The old complaint that nothing ever gets decided anymore in process-strangled cities may have been answered at last. What cut the Gordian knot on the problem of Seattle’s famous waterfront—presently blighted by a sixty year old, unsafe elevated freeway (State Route 99, the Alaska Way Viaduct)—was the discovery of new technologies in deep bore tunneling. These technologies now make a tunnel, the most attractive option, one of the most affordable, too. Following that discovery, a remarkably successful coalition of business and labor, community leaders and environmentalists was convened, with close interaction among previously skeptical political leaders at municipal, county and state levels. The outcome of a remarkable planning and advocacy effort was ratified, in effect, by the Washington State Legislature this week (the final vote came late yesterday) and now goes to Gov. Christine Gregoire for her signature. Some $2.5 billion is involved. So, too, are the economic viability, transportation efficiency and livability of one of America’s great urban hubs.
This story is of national significance because of how it happened and what it portends for the “intelligent design” (I couldn’t resist that phrase) of America’s transportation systems in urban areas. It also shows the value of think tanks—in this case, the Cascadia Center at Discovery Institute—as outside, independent voices for research and advocacy. Without Cascadia, as Friday’s article from The Daily Journal of Commerce shows, it wouldn’t have been possible for tunneling experts to be assembled last fall to challenge the pessimistic numbers presented by the Department of Transportation that made a tunnel option seem unfeasible. Sometimes, it takes an outsider with only relatively modest resources to cause the insiders to think again.
We would not have had those resources and the ability to persevere for years beforehand if it had not been for the visionary decision of the Gates Foundation five years ago to back the Cascadia Project. (I should note that philanthropist Bruce McCaw’s prior support had kept the program going before that.) The lesson for philanthropy has to do with leverage. Hands on programs are great, but so are public policy ideas. These ideas are not expensive, but they are not free, either.
And good will among political and community leaders?