History of Seattle transit tunnel runs deep

Due to the graying color of my hair, an inaccurate assumption is occasionally made that I have been around politics since statehood.

Due to the graying color of my hair, an inaccurate assumption is occasionally made that I have been around politics since statehood.

This has led to many questions regarding historical politics. While my resume doesn’t extend back quite that far, I was asked an interesting question recently that takes us back to the 1980s.

A suburban voter asked, “Why does Seattle get to be the central hub of the transit network and how come they get the downtown bus tunnel?”

The first part of the question is pretty easy. Seattle is the biggest city in the Pacific Northwest. It is the central location for commerce, culture, sports, entertainment and employment.

The second part of the question is far more interesting. If you have been in the Metro tunnel, you know it is really quite an attractive amenity with artwork and easy access to different parts of downtown Seattle from Pioneer Square to the convention center. It allows buses to carry shoppers and suburban workers to their destinations beneath surface streets while avoiding congestion.

The interesting part of the story is that Seattle didn’t want the tunnel. They were out-voted by a combination of King County and suburban elected leaders on the old 40-person Metro Council.

Before it was merged with King County government in the 1990s, Metro was the regional oversight agency for transit and water quality issues. The governing board was comprised of the mayor and city council of Seattle, the county executive and county council, a group of citizens appointed by the county council and suburban mayors or council members from Auburn, Bellevue, Kent, Kirkland, Redmond, Renton and representatives from smaller cities.

The Seattle City Council was unhappy about the deteriorating condition of the downtown streets and felt Metro’s buses, full of suburban commuters, were the primary culprit. Some of the council members, knowing it’s always better to tax someone who doesn’t actually get to vote for you, thought a tax on Metro riders would be a good idea.

Suburban leaders, noting that those same suburban riders contribute significantly to Seattle’s tax base already through meals, shopping and entertainment, registered a major disagreement. Many King County officials and their citizen appointees agreed with the suburban interests, opposing any new tax on commuters.

Rather than drop the issue, Seattle continued to raise the question of the condition of their streets. After many months of debate, the idea of getting the buses off the street by building a tunnel beneath the streets started to take hold. Seattle leaders didn’t much care for the tunnel idea, but they were also stuck in a politically awkward position, as they were the ones that raised the issue.

Eventually, there were enough votes on the Metro Council to implement the tunnel idea with federal funding assistance.

It was one of the most interesting political battles of that decade.

The Metro Council is gone now and with it went a significant forum for suburban regional influence.

The downtown transit tunnel has become an accepted and critical part of our regional transportation system, and it’s where it should be, even if it wasn’t welcomed with open arms.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner, a former mayor of Auburn, can be reached at bjroegner@comcast.net.


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