by Goldy, 07/12/2010, 12:46 PM

If you haven’t read it yet, you really need to take a gander at Dominic Holden’s in-depth spelunking of the deep-bore tunnel cost-overrun controversy in the current issue of The Stranger, in which a local journalist finally asks the rather obvious question: “What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

I know it’s all the fad these days amongst the Rainier Club crowd to roll one’s eyes at the mention of Mike McGinn’s name, all the while planning for Mayor Burgess’s election night victory party, but considering what’s at stake, it’s nice to know that there’s at least one elected official standing up for Seattle taxpayers (whatever his motives or sometimes clumsy methods). For at a time when the Seattle Center is preparing to auction off a couple acres of rare, designated open space to the highest bidder, in pursuit of a mere couple hundred thousand dollars of additional annual revenue, just imagine what a couple hundred million dollars in cost-overruns will do to our ability to pay for the things we want and need, let alone the billion-plus bill we could be presented with should things go seriously wrong.

And as Dominic explains, things could go seriously wrong.

Now I’m not one of those who points to Boston’s “Big Dig” and similar fiascos and concludes that America has somehow lost its ability to engineer and construct big projects. Large infrastructure projects do sometimes come in on time and near budget, and WSDOT has had a particularly good track record in recent years. But I’m no pollyanna either, especially when it comes to the least studied, least engineered, most speculative of any of the various Viaduct replacement alternatives.

In fact, when the Discovery Institute first floated the idea of what I immediately dubbed “The Big Bore,” I ridiculed their apparently faith-based proposal as “Intelligent Transportation Design.”

I once proposed building a gigantic rollercoaster along the West Seattle to downtown portion of the Monorail’s abandoned Green Line, and you didn’t see my joke of a transportation proposal picked up by the MSM, let alone labeled “visionary”. And yet the Seattle Rollercoaster Project is no less technically challenging nor politically, well, utterly fucking ridiculous than Discovery’s deep bore, crosstown tunnel. … In a city where completion of a 1.3 mile vanity trolley line is feted like some transportation miracle, the very notion that local voters might commit more than a half billion dollars a mile to an untested technology is a dramatic tribute to Discovery’s primary mission of promoting the exercise of faith over reason.

Much to my chagrin our political establishment quickly embraced Discovery’s Big Bore proposal, ignoring the technical challenges while attempting to bypass the political ones by excluding Seattle voters from the process… only to run into the electoral equivalent of a stuck tunnel-boring machine: the surprising election of Mayor Mike McGinn.

Like a stuck TBM, Mayor McGinn can’t possibly reverse himself, and with the cost-overrun issue still conveniently blocking his way, he sure as hell ain’t moving forward. Vindictive, short-sighted and/or lazy legislators may have thought they cleverly short-circuited our city’s famously obstructionist civic fetish with process, but where there’s a will, there’s a Seattle Way.

Observers who don’t believe last year’s mayoral election was at least in part a referendum on the Big Bore Tunnel are smoking crack. McGinn long and loudly campaigned on his opposition to the tunnel, and even when he relented during the final weeks, he still promised to fight any effort to stick Seattle taxpayers with open-ended cost-overruns. So why should anybody roll their eyes at the sight of Mayor McGinn attempting to fulfill his promise? The irony is, while the wise, old sages at the Seattle Times blame Mayor McGinn for the cost-overrun controversy, it’s actually the controversy that deserves the blame for Mayor McGinn.

As with the underlying technical challenges in drilling the largest diameter deep-bore tunnel ever, the powers that be have also failed to fully think through the financial and political challenges associated with the proposal. When I hear Governor Gregoire, City Council president Richard Conlin and other tunnel boosters warn that further delays will only increase costs, my immediate response is, well what the fuck did you think was going to happen to when you attempted to ram this through? It’s been nine years since the Nisqually quake marked the Viaduct for immediate demolition; did anybody really think that spitefully sticking Seattle taxpayers with all the risk for a tunnel they don’t particularly want was gonna speed up the replacement process?

And what if the tunnel comes in way over-budget, as mega-project history suggests it is likely to do? Where’s the money gonna come from to finish it? Are we gonna sit for years with a half-dug hole in the ground while the state and the city endlessly litigate their financial obligations? Or will the state shift funds from other parts of the project to complete the tunnel, while leaving the decrepit Viaduct standing like some ancient Roman ruin, until some future tumbler finally knocks it over onto the waterfront? I mean, how the fuck do you even start a project like this without knowing how you’re gonna ultimately pay for it?

There is not, as the Times and others suggest, consensus support for a multi-billion dollar tunnel with no downtown exits or onramps that will only serve 40,000 vehicles a day, though there may very well be a consensus by now to just get this debate over with and build something. I even find myself in “something” camp these days. Hell, I’d settle for anything.

But I’m not willing to settle for anything at any cost… and outside of the Times editorial board, the folks at the Discovery Institute and an apparent majority of city council members, neither are most Seattle taxpayers.

There may not have been consensus support for the surface/transit proposal either, but had the legislature forced that option down our throats — the cheapest and least financially risky of any of the alternatives — we’d probably be building it already, because whatever its downsides, it was by far the most technically, financially and politically doable. Instead, the legislature chose to risk the future fiscal stability of our city for the sake of folks wanting to quickly drive through it.

As utterly fucking ridiculous as the original Big Bore proposal was, that’s nothing compared to the notion of the state assuming all of the responsibilities for building it, while assuming absolutely none of the risks. And until the state proves it can navigate the well-charted sink holes and boulders of Seattle politics, nobody should have confidence in its ability to bore through the uncertain terrain hidden beneath the city.

17 Responses to “Where there’s a will, there’s a Seattle Way”

1. notaboomer spews:

bore taxpayers out of their skullz!

2. sarge spews:

I don’t agree that the surface option was the most politically “doable”. But I think it would have been best for downtown businesses and real estate values.

The tunnel is a downtown Seattle bypass. It’s purpose it to get people from one end of Seattle to the other, without actually going through Seattle.

This is why sticking Seattle with the cost overruns is so outrageous. The Tunnel works to the disadvantage of business, developers and downtown residents.

Surface streets with enhanced transit would make living downtown easier and more functional, and would benefit businesses in downtown by putting them on the route that people travel. It would help real estate values, both commercial and residential, and help revive the depressed Pioneer Square area.

I like the surface/transit option, but I have to admit, I do think the big bore option is pretty cool, would create a bunch of jobs, and could be substantially completed before tearing down the viaduct.

I’m not completely convinced the surface/transit option won’t create traffic nightmares, which will come with their own economic cost.

3. Roger Rabbit spews:

“wise, old sages at the Seattle Times”

This is a joke, right? Of course it is! A six-day-old bunny has more maturity than the entire ST editorial board.

It’s a fact the state has no money and can’t be held responsible for cost overruns — how do you get blood from a turnip? Nobody’s found a way. If you’re a Seattle voter and don’t want to get stuck with a tunnel tab, then tell your electeds, “Don’t build a tunnel!” If you’re a contractor and want to get paid, don’t bid on the tunnel! Anyone who thinks the state will make him whole is smoking crack.

4. What rubbish spews:

This topic is getting very boring.

If this is a worthwhile topic and a bore is needed, why doesn’t private money finance it completely. A toll could be extracted for every vehicle.

Civilian contractors should be ecstatic to build this tunnel. Finance guys should cream their shorts for such a fabulously rich opportunity.

If not, the taxpayer is being screwed.

Simple now?

5. ArtFart spews:

Hmph…what’s the big deal with putting another tunnel under downtown? There are already two that I know of: the bus tunnel and the BNSF mainline. The latter’s been there for a very long time. Are we supposed to conclude that we’re no longer capable of accomplishing what was done about a century ago?

Also, compared to the tunnels under San Francisco Bay, New York Harbor and the English Channel, this is small potatoes.

I think I’d be OK with getting the damn thing done and assuming that when we finally have no choice but to give up our gas buggies, it’ll provide a lovely right-of-way for mass transit of some sort.

Toll roads? I dunno…they do that back east, but people have been used to it for a long time and the tolls aren’t excessive. Somehow I get a picture of the Viaduct’s replacement as a private “for-profit” venture charging even more than what we’re about to have imposed on the two Lake Washington bridges…and Alaskan Way and Second Avenue perpetually clogged up with cheapskates.

6. tpn spews:

“Observers who don’t believe last year’s mayoral election was at least in part a referendum on the Big Bore Tunnel are smoking crack.”

That’s pretty interesting, when one considers that McGinn backed off on his anti-tunnel rhetoric in the countdown to the election in order to bolster his support amongst the undecideds who were turned off by his obstructionism. Now is approval ratings are in the toilet. Who is smoking crack, exactly?

Here’s the rub– if McGinn’s election were a total referendum he’d’ve lost. That it was a “partial referendum” is a twist of words to imply that it was a total referendum, and thus some kind of “madate” on his crusade. He won by a slim margin. The rebuilding of the viaduct structure had/has the most support.

The main problem with tunnel opponents is that rather then argue the points on the merits themselves– and there are some merits, they instead throw in Orwellian abuses of recent history and semantics. It’s this dishonesty that sends people running away from that point of view. When I see such manipulation of language and recent history, like that quoted in italics above, I tend to stop reading. I imagine many others do also, as people realize their time is worth something.

7. notaboomer spews:

judy clibborn must have tunnel!!!

8. Mr. Cynical spews:

You’ve got to imagine the gleeeee in the dark spots of my heart as I watch the Seattle Progressive Process Machine gobble up more millions & millions of $$ continuing to f— around with this for 9 f—ing years.
Whenever acquaintances ask me why I despise the Progressive Movement so much, one of the top hundred things I point to is the Alaska Way Viaduct replacement.

What a bunch a f—ing idiots the Progressives are. You could have simply retrofit the existing viaduct to be safe to a high level of quake. But noooooooooo, every unqualified a$$hole in Seattle starts flinging idea after idea….and here we stand today, in the f***ing muck! Thankfully I own absolute zero property in Seattle/King County any more.

Have a nice day chumps.

BTW…ObaMao has almost officially bankrupt America so the Feds have no money for this wet-dream. The State obviously has no money cuz Gregoire is begging ObaMao to increase the National Debt to bail her and the unions out again.

How about putting some grown-ups in charge??
Naaaaah, Conservatives aren’t willing to play the endless Process Game. They are no fun.
It’s fun pissing away Millions & Millions on useless staff and consultants using the Elsie the Kow Method of decision-making.

The Seattle Way is..
Take an issue.
Look at every alternative.
Chew them up for a few years.
FINALLY, swallow them & make a decision.
THEN, oops, spit them up and chew them so more.
Swallow again.
Spit them up again.

Repeat ad infititum until all the f—ing money is gone.

The Seattle Way===Elsie the Kow Method.
You stupid ——-

9. sarge spews:

@ 8)

“What a bunch a f—ing idiots the Progressives are. You could have simply retrofit the existing viaduct to be safe to a high level of quake. “

Yeah, at 80% of the cost of replacement, and with a much shorter useful life.

So, no, replacement isn’t idiotic. You are.

10. jon spews:


So, Cyn, do you have view on this topic?! :)

11. bluestater spews:

Kudos to Dominic Holden! Too bad this article wasn’t published earlier in a more attention-getting time.
I don’t trust our city council members (other than O’Brien and Licata) as far as I can throw them on this issue. Let’s take a look at their campaign contributions. Remember, this is the same council that approved our budget that has turned out to be a $50+ million deficit for several years to come. Hope I have time to sell my house before the levy on this tunnel inbroglio begins construction. We should be thanking our lucky stars we have a mayor that looks out for Seattle’s wallets and priorities.

12. Mr. Baker spews:

Dominic Holden’s story was light on reality, and heavy on what if bullshit.

I guess Goldy got the “let’s all bitch about tunnel” memo.
Every week the council meets, every week McSandbag spews the usual bullshit that must apply to the tunnel but never to the surface option.
What stops the Choppaduct living legislature from sticking McSandbag with a surface option with cost overruns?
Answer: nothing, expect it.
What makes you think the surface option would get transit support when the tunnel/transit plan didn’t?
Answer: nothing, you are waiting for a bus that left town with Ron Sims.
What makes you think that the state would choose the surface option for their highway?
Answer: wishful thinking.

Tunnel, or Chopaduct, there’s your choice.

This week Goldy and Publicola are filling in for the mayor countering the council’s meeting day.

13. Mr. Baker spews:

And Peter Steinbruek is the next mayor.

14. Contemplate this, on the Tree of Woe spews:


perhaps you should go tell the Brightwater guys how easy doing tunnels are numbnuts.

hmnmm..lets play out the logic: Pick the most expensive option..and we get a few less lanes(with ZERO opportunity for future expansion) to travel on from the current viaduct.



15. sarah68 spews:

In miedeval times, county lords would force anyone who wanted to go through their lands to pay tolls. If there are no exits directly into Seattle from the tunnel, we could simply place tolls on all the truckers and tourists who drive from Mexico to BC or vice versa without Seattle taxpayers having to pay a dime.

And of course that wouldn’t be possible but it’s still a good idea.

16. jon spews:

In a 2002 study, professor Bent Flyvbjerg, now at Oxford, found that 90 percent of worldwide megaprojects exceeded their original budgets, and that tunnels and bridges were worse than most, averaging costs 33 percent over budget.

He said Washington state’s $415 million risk cushion is better than average. “That’s a good sign, a sign of responsible management,” Flyvbjerg said.

He also warned against declaring with certainty that there will be no cost overruns. “That’s something you cannot say.”

Barry LePatner, a noted New York construction attorney, said taxpayers should assume the whole contingency will be tapped, based on builders’ proclivity to seek extra dollars after winning a contract. McGinn is wise to doubt state assurances, said LePatner, currently writing a book on bridges and other public works. “He should have a ton of very smart lawyers and construction people at hand, to protect the public.”

The political timeline is added cause for scrutiny. The January 2009 decision by Gregoire, former Mayor Greg Nickels and others to go forward with the bored tunnel came before much public debate or study over the cost of that option.

“You just decided you could do the tunnel for exactly the budget you have. That sounds suspicious,” O’Brien said.

Hidden challenges of Highway 99 tunnel

17. Contemplate this, on the Tree of Woe spews:


Kiewit just pulled out of the tunnel project.

That leaves just 2 companies in the running – both of which are newly formed, thus protecting the established company behind each one.

See, construction companies are not stupid, especially large ones.

They know that this project is fucked from the get go, and are not putting themselves in the position to get screwed over by Seattle or the state.

the whole thing is coming apart at the seams…thank god.

Steve, you know exactly what I am talking about.