Keep Digging

Why a recent ruling on the tunnel puts Seattle deeper in the hole.

The only certainties left standing after Judge Laura Gene Middaugh’s ruling Friday on the deep-bore tunnel referendum are these: It’s 2007 all over again, and Mayor Mike McGinn doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Actually, with Middaugh deciding there will be a vote about—but not “on”—the tunnel, a comparison to 2007 may be doubtful, too. That was when voters shot down both a tunnel and a viaduct rebuild, indicating perhaps they wanted to try the surface-transit option. (Mayor Greg Nickels somehow interpreted that to mean they just wanted another kind of tunnel, which is why he’s citizen Greg Nickels today.) It was ultimately an inexact and eventually meaningless vote.

The latest vote, set for the August primary, will be even less definitive: Seattleites won’t be voting up or down on a tunnel or on any options. They’ll be deciding (advising?) whether to keep or repeal part of a city ordinance that guides, in this instance, the manner by which the council approves or disapproves continuing the tunnel plan. (Confused yet?) It’s a public vote on the council’s procedural vote—to what end, no one’s certain.

Yet McGinn insisted after the ruling that “now we can make a decision once and for all on this project.” You have to figure he’d gotten dizzy pedaling uphill too fast. As even Judge Middaugh said of her decision: “Is there going to be a tunnel or not? This doesn’t resolve that . . . [it] doesn’t resolve any of the issues.”

For that matter, one of the tunnel-backing groups, Let’s Move Forward, saw the ruling as a victory, saying it “validated agreements between the City of Seattle and State of Washington to move ahead.” It went on: “The judge allowed a public vote on a single section of the ordinance that adopted the tunnel-building agreements. She emphasized that the referendum will not determine the future of the tunnel project: ‘This is not a referendum on whether we are going to have a tunnel or not. It’s about how you’re going to make a decision about whether we are going to have a tunnel,’ she said.”

The irony is that the mayor and others hailing last Friday’s ruling don’t seem to realize that, if progress at the ballot box is any measure of success, they were further ahead four years back. And following August’s vote, which will surely be deemed inconclusive by one side or another, more legal action and delays will ensue.

The “Seattle Way” is one thing. Now it has come to this: a city unable to say yes or no to yes or no.