How Seattle's Deep-Bore Highway Opponents Lost Their Own Referendum

Opponents of Seattle’s deep-bore tunnel lost a big one yesterday. A voter referendum they hoped might kill the plan to replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct with a massive underground highway went down in a 60-40 vote, following a superior campaign by pro-tunnel forces.

A ballot referendum aimed at halting Seattle's buried highway project has failed. Where did the campaign go wrong? Image: ## Met##

We’ve reported before how this exorbitantly expensive highway project will retrench car dependence in Seattle while exhausting resources that could be used to advance environmentally and financially sustainable solutions like better transit and cycling amenities.

Just a few months ago, energized project opponents handily gathered the 29,000 signatures needed to take their fight to the ballot. While lacking the financial resources of deep-pocket downtown supporters, it seemed the anti-tunnel coalition had momentum and public opinion on their side.

But along the way, the opposition group stumbled while tunnel-proponents found a way to capitalize. Sandeep Kaushik at PubliCola is sorting through the rubble of the campaign and delivers this post-mortem:

So what happened? The campaign happened. As the Let’s Move Forward pro-tunnel side ran an effective, disciplined campaign — central message: tens years of debate is long enough, it is time to move forward — the anti-tunnel forces floundered, making a series of strategic and tactical errors that damaged their cause.

Their voter guide statement promised that a no vote would lead to “a better solution” but they completely avoided even a hint of what that solution might be. That 8-page Protect Seattle Now insert in the Times? It begins with the all caps headline, “SEATTLE, WE CAN DO BETTER THAN THIS,” but nowhere in the brochure did they provide any mention of what they meant by “better.”

I wish surface-transit supporters had been more forthright, and put a measure on the ballot that offered a clear choice between their preferred option and the tunnel. I understand why they didn’t do that. They believed that they would have won fewer votes if they were open about the solution they supported. But they might have won mine.

Perhaps the pro-transit, pro-livability forces in Seattle should have heeded the lessons from this Mineta Transportation Institute study [PDF] on success factors in transit referendums, which emphasizes the importance of a savvy marketing campaign.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Copenhagenize compiles an exhaustive list of research showing that bike infrastructure is valuable and effective, then contrasts it with the paltry, inconsistent and partisan counter-evidence. Cap’n Transit asks what it would take to make New York’s rail transit operate at a profit, like Hong Kong’s system. And Pattern Cities reports on the various groups installing swings to liven up random locations around U.S. cities, including bus stops.

73 thoughts on How Seattle's Deep-Bore Highway Opponents Lost Their Own Referendum

  1. psst – typo – Hong King should be Hong Kong (feel free to delete this comment after correction)

  2. I’m not betting that tunnel gets much farther than this, though, just due to engineering and economic realities.  2nd ave subway, anyone? That said, the viaduct needs to be dismantled asap, before the next earthquake ends the debate by taking it down in a couple of minutes.

  3. I’m not surprised, but dismayed. Having lived in Seattle in the 90s I can tell you that these kinds of campaigns have two sides: the business/union/establishment politician side with tons of money and big consulting talent, and the Other Side which has neither, and doesn’t figure out that they need superior numbers of people on the ground talking to actual voters, not jerking off online and thinking that works instead of voter contact.

    This is how Seattle became a fiefdom in the 80s and 90s for big business, billions for stadiums (stadia?) and all the while real needs were passed over. Only one mayor took the boom times and allocated it to sensible neighborhood planning and the libraries and such, and he was run out of town on a rail, hated by the progressives (aka faux-gressives) and the business interests he could tell to fuck off because he had the cash to run his campaign. And yet his legacy is one of accomplishment while his successors have been either corrupt or stupid.

    Paul Schell, you were robbed.

  4. I live in Seattle, and am an all-time supporter for transit and complete streets. But, people really need to understand that (1) the tunneled highway still leads to capacity reduction (6-lane becomes 4-lane), (2) there will be tolls, which motivate more people to take transit, and (3) it is very difficult to accommodate thousands of freight trucks destined to/from the adjacent Port of Seattle, which is the 3rd largest port in the US when combined with nearby Port of Tacoma, without any limited-access highway. Simply eliminating this would push thousands of freight trucks onto busy, relatively transit-oriented streets and expose pedestrians and bicyclists to these trucks.

    Having said these, I think the mistake was that the mayor, who opposes the project, should have used this referendum, or threat of referendum, to draw more funding for transit. Even for average Seatteleite, arguably most liberally-minded citizens in the nation, simply saying no to project after ten years of negotiation sounded really silly. 

  5. I stopped following Seattle politics closely when I moved away 20 years ago, but I knew Paul Schell personally before he ever got into politics, and he never struck me as having much social intelligence. I was always mildly surprised by his ability to get elected to anything.

  6. Paul Schell also had a little problem being in office during a certain event in late November/Early December 1999 that was foisted on him by the Port of Seattle, Boeing and the other low-self-image-types who wanted desperately to be reassured that Seattle was now a “World-Class City”.

    And that is why the current phase of WTO talks is called the “Doha Round”.

  7. The pro-tunnel campaign was heavily funded by (surprise) the contractors in like do build it. 
    Looking at a map, the tunnel appears to be effectively just adding lanes to existing highway 5.  If it’s built, and tolled, I hope the tolls reflect the real cost of the consstruction

  8. A tunnel in the historic tidal flats has some difficult geologic realities to overcome. Seattle/Tacoma has some amazing freight rail opportunities that will diminish the need for heavy trucks. In fact, by the time this project is completed I think fuel prices will make long haul diesel trucks obsolete.

    I think Alaskan Way will have to go down the same way the Embarcadero Freeway did.

  9. As usual, the Democrats will fold like a cheap tent and then finally get the nerve to stand up against it in 10 years when it’s already much, much too late.

  10. I’m starting to come around to this idea. Trump’s “Blind trust” is a sham. He has an incredible conflict of interest with his kids running his companies, and he could easily set up the country’s institutions so he personally profits, akin to what Berlusconi did in Italy. Trump supporters get lax regulation & government investment, while Trump critics are heavily regulated, investigated, and otherwise harassed and have all government investment withdrawn. His lack of political ideals makes this all the more likely, since why else does he want power, other than for its own sake & his benefit?

  11. How about seeing what’s on offer before deciding to reject it? If it’s a typical package of roads to nowhere which won’t benefit cities at all then of course reject it. On the other hand, if fairies fly out of Trump’s ass and we get $50 billion in NYC for subway expansion we would be fools not to take it. The latter almost certainly won’t happen, but the point is let’s see what we get first before making any decision.

  12. The interstate system needs to be rebuilt. Any other ideas on how to pay for it? Nope?

    Perhaps some of those tolls could be directed to transit, to make up for the cost of the original interstate system (land acquisition) paid for by people in cities and not the gas tax.

  13. Sure. But that isn’t what is being discussed here. What is being advocated is doing to Trump what the Tea Party did to Obama, and trying to screw things up so he become less popular. This is about being blindly AGAINST Trump.

    No, I don’t think much of the guy either. But if he can be pried away from that Republican Congress, all the better.

  14. The Tea Party didn’t stop Obama’s agenda. Congress did. Even the Democrats in the Senate nixxed the public option of ObamaCare.

    There is no evidence that a bunch of whining urbanites cans top Trump’s mandate because that mandate isn’t based on the cities at all.

  15. Because not doing so could come back to bite them in the ass big time in two years. Also, Trump has considerable real estate in NYC and Chicago. Its value would tank if cities became less viable.

    You have the long term trends as well. The rural white middle class voters who put Trump in this time are a dying demographic. If Republicans want to remain relevant nationally eventually they’ll have to start taking the concerns of cities more seriously. On top of that, many of their supporters are getting to an age where they can’t drive. I’m sure they would welcome alternatives.

  16. Many non-whites voted for Trump. You will need some better and more credible stereotypes if you want to play identity politics in this town.

  17. if interstates are privatized they would pay property taxes as well as other taxes, same as private railroads today. There would be a net gain to government coffers.

    FYI – the interstates are in fabulous condition.

  18. The woman that wrote this surely had no idea who Steve Bannon was before last week and is referring to him as notorious.

    This is the type of bubble that got Hillary’s ass handed to her. Keep living in your dream world.

    Democrats blowing all their limited currency on a lie…

  19. Except the cities didn’t get outvoted. Hillary got more votes and that margin continues to grow as the counting of ballots continues.

  20. The most important thing to stand up for is something the Democrats aren’t in favor of either: generational equity.

    It would be nice if they tried to block another national party at the expense of poorer younger generations. But it turns out that the fiscal rape of everyone under the age of 59 or so (and going up every year) is the only thing Generation Greed can agree on.

    After all they don’t have to worry. The children are resilient. (Even at age 70 — if they get that far).

    “The only one to blame for the divide is Obama, the Democrats, and the media.”

    How about that divided, between Generation Greed and those to follow? The one that’s under Omertà? “We want to take out more and put in less. You work out the details. We have needs!”

  21. Berlusconi is a dead ringer for Trump.

    Right down to starting as a real estate developer, getting a reputation as a womanizer, moving to TV, taking over a right wing political party.

  22. You mean, the president you didn’t respect, the party you don’t belong to, and the news you don’t read?

  23. The “lie” here being… what, exactly? That Trump’s infrastructure plan will require a massive debt-fueled spending surge? That Trump can’t be counted on to funnel federal infrastructure spending to the best, most cost-effective contractors, or the smartest, most economically beneficial projects?

    You don’t have to be in a bubble to lose elections. You can be in a bubble and still win them. And Trump supporters are in quite a huge bubble, if they think that Trump can be counted on to “drain the swamp.” He is waving a trillion dollar check under the noses of the nation’s infrastructure builders. He will need to be incredibly diligent and savvy, if he’s going to pull this off without creating a lot of waste, in the form of bridges to nowhere, no-bid contracts, and the like. But nothing from his career or campaign suggests that he has what it takes to pull something like this off. If you believe that he does anyway, then you’re the one in the bubble.

    In fifteen years or so, once a lot of this has been built and the money burned away, we’ll look back and it’ll be yet another textbook case of why the federal government can’t be trusted to do things.

  24. The cities are where the economic growth is happening. Building new highways to towns that are struggling to survive because global coal demand isn’t coming back or because manufacturing is cheaper overseas isn’t going to make those towns economically productive.

    By any analysis, it’s just smart to invest resources in denser development. When you have more jobs packed together, you’ve got broader employment pools, more competition between employers and businesses, less infrastructure cost per capita, etc. Virtually every city and state – red or blue – functions economically by taxing denser areas to subsidize less-dense ones. So every dollar spent on smart infrastructure in urban areas comes back to rural areas as a net positive investment.

    Granted that most rural voters don’t understand this and so most of their politicians cater to this notion that rural voters actually constitute the “backbones” of their state and national economies. But this political message is always in tension with economic reality, so what you see in a lot of red states is actually a relatively moderated approach of expropriation from urban centers for rural benefit. Except then you have cases like Kansas, where the political message has been allowed to distort policy, resulting in massive economic mismanagement.

  25. Many of the non-white voters who came out voted for Trump, yes. But the rural white middle class that Joe’s referring to are ultimately what shifted the election in Trump’s favor (when combined by the historically low turnout of supporters for Hillary). Basically, Trump won because he got white voters to come out for him, while Hillary failed to get non-white voters out for her.

  26. I legitimately cannot tell if you’re a Tea Partier or a Liberal, this sort of rhetoric is something I’d typically expect out of the former but I’ve been seeing from the latter lately.

    Frankly, Trump should at least be given a chance on infrastructure. If he’s willing to spend a $1,000,000,000,000, just 20% to rail (or 200 Billion) would be a major boost to existing projects. Given his desire to revitalize American coal and gas (commodities overwhelmingly delivered by rail), this is not impossible to pull off.

  27. Viewing transit as inherently urban-focused is wrong too. Amtrak is a $500 million/yr subsidy for rural communities. Making that system work better (including bookend connections) benefits all Americans.

    Also, Trump himself is an urbanite far moreso than any other top Republican. At the very least he has a personal financial interest in seeing land values in LA, Chicago, Miami and especially NYC increase.

  28. The video of you re: working with Trump is the best, most straight forward speech I have yet heard given to the very people – the heart of the government – that most need to hear it. Thank you for your courage to keep going despite 3 reminders not to do so. You have loudly said that “The Emperor has no clothes”. We’ve got your back. Amen, amen.

  29. I would agree with a smart infrastructure package, focused not just on transportation networks but high-speed internet, and renewable energy. Building out rail to deliver coal that no one’s buying is precisely the kind of dumb investment I don’t agree with.

    This money needs to be spent intelligently, is all I’m saying. Not frittered away by an administration that seems sure to be more than usually prone to corrupting influences.

  30. I agree, unfortunately. I see little reason for Trump to advocate for smart infrastructural development when he could easily do whatever he wants, however well he wants, and then lie to middle America about how well’s he’s doing it, through Breitbart.

    It’ll be like Dubya’s “Heckuva job, Brownie!” except that Breitbart readers will be conditioned to believe it.

  31. Streetsblog, can you please stop the yelling and give the other side a chance? Here in Boston, I was literally told by the bluest of blue professors from Harvard that my family and I live in Boston’s “Black Hole” It was literally their intro before another pointless charrette for the city’s Fairmount Line. Why not just call my neighborhood the cesspool of the city? I had faith in Alex Krieger and his Harvard Design school, but we were just getting lip service. The state’s transportation agency, under a Democrat transportation secretary, cut our transportation funding and gave it to the suburbs for a trolley. Give the other side a chance, please.

  32. I think most Trump voters have no idea who he really is (was?), but he has been in our face in New York for 30 years.

  33. The government is horrible at spending tax payers money without waste. I agree with you 100% there. I am hoping they will figure out a way to do it efficiently and minimize waste. If they can, and can funnel it to worthwhile places I think it’s money well spent.

    Aren’t democrats always, always, always high on Keynsian economics and stimulus?

    I’m sure no matter how it’s spent, even if it all went to minority contractors to rebuild inner cities, Trump will get slammed by the left for waste and corruption.

  34. Aren’t democrats always, always, always high on Keynsian economics and stimulus?

    It doesn’t work as well when high economic rents are paid by contractors charging monopoly-like prices for contracts they don’t have to compete for. That money doesn’t produce value, doesn’t pay wages.

    I’m sure no matter how it’s spent, even if it all went to minority contractors to rebuild inner cities, Trump will get slammed by the left for waste and corruption.

    And I’m sure that, if the program had the political support to get through while Obama was in office, the right would have slammed him for waste and corruption.

    Let’s try to stick to facts, shall we? And not engage in maligning political contingents for things they’ve not even had the opportunity to do.

  35. Dear Rep Ruben Gallego, stop playing to the gallery. Time for campaigning and inflaming the masses is over but time to heal the nation and work with those you may not like for the good of the country. Save your venom for 2020. If you start out this way, the same treatment meted to Obama by the other side, you set the stage for Trump (as the country) to underperform as well. Listen to grown-ups and start with an open mind. Politics is a different kind of combat.–A democrat

  36. “Let’s try to stick to facts, shall we?”

    Pot to Kettle “You’re black”.

    Yes let’s stick to facts, better yet, let’s wait to see how the new administration implements it’s stimulus before slamming it for doing things it hasn’t done yet, like sole source bids and overly generous contracts.

  37. I think I explained, above, why I don’t believe Trump has the skills necessary to effectively and efficiently spend a trillion dollars on national infrastructure. This is based on his business record, his approach to management, and his aversion to work.

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