“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” Syme, in Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
At this point, just about everything that needs to be said about Seattle’s proposed waterfront tunnel has already been said: the potential for cost overruns and revenue underruns; the many serious technical issues; the impacts of the portals on Pioneer Square; and the fact that the tunnel pushes much of the Viaduct traffic onto city streets anyway, without the corresponding transit and street improvements that could reduce the impacts to downtown.
But here’s a new argument, from none other than City Council President Richard Conlin:
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Q. How do you reconcile your longstanding sustainability views with support for the tunnel?
A. I actually see it as the green alternative.
Wow. The green alternative, according to the president of the City Council who’s committed to a “climate neutral” Seattle, is to spend billions of dollars on a freeway excavated under downtown. If that’s not an example of a Sustainability Gap—the difference between what policymakers say about sustainability and what they actually support—we don’t know what is. But it’s also worrisomely close to Newspeak—the fictional language from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, intended to show how language can be manipulated for any purpose.
But the real head-scratcher here is that Conlin is arguing against himself. You see, in the same interview in which he calls the tunnel the green alternative, he says:
Q. In a perfect world, Richard, what would you support?
A. I still think the Surface Transit would work, which I originally supported.
Conlin’s view seems to be that powerful politicians have decided that the Streets and Transit plan can’t go forward, so he’s siding with the least-bad alternative. That might make sense if he weren’t the president of the Seattle City Council. Sure, he’s not as powerful a politician as the governor, but he’s one of just a small handful of major players with a say in the Viaduct decision. So he comes across as a purveyor not just of Newspeak but of political doublespeak: “The tunnel is the green option, only I’d actually prefer something else that’s much greener, except that the greener option just can’t happen because I support the tunnel.” Or something.
Conlin was a co-founder of Sustainable Seattle, and is the City Council’s longest-serving sustainability champion. A lot of people are bound to be disappointed in his support for the tunnel. But they’ll be doubly disillusioned by the doubletalk. As tough as it might be for someone like Conlin, he should own up to what he’s doing: choosing an option that’s not really green at all, because he’s afraid that he’ll lose the fight and stick Seattle with an even worse alternative. That would still be disappointing, but at least it would spare us the Newspeak.
The photo of George Orwell is from Wikipedia and is in the public domain.