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Wednesday, March 7, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

A botched viaduct vote is better than none at all

People bellyache about the vote on the Alaskan Way Viaduct. We are offered only two options: tunnel and elevated. No retrofit. No surface street with 11 stoplights. Our democracy is restricted.

That is so, but at least we have a choice. In this one-party town, the difference between these two road projects is a good deal more real than the differences between most candidates for Legislature or City Council.

The viaduct ballot offers "yes" and "no" on the elevated and the same on the tunnel. That's four combinations — and for the two fanciful ones, yes-yes and no-no, you can define the meaning yourself. I know a liberal who is voting no-no, and a conservative doing the same, and their reasons are entirely different.

A blogger at soundpolitics.com is voting yes-yes because he doesn't care what they build. The Municipal League says the vote is premature and the process botched, and advises us to mail in our ballots blank — which is supposed to send a different message than throwing them into the wastebasket.

Certainly, the process is botched. The Seattle Popular Monorail Authority, with its five votes of the people, was the botch of the decade. But the outcome was good. Let us not be too fussy here. A botched vote may be better than none at all.

And that was the plan for a long time: no vote at all. The mayor and council assumed the tunnel was their decision. When they couldn't raise the money, they devised a shrunken tunnel. Only when the state's engineers said the shrunken tunnel was unsafe because it didn't have full-time shoulders did the council consider asking us. It was not because they wanted our opinion. It was because the tunnel called out to be saved, and the voice of the people was needed to overrule their governor.

Does it bug us that the election is advisory only, meaning the politicians have reserved the right to ignore it? At least they tell us. Be thankful of that. With the baseball stadium in 1995, they pretended the vote mattered, and when it went against them, they built the stadium anyway. Their excuse was that the vote was really, really close.

Maybe that is the unstated rule: A close vote will mean nothing, but a clear vote against the tunnel will kill it. The same for the elevated. All of this may mean a grand argument once the election is over.

Do we feel manipulated? Of course. Always, when the political class asks us for a new tax, to shoulder a bond or create a new agency for them to fill, the process is non-neutral. Always, we feel a bit manipulated. Still, we get to vote.

It is right that the 340,000 active voters of Seattle are asked whether they want a tunnel. It is their city. They and their neighbors will be paying for the extra costs of a tunnel. For the shrunken tunnel the extra cost is about $1,750 per voter. From Tuesday's story by Seattle Times reporters Mike Lindblom and Susan Gilmore, we learn that the addition of permanent shoulders, on which the state engineers insist, adds another half-billion dollars. The extra cost of the tunnel rises to $3,235 per voter.

Back in the old days, when highways were federal and our senior senator was a kind of siphon, we wouldn't have had to worry about all this. Then, we built the "lids" at each end of the Mercer Island floating bridge. It was extravagance, but why not? The feds paid 90 percent.

A lot of people pine for that world. I don't. Too much federal aid corrupts people's thinking. Cutting the federal share to 8 percent on the elevated, and more like 6 percent on the tunnel, brings the choice back to the people who use it.

Of course, it's not all the people who would be using it. If any group ought to be bellyaching about this election, it should be the people just outside of Seattle, who still have no say in it.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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