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.