Seattle's great argument about what to do about the viaduct rages on, even in the elevated freeway's final few days. But there's a surprising answer about who turned out to be right.
Shaking my head that our former governor and former Seattle mayor are still arguing over who was right about the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
The aging elevated freeway on Seattle’s waterfront is in its final countdown, slated to be closed forever on Friday night. It’s been a political eternity in coming: Since the Nisqually quake fatally damaged the double-decker in 2001, we’re on our third governor and, believe it or not, seventh mayor overseeing the replacement project.
The fight about it, though, may never die.
In this corner we have Christine Gregoire, ex-governor, who in an excellent Seattle Times “how we got here” recap threw some shade at the greenie idea that we could have torn it down and replaced it with transit.
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“To do the surface street, which was an option, if I was to look back now in light of the growth of the city, that would have been a terrible mistake,” she said.
And in that corner is Mike McGinn, the former mayor whose fiery political career was both born and killed off over his opposition to drilling a tunnel (which is ultimately what we chose to do).
“There was this idea that there will be economic catastrophe if we don’t build the tunnel,” McGinn says today. “We’ve been a very, very successful city, and I don’t think it’s because it’s easy to drive around or easy to find parking. That’s actually not the secret to our success.”
Now, as a newspaper columnist, my main job is to start fights, not settle them. So I’m about to type words I don’t believe have ever graced this space before:
They both were right.
The governor is right that Seattle grew massively beyond expectations from when this debate was raging back in the mid-2000s. The growth was so explosive it changed the gravitational pull of the entire downtown, sharply reorienting it to the north — happily, to exactly where the new tunnel now empties out, in South Lake Union.
Consider that in 2007, when Amazon announced it was moving from Beacon Hill to South Lake Union, city officials estimated the company could grow to house as many as 6,000 workers there.
Just 12 years later, though, the company actually employs eight times that estimate, nearing 50,000. The region near the south portal of the new tunnel is also growing rapidly, with Starbucks, Weyerhaeuser and more Amazon offices.
Can anyone say we would be better off if we didn’t have a new tube connecting all this? One that can also be used by buses, Amazon shuttles and electric cars heading to Seattle’s new tech downtown?
But McGinn was absolutely right in his main point, too. What Seattle desperately needed, more than a new highway, was more transit. But guess what? We ended up doing the McGinn part of the plan, too.
If you look back at what McGinn was proposing for his green alternative to the tunnel, it was to tear down the viaduct and put in a surface boulevard and bus-rapid transit lines. Then, longer term, light rail to Ballard and West Seattle.
Check, check and check. Thanks to subsequent voter approvals of major ballot issues for buses, city transportation and regional light rail, all of those, and more, are also in the works.
Yes, the tunnel project is coming in about 18 percent over its $3.3 billion budget — so McGinn was right there would be cost overruns. But Gregoire was apparently right Seattle wouldn’t get saddled with them. And for all the doom saying, an 18 percent overrun, much of which may still be paid by the contractor, isn’t all that bad for one of these megaprojects anyway.
This result shows the limits of our politics. The fighting was so long-lasting in part because it was bitterly presented as an “either/or” choice. You can have a highway or more transit. You’re with Gregoire or with McGinn. Nobody foresaw, or had the crazy optimism to suggest, that the true right answer for boomtown Seattle might be: “both/and.”
As for our most loved and loathed stretch of roadway, I honored it this week the only way I know how — by joy-riding on it one last time.
I got up on the top deck going northbound. We may be sick of fighting about it, but the ride it affords, up on that corridor of brick, glass, and glimpses of near-wilderness, with the harrowing drop to the Sound, is one of the more exhilarating and scenic in America. Especially at twilight at 50 mph with the windows down.
A local band has a paean song, “O Viaduct!” which I cranked to top volume as the rooftops danced by.
“O Viaduct, you’re out of luck,” it goes. “They said you’d fall, and kill us all, but you were tried and true.”
The band’s name, appropriately enough, is The Argument.