May 30, 2023
On this midweek show, Crystal chats with former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and his former Senior Communications Advisor Robert Cruickshank about the missed opportunity for generational impact through how decisions were made about Seattle’s waterfront and the SR99 tunnel. Mike and Robert review how the vision of the scrappy People’s Waterfront Coalition, centered around making a prized public space accessible for all while taking the climate crisis on by transforming our transportation system, nearly won the fight against those who prioritized maintaining highway capacity and those who prioritized increasing Downtown property values.
The conversation then highlights how those with power and money used their outsized influence to make backroom decisions - despite flawed arguments and little public enthusiasm for their proposal - leaving Seattle with an underutilized deep bore tunnel and a car-centric waterfront. Some of the decision makers are still active in local politics - including current Mayor Bruce Harrell and his current advisor Tim Burgess. With important elections ahead, Crystal, Mike and Robert discuss how political decisions tend to conflict with campaign promises rather than donor rolls, how proven action is a better indicator than value statements, and how today’s dense ecosystem of progressive leaders and organizations can take inspiration and win the next fight.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Mike is the Executive Director of national nonprofit America Walks. He got his start in local politics as a neighborhood activist pushing for walkability. From there he founded a non-profit focused on sustainable and equitable growth, and then became mayor of Seattle. Just before joining America Walks, Mike worked to help Feet First, Washington State’s walking advocacy organization, expand their sphere of influence across Washington state. He has worked on numerous public education, legislative, ballot measure and election campaigns – which has given him an abiding faith in the power of organizing and volunteers to create change.
Robert is the Director of Digital Strategy at California YIMBY and Chair of Sierra Club Seattle. A long time communications and political strategist, he was Senior Communications Advisor to Mike McGinn from 2011-2013.
“Seattle Waterfront History Interviews: Cary Moon, Waterfront Coalition” by Dominic Black from HistoryLink
“State Route 99 tunnel - Options and political debate" from Wikipedia
“Remembering broken promises about Bertha” by Josh Cohen from Curbed Seattle
“Fewer drivers in Seattle’s Highway 99 tunnel could create need for bailout” by Mike Lindblom from The Seattle Times
“Surface Highway Undermines Seattle’s Waterfront Park” by Doug Trumm from The Urbanist
“Seattle Prepares to Open Brand New Elliott Way Highway Connector” by Ryan Packer from The Urbanist
[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington state through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast to get the full versions of our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, the most helpful thing you can do is leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
Today, I am very excited to be welcoming Robert Cruickshank and former Mayor Mike McGinn to the show to talk about something that a lot of people have been thinking about, talking about recently - and that is Seattle's new waterfront. We feel like we've spent a decade under construction - from a deep bore tunnel to the tunnel machine getting stuck - that's not even covering all the debate before that, but all of the kind of follies and foibles and challenges that have beset the process of arriving at the waterfront that we have now. And now that we are getting the big reveal, a lot of people have feelings about it. So I thought we would talk about it with one of the people who was at the forefront of criticisms of the tunnel and calling out some red flags that turned out to be a very wise warning - several wise warnings that have come to pass, unfortunately - for not listening to them. But I want to start early on in the beginning, both of you - and I had a short stint in the mayor's office - worked on this, talked about this on the campaign, really got it. But when did you first hear that we needed to replace the viaduct and there were some different opinions about how to make that happen?
[00:02:06] Mike McGinn: Okay, so I'm sure I can't pin down a date, but the really important date was, of course, the Nisqually earthquake in 2001. And so it gave the Alaska Way Viaduct a good shake - the decks weren't tied into the columns, the columns were on fill, which could liquefy - and everybody understood that if that quake had been a little stronger and harder, the elevated would come down. Now you might think that that would call for immediately closing the roadway for safety reasons, but what it did call for was for reconstructing it. And you have to remember that highway was really one of the very first limited access highways - it was built long ago and it was just at the end of its useful life anyway. Certainly not built to modern seismic standards or modern engineering standards.
So the conversation immediately started and I don't know when everything started to settle into different roles, but the Mayor of Seattle Greg Nickels, was immediately a proponent for a tunnel - and a much larger and more expensive tunnel than what was ultimately built. And it would have been a cut-and-cover tunnel along the waterfront that included a new seawall. So they thought they were solving two things at one time - because the seawall too was rotting away, very old, very unstable. But it would have gone all the way under South Lake Union and emerged onto Aurora Avenue further north, it would have had entrances and exits to Western and Elliott. And I seem to remember the quoted price was like $11 billion. And the state - governor at the time was Christine Gregoire - they were - No, we're replacing the highway. We don't have $11 billion for Seattle. And of course had the support of a lot of lawmakers for obvious reasons - we're not going to give Seattle all that money, we want all that highway money for our districts. And those were immediately presented as the alternatives.
And so much of the credit has to go to Cary Moon, who lived on the waterfront and started something called the People's Waterfront Coalition. I think Grant Cogswell, a former City Council candidate - now runs a bookstore down in Mexico City, but wrote a book about the Monorail, worked on the different Monorail campaigns before that - they launched something called the People's Waterfront Coalition. And the basic proposition was - We don't need a highway. This is a great opportunity to get rid of the highway and have a surface street, but if you amp up the transit service - if we invest in transit instead - we can accommodate everyone. And so that was really - as it started - and actually I remember being outside City Hall one day, going to some stakeholder meeting - I went to so many different stakeholder meetings. And I remember Tim Ceis saying to me - he was the Deputy Mayor at the time - You're not supporting that Cary Moon idea - I mean, that's just crazy. I was - Well, actually, Tim. So the Sierra Club was - I was a volunteer leader in the Sierra Club - and the Sierra Club was one of the first organizations - I'm sure there were others, I shouldn't overstate it - but the Sierra Club was persuaded by the wisdom of Cary's idea and supported it in that day. And so that was really how the three different options got launched - no public process, no analysis, no description of what our needs were. The mayor went to a solution, the governor went to a solution - and it was up to members of the public to try to ask them to slow down, stop, and look at something different.
[00:05:42] Crystal Fincher: And Robert, how did you first engage with this issue?
[00:05:47] Robert Cruickshank: For me, I had just moved to Seattle the first time in the fall of 2001 - so it was about six months after the Nisqually quake - and I came from the Bay Area. And that was where another earthquake had damaged another waterfront highway, the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco. And that was where San Francisco had voted - after that quake had damaged their viaduct beyond repair - they voted to tear it down and replace it with the Embarcadero Waterfront, which is a six-lane arterial but they built a lot more transit there. So they did the - what we might call the surface transit option - and it worked really well. It was beautiful. It still is. And so when I came up here and started to learn a little bit about the place I was living and the legacy of the Nisqually quake, I thought - Oh, why don't you just do the same thing here? It worked so well in San Francisco. Let's just tear down this unsightly monstrosity on the waterfront and replace it with a surface boulevard and put in a bunch of transit - San Francisco's made it work successfully. And the more I learned about Seattle, I realized there's a legacy of that here, too. This is a city where we had a freeway revolt, where activists came together and killed the RH Thomson freeway, which would have destroyed the Arboretum. They killed the Bay Freeway, which would have destroyed Pike Place Market. And so I naturally assumed - as being a relatively new resident - that Seattle would stay in that tradition and welcome the opportunity to tear this down and build a great waterfront for people, not cars.
But as we'll talk about in a moment, we have a lot of business interests and freight interests and others who had a different vision - who didn't share that community-rooted vision. And I think at numerous points along the way, though, you see people of Seattle saying - No, this is not what we want for our waterfront. We have an opportunity now with the fact that this viaduct nearly collapsed, as Mike mentioned, in the Nisqually quake - we have an opportunity for something really wonderful here. And so I think Cary Moon and then Mike McGinn and others tapped into that - tapped into a really strong community desire to have a better waterfront. I wasn't that politically engaged at the time in the 2000s - I was just a grad student at UW - but just talking to folks who I knew, anytime this came up - God, wouldn't it be wonderful down there if this was oriented towards people and not cars, and we took that thing down? So I think one of the things you're going to see is this contest between the vision that many of us in Seattle had and still have - this beautiful location, beautiful vista on Elliott Bay, that should be for the people of the city - and those in power who have a very different vision and don't really want to share power or ultimately the right-of-way with We the People.
[00:08:05] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, definitely. And I was involved in some things at the time - some curious coalitions - but definitely I was around a lot of people who favored either rebuilding the viaduct or the tunnel. Definitely not this roads and transit option - there's no way that's workable. That's pie-in-the-sky talk from those loony greenies over there. What are you talking about? But as this went on - I think no matter what camp people were in - there was always a clear vision articulated and people really focused on the opportunity that this represented, and I think correctly characterized it as - this is one of these generational decisions that we get to make that is going to impact the next generation or two and beyond. And there's an opportunity - the waterfront felt very disconnected with the way things were constructed - it was not easy just to go from downtown to the waterfront. It wasn't friendly for pedestrians. It wasn't friendly for tourists. It just did not feel like a world-class waterfront in a world-class city, and how we see that in so many other cities. You talk about the decision with the Embarcadero, Robert, and looking at - that definitely seemed like a definitive step forward. This was sold as - yeah, we can absolutely take a step forward and finally fix this waterfront and make it what it should have been the whole time. As you thought about the opportunity that this represented, what was the opportunity to you and what did you hear other people saying that they wanted this to be?
[00:09:38] Mike McGinn: Yeah, so I think there are - I think that's really important, because I don't think there was a real discussion of what the vision was. People will say there was, but there really wasn't. Because what was baked in and what you're referring to is - well, of course you have to build automobile capacity to replace the existing automobile capacity, right? In fact, this state is still building more highways across the state in the misguided belief that more highway capacity will somehow or another do some good. So this idea that you have to replace and expand highway capacity is extremely powerful in Washington state and across the country. And there were very few examples of highway removal, so that was just a real challenge in the first place - that somehow or other the first priority has to be moving automobiles.
For me, at that time I had become - the issue of climate had really penetrated me at that point. And in fact, when Greg Nickels took office and the Sierra Club endorsed him over Paul Schell - I was a local leader in the Sierra Club and a state leader in the Sierra Club - and my goal was that Mayor Nickels would do more than Paul Schell. And Paul Schell, the prior mayor, had done some good things. He had made Seattle City Light climate neutral - we'd gotten out of coal plants and we didn't purchase power from coal plants. He was really progressive on a number of environmental issues and we wanted Mayor Nickels to do more - and Mayor Nickels had stepped up. So we put on a campaign to urge him to do more. And he had stepped up to start something called the Mayors' Climate Protection Initiative - which was the City of Seattle was going to meet the standards of the Kyoto Protocol, which was like the Paris Agreement of its day. And that was - it set an emissions reduction target by a date in the future. And that was really great - in fact, over a thousand cities around the country signed up to the Mayors' Climate Protection Initiative. And I was appointed to a stakeholder group with other leaders - Denis Hayes from the Bullitt Foundation and others - to develop the first climate action plan for a city. Al Gore showed up at the press conference for it - it was a big - it was a BFD and a lot of excitement.
And one of the things that was abundantly clear through that process of cataloging the emissions in the City of Seattle and coming up with a plan to reduce them was that our single largest source of emissions at that time was the transportation sector. We'd already gotten off of coal power under Mayor Schell - we received almost all of our electricity from hydroelectric dams. We had good conservation programs. Unlike other parts of the country, transportation was the biggest. Now what's fascinating is now - I don't know if I want to do the math - almost 20 years later, now what we see is that the whole country is in the same place. We're replacing coal and natural gas power plants. And now nationally, the single largest source of emissions is transportation. So how do you fix that? If we're serious about climate - and I thought we should be - because the scientists were telling us about heat waves. They were telling us about forest fires that would blanket the region in smoke. They were telling us about storms that would be bigger than we'd ever seen before. And flooding like we'd never seen and declining snowpack. And it was all going to happen in our futures. Honestly, I remember those predictions from the scientists because they're in the headlines today, every day. So what do we do to stop that? So I was - I had little kids, man - I had little kids, I had three kids. How are we going to stop this? Well, it's Seattle needs to lead - that's what has to happen. We're the progressive city. We're the first one out with a plan. We're going to show how we're going to do it. And if our biggest source is transportation, we should fix that. Well, it should seem obvious that the first thing you should do is stop building and expanding highways, and maybe even change some of the real estate used for cars and make it real estate for walking, biking, and transit. That's pretty straightforward. You also have to work on more housing. And this all led me to starting a nonprofit around all of these things and led to the Sierra Club - I think at a national level - our chapter was much further forward than any other chapter on upzones and backyard cottages and making the transition. So to me, this was the big - that was the vision. That was the opportunity. We're going to tear this down. We're going to make a massive investment in changing the system, and this in fact could be a really transformative piece. That's what motivated me.
That climate argument wasn't landing with a whole bunch of other interests. There was certainly a vision from the Downtown and Downtown property owners and residents that - boy, wouldn't it be great to get rid of that elevated highway because that's terrible. There was also a vision from the people who still believed in highway capacity and that includes some of our major employers at the time and today - Boeing and Microsoft, they have facilities in the suburbs around Seattle - they think we need highway capacity. As well as all of the Port businesses, as well as all the maritime unions - thought that this highway connection here was somehow critical to their survival, the industrial areas. And then they wanted the capacity. So there were very strong competing visions. And I think it's fair to say that highway capacity is a vision - we've seen that one is now fulfilled. The second priority was an enhanced physical environment to enhance the property values of Downtown property owners. And they cut the deal with the highway capacity people - okay, we're here for your highway capacity, but we have to get some amenities. And the climate folks, I'm not seeing it - never a priority of any of the leaders - just wasn't a priority.
[00:15:44] Crystal Fincher: How did you see those factions come into play and break down, Robert?
[00:15:48] Robert Cruickshank: It was interesting. This all comes to a head in the late 2000s. And remembering back to that time, this is where Seattle is leading the fight to take on the climate and the fight against George W. Bush, who was seen as this avatar of and deeply connected to the oil industry. Someone who - one of his first things when he took office - he did was withdraw the U.S. from the Kyoto Protocol, which is the earlier version of what's now known as the Paris Agreement - global agreement to try to lower emissions. And so Seattle, in resisting Bush - that's where Greg Nickels became a national figure by leading the Mayors' Climate Action Group - not just say we're going to take on climate, we're going to do something about really de facto fighting back against Bush. And then Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Al Gore comes out with An Inconvenient Truth. And by 2007, people in Seattle are talking a lot about climate and how we need to do something about climate. But then what you see happening is the limits of that - what are people really actually willing to do and willing to support?
The other piece that comes together, I think - in the 2000s - is a revival of the City itself. Seattle spends the late 20th century after the Boeing bust - since the 70s "Will the last person out of Seattle turn out the lights," recovering in the 80s somewhat, recovering in the 90s, and then the tech boom. And by the 2000s, Seattle is a destination city for young people coming to live here and living in apartments and working in the tech industry. I think that unsettles a lot of people. One thing that really stood out to me about the discussion about what to do on the waterfront was this vision from old school folks - like Joel Connelly and others - we've got to preserve that working waterfront. And it's very much the sense that blue collar working class labor is under threat - not from corporate power, but from a 20-something millennial with a laptop working at Amazon who comes to Seattle and thinks - Gosh, why is this ugly viaduct here? It's unsafe. Why don't we just tear it down and have a wonderful waterfront view? And those who are offended by this idea - who are so wedded to the 20th century model that we're going to drive everywhere, cars, freedom - this is where you see the limits of willingness to actually do something on climate. People don't actually want to give up their cars. They're afraid they're going to sacrifice their way of life.
And you start to see this weird but powerful constellation come together where rather than having a discussion about transportation planning or even a discussion about climate action, we're having this weird discussion about culture. And it becomes a culture war. And the thing about a culture war is people pushing change are never actually trying to fight a war. They're just - This is a good idea. Why don't we do this? We all say these - we care about these values. And the people who don't want it just dig in and get really nasty and fight back. And so you start to see Cary Moon, People's Waterfront Coalition, Mike McGinn, and others get attacked as not wanting working class jobs, not wanting a working waterfront, not caring about how people are going to get to work, not caring about how the freight trucks are going to get around even though you're proposing a tunnel from the Port to Wallingford where - it's not exactly an industrial hub - there are some businesses there. But dumping all these cars out or in South Lake Union, it's like, what is going on here? It doesn't add up. But it became this powerful moment where a competing vision of the City - which those of us who saw a better future for Seattle didn't see any competition as necessary at all - those who are wedded to that model where we're going to drive everywhere, we're going to have trucks everywhere, really saw that under threat for other reasons. And they decided this is where they're going to make their stand. This is where they're going to make that fight. And that turned out to be pretty useful for the Port, the freight groups, the establishment democratic leaders who had already decided for their own reasons this is what they wanted too.
[00:19:11] Mike McGinn: It's important to recognize too, in this, is to follow the money. And I think that this is true for highway construction generally. You have a big section of the economy - there's a section of the economy that believes in it, as Robert was saying, right? And I do think the culture war stuff is fully there - that somehow or another a bike lane in an industrial area will cause the failure of business. Although if you went to the bike - outside the industrial building - you'll find a bunch of the workers' bike there, right? Because it's affordable and efficient. So there's this weird belief that just isn't true - that you can't accommodate industry and transit and walking and biking. Of course you can. And in fact, adding all the cars is bad for freight movement because of all the traffic jams.
So there's that belief, but there's also a whole bunch of people - I mentioned Downtown property owners - that gets you to your Downtown Seattle Association. The value of their property is going to be dramatically enhanced by burying, by eliminating the waterfront highway. But then you also have all of the people who build highways and all of the people who support the people who build highways. Who's going to float $4 billion in bonds? It's going to be a Downtown law firm. And by the way, the person who worked for that Downtown law firm and did the bond work was the head of the greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce at that time. So you have the engineering firms, you have the material providers, and then you have the union jobs that go with it. So really at this point - and this isn't just about the waterfront highway, this could be any highway expansion - you've captured the business community because a big chunk of the business community will get direct dollars from the government to them. And you've actually captured a significant chunk of the labor community as well, because labor fights for labor jobs. In the big picture, service workers are taking transit, service workers need housing in town, and you can start to see a split - like in my ultimate run for mayor, I won some service worker unions, never won any construction trades. In fact, they held a rally my first year in office to denounce me, right? Because I was standing in the way of jobs. So that's a really powerful coalition.
And I think what you see today in the country as a whole - as you know, I'm the ED of America Walks, so I get to see a lot more - this is a pattern. Highways aren't really supported by the public. They don't go to the public for public votes on highways anymore - the public wouldn't support it. And in fact, the data suggests the public gets that building more highway lanes won't solve everything. But you've got a big, big chunk of the economy that's gotten extremely used to billions and billions of dollars flowing into their pockets. And they need to protect that in every year. So you get that level of intensity around - Look, we're talking about $4 billion on the waterfront and a bunch of that money's coming to us. Better believe it's a good idea, and what are you talking about, climate?
[00:22:03] Robert Cruickshank: You talk about public votes, and I think there are three crucial public votes we got to talk about. One is 2007, when these advisory votes are on the ballot - and they're not binding, but they're advisory. Do you want to rebuild the viaduct or build a tunnel? They both get rejected. And then the next big vote is 2009, the mayoral election, where Mike McGinn becomes mayor - in part by channeling public frustration at this giant boondoggle. And then ultimately, the last public vote on this, 2011 - in June, I believe it was, it was in August - about whether we go forward or not and the public by this point, fatigued and beaten down by The Seattle Times, decides let's just move on from this.
[00:22:43] Mike McGinn: There's no other alternative. And it is worth returning to that early vote, because it was such a fascinating moment, because - I think the mayor's office didn't want to put his expansive tunnel option in a direct vote against the new elevated, fearing it would lose. So they engineered an agreement with the governor that each one would get a separate up or down vote. And by the way, Tim Ceis, the Deputy Mayor at the time, called in the Sierra Club, briefed us on it, and one of our members said - What would happen if they both got voted down? And Deputy Mayor Ceis said - by the way, Tim Ceis has got a big contract right now from Mayor Harrell, longtime tunnel supporter. Tim Ceis is the consultant for most of the business side candidates. Tim Burgess, another big supporter of the tunnel, now works for Mayor Harrell. Oh, and Christine Gregoire has been hired by the biggest corporations in the region to do their work for them as well. So there's a pretty good payoff if you stick around and support the right side of this stuff. But anyway, Mayor Ceis, Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, when said, What happens if they're both voted down? He goes - Well, that would be chaos. You don't want that, do you? And I remember all of us just kind of looked at each other - and we all went out on the sidewalk, there were like six of us. And we went - We want that, right? And so we joined in and supported the No and No campaign. And The Stranger came in really hard. And I think Erica Barnett wrote the articles. And Cary Moon was in on it. And the defeat of that, for the first time, opened up the possibility - Well, let's think about something else.
And so a stakeholder group was formed. Cary Moon was appointed. Mike O'Brien was appointed. The waterfront guys were appointed. And the Downtown folks were appointed. And the labor folks were appointed. And I think a really important part of the story here is that it was advisory - they weren't making the decisions, it was advisory. But they got to a point at which the head of the State DOT, the head of the Seattle DOT, and the head of the King County DOT all expressed to their respective executives that surface transit worked and was worth it. And this was extremely distressing to the business community. So they mounted a big lobbying push and went straight to Gregoire. And Gregoire, for the first time, became a tunnel supporter. And they were promised that this new tunneling technology - the deep bore tunnel - would solve the cost issues of the deep bore tunnel. And not only that, the state's commitment, which to date was $2.4 billion - they had committed $2.4 billion to a rebuild - the state wouldn't have to pay anymore, because the Port would put in $300 million and they would raise $400 million from tolling. And coincidentally, the amount they thought they could raise from tolling was the exact amount needed to meet the projected cost of using the deep bore tunnel boring machine. So the deal was cut and announced. And the whole stakeholder group and the recommendations from the DOT heads were abandoned. And that occurred, basically, late 2008, early 2009 - the deal was made. And that was about the time that I was contemplating - well, I think I'd already decided to run, but I had not yet announced.
[00:26:14] Crystal Fincher: And this was an interesting time, especially during that vote. Because at that time, I had an eye into what the business community was doing and thinking, and it was clear that their numbers didn't add up.
[00:26:26] Mike McGinn: Oh my God - no.
[00:26:28] Crystal Fincher: But they just did not want to face that. And what they knew is they had enough money and resources to throw at this issue and to throw at a marketing effort to obfuscate that, that they wouldn't have to worry about it. And there was this sense of offense, of indignation that - Who are these people trying to come up and tell us that we don't need freight capacity, that we don't need - that this extra highway capacity, don't they understand how important these freeways are? Who are these people who just don't understand how our economy works?
[00:27:02] Mike McGinn: They were the grownups who really understood how things worked. And we were the upstarts who didn't understand anything. But there's a great line from Willie Brown talking about - I think the Transbay Bridge, and Robert can correct the name, in California, which was way over budget. And people were lamenting that the early estimates had been made up. And he goes - Look, this is how it works. You just need to dig a hole in the ground so deep that the only way to fill it up is with money. I think that's pretty much the quote. So that's the strategy. You get it started. Of course you have rosy estimates. And then you just have that commitment, and it's the job of legislators to come up with the cost overruns, dollars later.
[00:27:43] Robert Cruickshank: And I think it's so key to understand this moment here in the late 2000s, where the public had already weighed in. I remember voting - it was the last thing I voted on before I moved to California for four years. I'm like no - I was No and No. And that's where the Seattle voters were. They rejected both options. And then you start to hear, coming out of the stakeholder group - Okay, we can make the surface transit option work. And I left town thinking - Alright, that's what's going to happen, just like the Embarcadero in San Francisco and done. And the next thing I hear in late 2008, early 2009, there's this deal that's been cut and all of a sudden a deep bore tunnel is on the table. And this is Seattle politics in a nutshell. I think people look back and think that because we are this smart, progressive technocratic city - those people who live here are - we think that our government works the same way. And it doesn't. This is - time and time again, the public will make its expression felt. They'll weigh in with opinion poll or protest or vote. And the powers that be will say - Well, actually, we want to do this thing instead. We'll cook it up in a backroom. We're going to jam it on all of you, and you're going to like it. And if you don't like it, then we're going to start marshaling resources. We're gonna throw a bunch of money at it. We'll get The Seattle Times to weigh in and pound away at the enemy. And that's how politics works here - that's how so much of our transportation system is built and managed. And so people today, in 2023, looking at this monstrosity on the waterfront that we have now think - How did we get here? Who planned this? It was planned in a backroom without public involvement. And I think that's a thing that has to be understood because that, as we just heard, was baked in from the very start.
[00:29:11] Mike McGinn: Well, Robert, the idea of a deep bore tunnel was brought forward by a representative of the Discovery Institute, who you may know as the folks that believe in creationism.
[00:29:21] Robert Cruickshank: Well, and not only that, the Discovery Institute is responsible for turning Christopher Rufo from a failed Seattle City Council candidate in 2019 into a national figure.
[00:29:31] Mike McGinn: The Discovery Institute, with money from local donors - major, very wealthy local folks - they actually had a long-term plan to turn all of 99 into a limited access freeway. It's like - we need to get rid of that First Avenue South and Highway 99 and Aurora Avenue stuff - all of that should be a freeway. So they were the architects of the idea of - Hey, this deep bore tunnel is the solution. But Robert's point is just right on - transportation policy was driven by power and money, not by transportation needs, or climate needs, or equity needs, or even local economy needs really. When you get right down to it, our city runs on transit - that's what really matters. Our city runs on the fact that it's a city where people can walk from place to place. The idea that our economic future was tied to a highway that would skip Downtown - the most valuable place in the Pacific Northwest, Downtown Seattle. No, that's not really what powers our economy. But it certainly worked for the people that were going to get the dollars that flowed from folks and for the people who own Downtown property.
[00:30:42] Crystal Fincher: And I want to talk about money and power with this. Who were the people in power? What was the Council at that time? Who made these decisions?
[00:30:50] Mike McGinn: The Council at the time was elected citywide. And I think some people have concerns about district representation, but one of the things that citywide elections meant at the time was that you had to run a citywide campaign, and that's expensive. There's no way to knock on enough doors citywide. I did not have a lot of money when I ran for mayor, but at least I had the media attention that would go to a mayoral candidate. A City Council candidate would kind of flow under the radar. So you had people come from different places, right? They might come from the business side, they might come from the labor side. But ultimately, they would tend to make peace with the other major players - because only business and only labor could finance a campaign. They were the only ones with the resources to do that. So the other interests - the environmentalists, the social service folks, neighborhood advocates of whatever stripe - we chose from amongst the candidates that were elevated by, they would unify - in some cases, the business and labor folks would unify around a candidate. In fact, that's what we saw in the last two mayoral elections as well, where they pick a candidate. And so this doesn't leave much room.
So when I was mayor, almost the entire council was aligned with the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce at that time, either endorsed by them or had made their peace with them so the challenger was not being financed. So Robert said something about those outsiders - I went under the radar screen as a candidate at the beginning of my campaign. When I entered the race, nobody was running because everybody thought that Greg Nickels had the institutional support locked down.
[00:32:33] Crystal Fincher: But then a snowstorm happened.
[00:32:35] Mike McGinn: Well, it was even before that - honestly, everybody thought that he could win. And long before the snowstorm, I was like - We're getting a new mayor. And I was actually looking around to try to figure out who it was going to be - because I wanted a mayor who actually believed in climate, who had my values. But nobody - I was looking through who the people were that might run, and it dawned on me - Well, nobody's going to run. But we're going to get a new mayor and I have my values - and I've actually run ballot measure campaigns and had a very modest base of support. So I was really the first one in the race that got any attention. So I got some great media attention off that. Then my opponent in the general, Joe Mallahan - whatever else you may think about Joe Mallahan - he actually saw it too. He saw that there was an opening. And then we were joined by a long-time City Councilmember, Jan Drago. And I remember the headline from The Seattle Times or the comments at the time was - Okay, now it's a real race. But it just really wasn't. So I was really under the radar screen in that race because they were disregarding me. But there was in fact a lot of anger about the tunnel. There was a lot of just - Greg, for whatever his positives or negatives that history will deal with - and by the way, I actually think Greg did a lot of good. I just was disappointed in his highway policies and his climate policies at the end of the day - I have a lot of respect for Greg Nickels, but he wasn't going to win that race. And I came out of the primary against Joe Mallahan.
And all of a sudden we had these two outsiders and the business community's freaking out. All of it - I remember watching it - all of the support, the business support shifted to Joe. It took about a month, it took a few weeks. But all of a sudden - there was actually one week where I think I raised more money than he did, that was pretty unusual - and then all of a sudden all the money was pouring in. And boy, did Joe believe in that tunnel. And did Joe believe in what the Chamber of Commerce wanted to do. In fact, he believed in it so much that he believed that Seattle should pay cost overruns if there were cost overruns on the tunnel - an admission I got from him during the televised debate, I was shocked he admitted to it.
[00:34:41] Crystal Fincher: I remember that debate.
[00:34:43] Mike McGinn: Yeah. So you were kind of asking about how politics worked. It was really something. Yeah - here's another memory. About two weeks before the election, the City Council took - three weeks before the, two, three weeks, four weeks - they took a vote to say that the tunnel was their choice. Even though there's a mayoral election in which the tunnel is on the ballot, so to speak - in terms of the issues of the candidates - they took a vote for no reason to say it was a done deal. And then WSDOT released a video of the elevated collapsing in a highway, which is the first time a public disclosure request from a third party was ever given straight to a TV station, I think, in my experience in Seattle. I had Gregoire and the DOT folks down there working on that campaign too - their tunnel was threatened. So it really was something how - I indeed was kind of shocked at - it was such a learning experience for me - how much the ranks closed around this. I didn't appreciate it. I had my own nonprofit, I had been on stakeholder committees, I'd worked with a lot of people that weren't just Sierra Club members and neighborhood types. I'd worked with a lot of business people, many of whom had supported my nonprofit because they liked its vision. But they were very clear with me that as long as I supported the surface transit option, there was no way they could be associated with my run for mayor in any way, shape, or form - even if they liked me. It was a complete lockdown - right after the primary where Greg lost the primary and it was me and Joe, I was - Okay, open field running. I can now reach out to these people. There's no incumbent - maybe some of them can support me now. And they were abundantly clear on all of those phone calls that - Nope, can't do it. Until you change your position on the tunnel, we just can't do it. We have business in this town, Mike. We have relationships in this town. We cannot do that. So it was a real lockdown - politically.
[00:36:38] Crystal Fincher: That was also a big learning experience for me - watching that consolidation, watching how not only were they fighting for the tunnel against you and making the fight against you a fight about the tunnel, but the enforcement to those third parties that you were talking about that - Hey, if you play ball with him, you're cut off. And those kinds of threats and that kind of dealing - watching that happen was very formative for me. I'm like - Okay, I see how this works, and this is kind of insidious. And if you are branded as an outsider, if you don't play ball, if you don't kiss the ring of the adults in the room - which is definitely what they considered themselves - then you're on the outs and they're at war. And it was really a war footing against you and the campaign. Who was on the Council at that time?
[00:37:30] Mike McGinn: Oh my God. Let me see if I can go through the list. No, and it really, it was - your point about it was a war footing was not something that I fully, that I did not appreciate until actually going through that experience - how unified that would be. Excuse me. The City Council chair was Tim Burgess at the time. Bruce Harrell was on the Council. Sally Clark, Richard Conlin, Nick Licata. Mike O'Brien was running on the same platform as me with regard to the tunnel and he'd just been elected. Jean Godden, Sally Bagshaw. I hope I'm not leaving anything out - because -
[00:38:04] Robert Cruickshank: Tom Rasmussen will forgive you.
[00:38:06] Mike McGinn: Tom Rasmussen. Yeah - because City Councilmembers would get really offended if you didn't thank them publicly - that was another thing I had to learn. You have to publicly thank any other politician on stage with you or they held a grudge. Yeah. So I had - I didn't know all the politicians' rules when I started.
[00:38:25] Crystal Fincher: There are so many rules.
[00:38:27] Mike McGinn: There are so many, there's so many rules. But really what you saw then was that the Council tended to move in lockstep on many issues - because if they all voted together and they all worked citywide, there was protection. None of them could be singled out. So it was very - and it's not to say that some of them didn't take principled votes and would find themselves on an 8-1 position sometimes, but for the most part, it was much, much safer to be - it was much, much safer to vote as a group. And they tended to do that. And they had coalesced around the tunnel, except for O'Brien. And that could not be shaken by anything we brought to bear.
[00:39:04] Robert Cruickshank: And this is wrapped up in not just the electoral politics, but the power politics. Because Mike McGinn comes in - mayor leading the 7th floor of City Hall, the head of City government - and smart guy, nice guy, willing to talk to anybody. But is not from their crew, is not from that group. And as Crystal and Mike said, the ranks were closed from the start. This is - again, 2009, 2010 - when nationally Mitch McConnell is quoted as saying, It's his ambition to make Obama a one-term president. I don't know if he's ever caught on record, but I would be quite certain that Tim Burgess would have said the exact same thing - that his ambition was to make Mike McGinn a one-term mayor. As it turned out in 2013, Tim Burgess wanted his job - one of the candidates running for it. So these are all people who have a reason to close ranks against Mike McGinn and to use a tunnel as a bludgeon against him to do so.
[00:39:58] Mike McGinn: There were other bludgeons. After I won the general election and before I took office, they passed their annual budget - they cut the mayor's office budget by a third before I even took office. Just boom - I know - they were determined, they were determined. And so that was when the planning - that council then and with WSDOT - that was when basically the contours of the waterfront were locked into place, including what we now see as that very wide surface road. That was that Council. So if you're wondering, if you're looking at that going - Okay, wow, who decided that and where did it come from? Again, our current mayor and his current advisor and others - they've always been for that. Building that big surface road has always been the plan to go along with the tunnel, because highway capacity was their highest priority. And the park on the waterfront, along with a lot of money into the aquarium and into these new structures - that's their signature thing for so many other people. But the idea that you should, that there was an opportunity to transform our transportation system and transform our city to make it more equitable and climate friendly was never a priority in this process. Just wasn't.
[00:41:20] Crystal Fincher: It was never a priority. It was never seriously considered. And to me, through this process - lots of people know, have talked about it on the show before - I actually didn't start off Team McGinn. I wound up Team McGinn - didn't start off that way. But through that - and you won me over with logic - it was you being proven right on several things. You pointed out that their projections, their traffic projections were just so far out of left field that there was no way that they were going to come close. And they even had to come down on their projections before we even saw the traffic - the actual traffic turned out to be lower. You were right on that one - the laughable -
[00:41:59] Mike McGinn: They're under 40,000 cars a day - for a highway that was carrying 110,000 cars a day beforehand. So even as a traffic solution - to put that into context, 40,000 cars a day is like the Ballard Bridge. And I can guarantee you the replacement costs of the Ballard Bridge is not $4 billion or $3.1 billion. The E Line, I think, carries 15,000 people a day. Metro carries 220,000 people a day. What you could do with that $3.1 billion or $4 billion in terms of bus lanes, bike lanes, rolling stock for Metro, maybe pay raises for bus drivers so that we could actually have service - you could do so much with those billions of dollars. And we put it all into moving 40,000 cars a day? It's just pathetic. That's three Rapid Ride lines we could have had for a 10th of the cost, or even less. I think the investments in Rapid Ride lines are about $50-100 million a line to make the capital investments to make it work. So the waste - even if you don't care about climate, the waste of dollars - and who's paying those taxes? To a great degree, we have the most regressive state and local tax system in the nation.
And we'll have a ballot measure soon, and I know a lot of environmentalists will be out there if the package spends for the right thing saying - Hey, we need money for local streets. Imagine if we'd taken that gas tax money and the Legislature had allowed cities and towns to use it to improve their streets - which they can do. I know that the constitution says highway purposes, but when you read highway purposes, it says roads and bridges. It includes everything. You can use gas taxes for anything that improves the road. And they do. WSDOT has used gas taxes to pay for bike lanes and sidewalks. It's legal. That's a choice. So we're driving around potholed streets. We have - we're putting up little plastic dividers because we care more about the car getting hurt than the bicyclist on the other side of that plastic divider. We're watching our transit service melt away because we can't pay bus drivers enough. But hey, man, somebody's got a really rapid - 3,000 people a day get to skip Downtown in their private vehicles. Where are our priorities for equity? Where are the priorities for economy, or even just plain old-fashioned fiscal prudence? None of that was there - because all of those dollars were going to fund the needs of the most powerful people in the City. And they captured those dollars - and all of us will pay the taxes, all of us will breathe the smoky air, and all of us will watch our streets deteriorate and our transit service evaporate.
[00:44:52] Crystal Fincher: Yeah. And to me, it was such a foundational lesson that the people that we have making decisions really matter - and that we have to really explore their records, their donors, their histories - because over and over again, we look at the decisions that wind up being made that frequently conflict with campaign promises, but that very, very rarely conflict with their donor rolls.
[00:45:16] Mike McGinn: And yes - and every one of them knows how to make the value statements. So if I had any advice for people in this year's election - everyone is going to say they care about housing, everyone's going to say they think biking safe. I don't - one of the things that I came away with - I don't care about the goals you put into some policy anymore. Show me the hard physical action you will take that might piss somebody off, but you're willing to do it because it's right. And if you can't do that, then your value statements are meaningless. So take a look - who actually, and that's the question I always ask candidates for office - Tell me about a time you did something hard that might've caused you criticism, but you did it because it was right. Or that you made somebody who was an ally or friend upset, but you did it because it was right. Tell me about that time.
[00:46:04] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, it's a challenge. And to your point and learning through just watching how people operated through that and some other processes - but that certainly was a big learning for me - is the role of coalitions, the role of accountability, and understanding. You have always had your finger on the pulse of Seattle, really - you're extraordinarily good at that. You're actually - both of you - are great strategists. But our political class is so detached from that sometimes - certainly I'm feeling frustration at some recent actions by our Legislature - we just had our special session day where they increased criminalization of substances, personal possession of substances - just reflecting on legislation to provide school, kids with free meals at school, things that seem like really basic and foundational that we should be able to land this. If we can call a special session to hand Boeing billions of dollars, we should be able to feed kids, right?
[00:47:00] Mike McGinn: At the time we were cutting school budgets - when we found money for that. But I don't want to be too gloomy. And then I want to turn it over to Robert to get a last word in here, 'cause I just loved - his analysis is so awesome. I don't want to be too gloomy because - I look at what happened in the Legislature this year on housing, that we're finally going to allow housing, people to build more housing in places so people can actually live closer to their jobs and live more affordably. 10 years ago, we would have thought that was impossible. There's a lot of hard organizing that did it. At America Walks, we're the host of the Freeway Fighters Networks - there are people in 40 cities or more around the country that are organizing to remove highways. And while it's just a small amount of money compared to the amount going to highway expansion, there's actually federal funds to study and remove highways. So it's a long, hard slog. What felt for us - for Robert and me and Cary Moon and others fighting this - which felt like an impossible fight at the time is a fight that is now winning in places. Not winning enough - we're not winning fast enough - but it can change. And so that's - I don't want to be too negative. They got money, but organizing and people - and we actually have the public with us on this, just like we have the public with us on housing. So we just have to do more. We just got to keep at it, folks - got to keep at it. We can win this one. Don't allow this story of how hard it was to deal with the unified political class in the City of Seattle for their climate arson - should not deter you. It should inspire you, 'cause I actually won the mayor's office and we actually did do a lot of good. And the next fight is right in front of us again today, so get in it people. We need you.
[00:48:46] Robert Cruickshank: I think that's spot on. And I remember coming to work in your office at the very beginning of 2011, when it seemed like the tunnel was just dominating discussion, but not in the mayor's office, right? When I joined, I fully expected to be like - roll my sleeves up to take on that tunnel. Instead, I'm working on the mayor's jobs plan, the Families and Education Levy, on transit. That's the stuff that was really getting done, and I think McGinn left a really great legacy on that. But we didn't win the tunnel fight. And I think we've diagnosed many of the reasons why, but one thing that really stands out to me as I look back from 12, 13 years distance is we didn't have the same density of genuinely progressive and social democratic organizations and people and leaders in Seattle that we have now. I think that matters because Mike's been talking about what's the next fight. I think one of the big fights coming up next year - when it comes time to renew that Move Seattle Levy - that's nearly a billion dollars that's going to be on the table. And we keep getting promised - when we are asked to approve these massive levies - that a lot of that money is going to go to safe streets, it's going to go to protect vulnerable users, we're going to do something to finally get towards Vision Zero. And instead it all gets taken away to build more car infrastructure. At what point do we finally stand - literally in the road - and say, No more. Do we look at the broken promises on the waterfront where we were promised a beautiful pedestrian-friendly waterfront and got another car sewer? We're going to have to organize and come together. We have many more groups now and many more leaders who are willing to stand up and say - We're not passing this levy unless it actually focuses on safe streets, unless it focuses on pedestrians and cyclists and transit users, and gives iron-clad promises to make sure stuff gets built so that some future mayor can't just walk in and start canceling projects left and right that we were promised. That's the lesson I take from this is - we're better organized now, we have more resources now, but it's still going to be a slog, and we're going to have to stand our ground - otherwise we get rolled.
[00:50:34] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. I thank you both for this conversation today - reflections on the tunnel fight, how it came to be, what it was like in the middle of it, and the lessons that we take moving forward in these elections that we have coming up this year, next year, and beyond. Thanks so much for the conversation.
[00:50:50] Mike McGinn: Thank you, Crystal.
[00:50:51] Robert Cruickshank: Thank you - it's been wonderful.
[00:50:52] Crystal Fincher: Thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks, which is co-produced by Shannon Cheng and Bryce Cannatelli. You can follow Hacks & Wonks on Twitter @HacksWonks. You can catch Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts - just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast to get the full versions of our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the episode notes.
Thanks for tuning in - talk to you next time.