before the final EIS is even released. That’s kind of illegal, so there might be an EIS challenge.
DR: What’s the point of no return?
CM: I don’t know. There are some [state] legislators who are fed up with how expensive and risky it is. There is always a chance legislators could say, we’re done with this. That’s a long shot.
It’s funding silos. The state highway department only funds highways. They have one tool to solve every problem: build a highway. That’s not the right tool in cities most of the time.
DR: It’s tough to see how it’s the right tool in this case.
CM: If you were on the receiving end of that $2 billion, you might see otherwise.