There are a group of state, King County people and Seattle City Council people who insist that the cost overrun provision on the tunnel is meaningless. They stand in stark contrast with Mayor McGinn, and most of the non-Seattle legislators who support the cost overruns provision. And they keep getting angrier and angrier at McGinn for keeping his campaign promise to oppose the cost overrun provision. They think (perhaps with reason) that it’s an excuse to go back on his saying he wouldn’t oppose the tunnel itself.
But don’t believe Governor Gregoire, Exec Constantine, or any legislator or City Council member who says that Seattle won’t be on the hook for cost overruns while they keep acting like Seattle will be on the hook for those cost overruns. The state, the county especially, but also the city council all have had the opportunity to call McGinn’s bluff and instead have insisted on poisoning the well. This may be good politics, but if they want the project to go forward without the mayor trying to block it, it’s not in the interest of their policy.
A quick recap: a few weeks before the mayoral election, the city council passed an ordinance that McGinn felt (or said at the time he felt) hemmed Seattle into the tunnel option. As such, he announced that since he couldn’t stop the tunnel he would still oppose the provisions that put Seattle on the hook for cost overruns. In this environment, McGinn went on basically doing what he said he would do until Richard Conlin illegally signed the draft Environmental Impact Statement. From that point on, McGinn took a much harder line, including vetoing a tunnel ordinance, and supporting initiatives to put the tunnel itself to a vote. Still, publicly, his position throughout has been that if the city doesn’t have to pay cost overruns, he’ll get out of the way. The state has lied to Seattle about the project repeatedly.
And magically the tenor of the debate has already changed from “of course, Seattle has to pay cost overruns, they get this awesome tunnel!” to “of course, the city won’t have to pay for cost overruns, what would possibly give you that idea?” Still, many people outside of Seattle are taking the first tack, and there haven’t been any laws changed about it since everyone was saying the first part. So, despite assurances from the state, it’s tough to believe that they won’t put “Seattle area property owners” on the hook for cost overruns.
Of course Washington State and King County could do things to assure Seattle that they won’t have to pay cost overruns. The most obvious, is the state could repeal the cost overrun provision, and commit to paying for cost over runs, just like every other state highway project. If King County is as sure as Dow and others say they are that the state is picking up the tab, they could easily work out an agreement with the city to take over any cost overruns that the state imposes on “Seattle area property owners.” If the county people don’t trust McGinn, they could structure the deal in a way that says if Seattle challenges the tunnel, they are back on the hook for cost overruns, so that the tunnel can go forward.
Until the state or the county do something like this, they may believe that Seattle won’t pay cost overruns, but they’re not betting with their own money.
But who cares, right? I mean if there are cost overruns, someone is paying for them? Why does it matter if it’s Seattle? With or without the City Council, McGinn is going to get a proposal on the ballot (and we’ve seen his ability to get the signatures to put things on the ballot without the City Council) to put light rail around the city. It’ll be a much better plan if there isn’t a gigantic question mark in the budget from the state. Simply, Washington should pay for its highways with gas tax money, not local property taxes: Seattle has a better use for the local property tax money.
Now, maybe it is good politics to oppose McGinn. To say he’s just being intransigent or a flipflopper, or whatever. But when the cost overruns do come, when the traffic from taking away exits and onramps and adding tolls comes, when Seattle goes into the red to pay for a shitty road, when we’re still tethered to cars with gas $5, $6, $7 a gallon, it won’t be McGinn’s fault.