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Five highways endangered by one Seattle mayor

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on May 6, 2010 at 6:17 pm |
May 6, 2010 6:20 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Every so often you read about a 2- or 3-year-old who crawls behind the wheel while the engine’s running, drives off in Mom’s car and soon winds up in the ditch.

That’s looking like a painfully apt metaphor for Mike McGinn, the new mayor at the wheel of the City of Seattle.

When elected, McGinn – an environmental activist – had neither the experience nor the expertise needed to run a large city. Now it’s becoming clear he also lacks the temperament and political savvy.

That might not be such a big deal to most Washingtonians if the damage could be contained inside the 206 area code. But five major state and federal highways run through or around Seattle, and the mayor is displaying a petulant obstructionist streak that could threaten every one of them.

Since taking office in January, McGinn has been working to undo a settled multi-city agreement for replacing the Evergreen Point floating bridge, which carries state Route 520 across Lake Washington. Time is of the essence in getting that project moving. If the decaying bridge collapsed in a storm or earthquake, as engineers say it might, Interstates 90 and 405 would wind up paralyzed with traffic.

McGinn also opposes the hard-won deal to replace the earthquake-damaged Alaskan Way viaduct with a tunnel.

He has championed a surface boulevard that would cut the route’s existing capacity by perhaps 50,000 cars a day. In his utopian world, Earth-friendly mass transit would make up the difference. In the real world, that stretch of state Route 99 would become hell, and desperate commuters would jam downtown Seattle and Interstate 5.

McGinn pledged not to obstruct the tunnel during the mayoral campaign. That pledge is now floating face down in Commencement Bay. On Wednesday, the mayor vowed to veto a cooperation pact the Seattle City Council is preparing to sign with the state; this legislation is needed to get the tunnel built.

The mayor argues that the state must first excuse Seattle from its obligation to bear the risk for any of the tunnel’s overrun costs. The Legislature had insisted upon that obligation as a condition for building the pricey tunnel Seattle leaders wanted. The requirement was a matter of law long before McGinn promised not to fight the project once in office.

If overruns were really the issue, McGinn wouldn’t be trying to force further delay. Waiting until economic recovery drives up the prices of borrowing, concrete, steel and labor is the surest way to stick Seattleites with a big, avoidable bill.

More delay also heightens the risk that the viaduct will be lost entirely – with no alternative in place – if another earthquake either collapses or fatally weakens it. That scenario really dumps the displaced state Route 99 traffic onto I-5 and I-405 – and maybe kills hundreds of viaduct commuters in the bargain.

Major highways are serious business, and it takes serious people to make them work. Fortunately, there appear to be enough grownups on the Seattle City Council to override McGinn on the tunnel pact. They’re going to have to keep a grip on the steering wheel for a few years to come.

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