The Deep Bore Tunnel Controversy

The latest plot twist introduces two new developments.

By City Councilmember Nick Licata
with assistance from Newell Aldrich

Replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct has more twists and turns than a Hitchcock movie, and the final credits are still a long way off. The latest plot twist introduces two new developments.

First, the Sierra Club and Real Change are considering a city initiative to stop the deep bore tunnel from being built unless certain conditions are met. Under the name Move Seattle Smarter, they are trying to craft an initiative that would protect Seattle taxpayers from any potential cost overruns before construction could begin. They would need to collect about 25,000 signatures to assure placing the initiative on the ballot in late summer or fall of next year, although it still could face a legal challenge for overreaching the intended authority granted to citizens through the initiative process.

Second, state initiative promoter Tim Eyman testified before the Washington State Transportation Commission that the commission lost the power under state law to set toll rates when his Initiative 1053 passed this fall. I-1053 said that all legislative action raising taxes must be approved by two-thirds of the Legislature, and any new or increased fees require majority legislative approval. Since funding for the deep bore tunnel is dependent on about $400 million in tolls, the state legislature would have to vote to set the tolls rates, rather than the State Transportation Commission. The State Attorney General is examining this issue at the request of a state senator; opinions generally take 60 days.

It may not be easy for the legislature to set tolls without opening up the issue of project funding and cost overruns. Worse, if the costs for the tunnel go over the set-aside contingency (i.e. goes over budget) the state legislature would need a two-thirds vote if they were to raise taxes to pay for the gap.

Although the Democrats will still control both the State House and Senate, their majority has shrunk. That leaves less room for Seattle's delegation to collect the votes that may be needed to address these issues if Eyman's interpretation is correct.

Meanwhile the State is evaluating the two bids that have been submitted for construction of the deep bore tunnel. It is expected that the State will accept one of them before the end of the year. A contract with the winning bidder would then be signed in the first quarter of next year and construction will follow. Any attempts to stop the project would be increasingly difficult after the contract is signed. This means that the question of who covers any eventual cost overruns would be most likely decided through some understanding reached between the Governor and the State Legislature.

The public debate so far has focused on the deep bore tunnel's financial risk to Seattle taxpayers. Of the $900 million City contribution for tunnel-related projects the Mayor has criticized, $500 million is for the Seawall and utility relocation-costs the state would have picked up for an elevated replacement. It's ironic that some opponents of the elevated option now criticize this spending, when many urged a no vote on the elevated option in 2007 which would have had these costs paid for by the state. The elevated also didn't put extra traffic onto city streets, because it had six lanes and tolls weren't needed, another key objection of tunnel critics. In addition, the Governor agreed the state would pay the replacement cost for an elevated, removing the issue of cost overruns.

Those calling for transparency in the State's and City's decision-making would hope to make the potential risk of building a deep bore tunnel readily apparent to the general public. Their focus has been on the financial risk of the project. Thus, the other main objection-made earlier by a number of environmentalists-over the tunnel's failure to curb vehicle usage is largely being ignored. Why is that? It could be because the other options have major problems.

In 2008 the state's stakeholder advisory group made two recommendations: one was a 6 lane surface/transit option that would have turned Western Avenue into a 3 lane road, which would have presented a huge environmental impact to the north end of Pike Place Market which it passes by; the other was a smaller 4-lane elevated viaduct, with bigger and bulkier columns, but fewer of them. Political forces representing various constituencies in Seattle effectively blocked either solution. Both options included transit, due to reduced road capacity; the state has yet to authorize any tax options to fund additional transit operations for the deep bore tunnel option.

At the last moment, the Governor met with then Mayor Greg Nickels and King County Executive Ron Sims, and they came up with the deep bore tunnel solution. It was seen as freeing up the waterfront from an obtrusive elevated viaduct and providing a functioning corridor through the city, one that was not seen as viable with the surface-only solution. A surface option could also be more expensive for Seattle than other options, unless the Viaduct is torn down with anything to replace it. It is questionable whether the state legislature would authorize funding a non-freeway surface option, so the City could well be on its own.

Whether Tim Eyman or Move Seattle Smarter efforts to halt the deep bore tunnel succeed or not, the controversy over it as the best replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct will continue until it is built or the bill has been paid.

The Stranger, a consistent critic of the deep bore tunnel, is sponsoring a forum this Wednesday, December 1, at 7:30 p.m. in Town Hall on First Hill. To date three speakers have been confirmed on the panel: Mayor Mike McGinn, City Councilmember Mike O'Brien and a speaker from Move Seattle Smarter.

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