Monday, February 04, 2019

To Work Toward Agreement

The Alaskan Way Viaduct has been a feature of Seattle's downtown since it was completed in 1959. In hindsight it was probably an ill-advised project in that the elevated, double-decker concrete thoroughfare effectively cut the city off from its waterfront. Civic boosters have long wanted it to come down and after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake even those who argued for its functionality and spectacular Elliott Bay views had to agree its time had come. Thus began a long, expensive, contentious process of figuring out what and how. We finally settled on digging a car tunnel under Alaskan Way, while repairing/replacing the sea wall in the process before dismantling the viaduct, a project that begins in the coming weeks.

This is not the solution that I would have favored. Personally, I thought we might be best served by just tearing the thing down and see what that did to traffic. I didn't think we needed a tunnel at all and that a beefed up mass transit system could handle things. I got frustrated when monied interests put their thumb on the scale. I said "I told you so" when Bertha (the giant boring engine that dug the tunnel) broke down causing significant cost over runs. Nevertheless it was a relatively transparent, relatively democratic process that included ample opportunity for public input. It was, as all human processes are, an imperfect one, but I now accept the results.

Indeed, I've been excited about it. In the intervening 17 years, our family moved from South Seattle where we drove the viaduct almost daily, to an apartment downtown only a few blocks away from where the new tunnel surfaces. I've taken impromptu tours of the project at least once a month for the past year or so to check on the progress, often chatting with the workers who seemed genuinely proud to be part of such a major undertaking. Sometimes I would just stand there overlooking the site, imagining how traffic will flow and merge; how it will exit into my neighborhood and trying to figure out what that will do to conditions on the streets surrounding my building. I've fully set aside my reservations about the project and am now genuinely excited about it.

The tunnel opens this morning, but over the weekend, people were invited to walk and bike the new tunnel, take a final tour of the old Battery Street tunnel, and, the biggest lure for me, to make a final stroll along the length of the viaduct's upper deck. It was a party, a festival, and a parade. Tens of thousands of my fellow citizens ostensibly came to say goodbye and/or good riddance. It is still an open question whether or not the billions of dollars and years of sometimes acrimonious public debate will result in an improved city or not, but the die is now cast.

As I wandered back and forth, weaving through the crowd, enjoying the views, taking in the performances, examining the temporarily installed artwork, and running into (and hugging) dozens of people I know from all aspects and eras of my life including many of my current and former students, I found myself looking forward. I got the sense that we all were; the troubles of the past a memory. It's as if we had come as citizens to push off together into an exciting and unknown future. There will be more arguments, of course, but on this day, everyone seemed allied in looking ahead.

No one ever said that democracy would be quick or easy. That is the nature of compromise and agreement, which should always stand at the heart of democracy: a good compromise leaves no one entirely happy. It is from our agreements that our future as a democratic society emerges even if the process can sometimes make us want to throw up our hands. The story of the Alaskan Way viaduct and its replacement tunnel is a good example of how this works, warts and all. I'm sure there are still some who remain bitter about it, but over the weekend, at least, we the people set that aside and pledged through our presence, together, to continue to work toward agreement.

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