A blunt instrument, maybe effective

Diane Tebelius
Diane Tebelius

The Washington Republican Party hasn’t had a really good state issue for a while to go after the state’s ruling Democrats – an issue, that is, that a wide range of people (not jut conservatives) can seize on to and join with. They may have one now, and state Chair Diane Tebelius – internally embattled though she may be – is laying solid groundwork on it.

There is no hotter issue in Seattle right now than the Alaskan Way viaduct limited highway along downtown – whether to destroy it and go to street level (no one seems to like that idea much), rebuilt it as an elevated highway, or dig a tunnel and route the traffic there. There is no happy answer, because the price tag for any option (save the first) is enormous – estimated now (sure to rise later) at about $4.3 billion for a six-lane tunnel or $3.4 billion for a four-lane, or $2.8 billion for a rebuild. The project most essentially is a city of Seattle deal, but since the state would be a massive contributor to it – maybe more than half of the total – the responsibility and leverage associated with it is spread around. As a matter of politics, just about everyone involved in the decision-making in this is a Democrat.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and a majority of the city council favor the tunnel approach; they were staunch six-laners until reaction over the huge tab led to a more recent retrenchment to four. On Friday they decided to place the issue on a March 13 ballot, including also the idea of replacing the elevated road: A voter can vote up or down on one of them, on both, or on neither. (What happens if voters approve or reject both is anyone’s guess.)

An hour south in Olympia (well, two or three during rush), Governor Chris Gregoire and House Speaker Frank Chopp (whose district is in the heart of northern Seattle) have been weighing in. They dislike the tunnel idea – big time – and favor the elevated. Chopp went so far as to call the tunnel plan “dead.” And Gregoire, after saying in December that she favored letting Seattle voters make the decision, in January sounded a note similar to Chopp’s – no tunnel, the state money would go to either a rebuilt of the relevated, or to work on the Highway 520 bridge east of Seattle (which also badly needs repair). At least up to today, when she issued another statement saying that, of course, she’d respect the will of the voters of Seattle.

Voters in Seattle and western Washington generally have some good reason to think that matters viaduct are coming a little unglued. The great good will all these parties, and others, developed a couple of years ago in pulling together a big state transportation funding package (part of which was supposed to deal with the Alaskan Way) appears to be frittering away as voters get the sense that everyone’s fighting and no one is getting things done.

Enter Tebelius.

She has been issuing a string of press releases likely to get a bunch of west Washingtonians to nodding their heads.

Republicans probably have been over-using the “flip-flop” verbiage the last few years, but it sticks this time: “After Governor Christine Gregoire tossed her decision back to voters on how to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct . . . [she made] a major ‘flip-flop’ by saying ‘no tunnel’ choice for Seattle voters.”

“The governor’s indecision has created this current political fiasco, and meanwhile it is the voters that must endure the failed outcomes of this political battle . . . The governor created this political fiasco because she wouldn’t lead and make the tough choice. Weekly ‘flips’ from the governor on the viaduct is costing taxpayer dollars,” said Tebelius. “Lawmakers are concerned about the cost of added delays to important transportation projects around the state. We now have a dramatic 31 percent increase in transportation costs in the Puget Sound Region, a $1 billion shortfall in the transportation budget despite recent tax hikes, and after six years of debate over the viaduct, the best voters get is a different ultimatum every week.”

That was last Thursday. Today, this: “After watching the governor flip-flop on the viaduct for a month, I doubt the voters in Seattle really believe their vote counts for anything anyway.”

Gregoire, Chopp, Nickels and others on their team haven’t reached the end of this story: They can still pull together an intelligible resolution. At least in theory. But if voters start to get the idea that an Alaskan Way resolution is cratering, they may want to take out their frustration on someone. And Tebelius is sparing to effort to remind them who that is.

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