Concerns have led the Seattle group of the Sierra Club — along with former state chairman and current Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn — to the center of the debate over replacing the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct with a deep-bore tunnel.

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The Sierra Club made a name for itself fighting to protect wilderness areas and the habitats of previously obscure species like the spotted owl.

But over the past decade, the national environmental organization also has advanced an urban agenda it says will make cities more livable.

Last year, in the wake of the Gulf oil spill, the Sierra Club launched a “Beyond Oil” campaign to reduce American dependence on petroleum. It has opposed big highway projects in Salt Lake City and Florida and supports greener transportation alternatives such as light rail, transit, biking and walking.

Those concerns have led the Seattle group of the Sierra Club — along with former state chairman and current Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn — to the center of the debate over replacing the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct with a deep-bore tunnel.

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The Seattle group’s efforts to stop the tunnel reflect its view that a $3.1 billion highway project encourages driving, contributes to greenhouse-gas emissions and sucks up transportation dollars that could be better spent on less-polluting alternatives.

It helped elect McGinn and Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, also a former state chairman.

McGinn vetoed the council’s 8-1 approval of tunnel agreements about the use of city right of way and utilities relocation. O’Brien cast the lone no vote.

The group contributed dozens of volunteers and more than $12,000 to gather signatures and qualify a ballot referendum to cancel those agreements.

City Attorney Pete Holmes has challenged the referendum’s legality, arguing that the agreements signed between the council and the state are administrative in nature and therefore not subject to referendum.

The national Sierra Club organization has joined the lawsuit, arguing that the 29,000 signatures qualify the measure for the ballot and that the courts shouldn’t rule until the public votes.

A judge will hear arguments in May.

Using the Sierra Club?

Brady Montz, chairman of the Seattle Group’s executive committee, said that these days, McGinn is just one of many politicians that the organization talks to while pushing its agenda.

But tunnel supporters suggest that McGinn is the driving force behind the anti-tunnel referendum campaign.

“He’s using Sierra Club folks to push the surface option. The obvious reason is that their numbers are better than his,” said Alex Fryer, spokesman for the pro-tunnel group, Let’s Move Forward.

But O’Brien said that his and the mayor’s opposition to the tunnel is “values-driven” and comes out of their years as Sierra Club activists.

The mayor was actively involved in the referendum effort.

He granted unpaid leave to two staff members to help run the campaign, co-hosted a fundraiser, and has used his platform at City Hall to raise questions about the tunnel’s potential for cost overruns and surface-street gridlock from drivers trying to avoid tolls in the new tunnel.

“I don’t know that they’re engaging in a lawsuit because, ‘Mike needs our help,’ but because this is the kind of issue they fight,” O’Brien said.

Montz emphasizes that many groups joined the referendum campaign, including the Real Change newspaper and Elizabeth Campbell, organizer of another anti-tunnel initiative, and her supporters.

But Montz concedes that McGinn has left a legacy to the club in his willingness to “stand up to powerful forces.”

“He helped create the model for the local Sierra Club that you don’t have to accept everything that comes down the highway, that you can object and a better solution will come,” Montz said.

Kathleen Ridihalgh, senior organizing manager for the Washington and Oregon Sierra Club Chapters, said the group’s opposition to the tunnel grows out of its concern about greenhouse-gas emissions and its national “Beyond Oil” campaign.

Said Ridihalgh: “Investing in alternatives to wean ourselves off oil is the most important thing we can be doing for the environment. For us, this tunnel issue is about not building another highway through Seattle.”

Latest battle

This isn’t the first time the Sierra Club, with 23,000 members in the state, has fought a major highway project. McGinn and other activists in 2007 challenged the political establishment by opposing a regional highway and transit-tax package they said was too heavily weighted toward roads.

Voters rejected the package and a year later approved a transit-only package advocated by the club.

“We never bought into that argument that you have to tie rail to roads to get it funded,” said Kevin Fullerton, a member of the Seattle Group executive committee.

Fullerton said he and other Sierra Club members have been working on a viaduct-replacement plan since 2005.

They were convinced by Cary Moon, of the People’s Waterfront Coalition, that the so-called surface/transit option could handle the viaduct’s current traffic if improvements were made to transit and existing roads.

“If we spend billions on one highway, what else gets shoved aside?” Fullerton asked.

Montz said the Sierra Club isn’t anti-road or anti-car. He said other cities, notably San Francisco, have taken down elevated highways, created pedestrian-friendly waterfronts and not built replacement roads.

If the tunnel isn’t built, he suggests, there wouldn’t be surface-street gridlock because people would drive less, drive at nonpeak times and use more transit. He said government could create incentives to make the alternatives work.

“People change their habits,” he said. “If we build buses and trains, we’re not going to have that congestion.”

No coalition

Not all environmental groups in the region share the Sierra Club’s view that the tunnel is the worst environmental option to replace the viaduct.

Several point out that tearing down the viaduct allows the city to create an appealing green space along the waterfront, reduces surface-water runoff into Puget Sound, eliminates a huge source of noise pollution, and combats sprawl by making the city a more desirable place to live.

“If we are going to preserve wild places like forests and farms, urban living has to be inspirational,” said Peter Goldman, director of the Forest Law Center and a board member of the Washington Conservation Voters.

Goldman said that the mayor’s alternative to the tunnel — improving surface streets, transit and Interstate 5 — takes all the cars that would use the tunnel and dumps them onto existing roads.

“I stand side-by-side with him in wanting to get people out of cars, but traffic jams in front of Ivar’s [on the waterfront] is not a great urban vision,” Goldman said.

At People for Puget Sound, Toxics Program Manager Heather Trim said that one of the leading, unaddressed sources of pollution in the Sound is toxic runoff, with the bulk coming from paved surfaces.

The viaduct-replacement project calls for treating all the surface-water runoff along a redesigned waterfront arterial and in the Highway 99 tunnel.

Trim said her organization supported tearing down the viaduct and rebuilding the sea wall so that natural habitat along the waterfront can be restored and salmon migration enhanced. But she said they don’t have a position on how best to replace the elevated highway.

“We’re not a transportation group,” she said.

Similarly, the Washington Conservation Voters and the Washington Environmental Council haven’t taken a position on the tunnel, said Clifford Traisman, lobbyist for both groups.

“It’s not a black-and-white environmental issue,” he said.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or