It was intriguing to learn that supporters of a plan to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a deep-bore tunnel had held a press conference at Ivar’s on July 14 to express their outrage over what they called “falsehoods” and “misimpressions” about the megaproject. It turned out that the main cause for their anger is the fact that Seattle mayoral candidate Mike McGinn and I (a candidate for City Council) call it a “$4.2 billion dollar tunnel” rather than a “$2 billion dollar tunnel.”
In a narrow sense, it is, in fact, a $2 billion tunnel — that’s the estimated cost of boring a hole under First Avenue. But as the Washington Department of Transportation chart that tunnel backers showed reporters at the press conference made very clear, the entire project will run an estimated $4.2 billion.
The additional $2.2 billion covers tearing down the Viaduct, building a new surface version of Alaskan Way, connecting the tunnel to Elliott and Western Avenues, rebuilding the seawall, and much more. These are not optional add-ons. Without them, the deep-bore tunnel will just be a hole in the ground and the Alaskan Way Viaduct will still be standing.
Still, I agree with tunnel supporters that there are serious “misimpressions” about the price tag for deep-bore megaproject. Chief among them is the notion that the tunnel can be built without significant cost over runs.
Why? Consider that the tunnel will be the largest in diameter ever built, and that the drilling technology is unproven and untested. Then there’s the fact that current estimates are at best hopeful guesses. Just 1 percent of the necessary engineering planning has been completed. According to the Washington DOT, “The design of the tunnel is very preliminary . . . and there are things we don’t know yet.”
There’s also the fact that responsibility for overseeing the City’s portion of the project will fall largely on the Seattle Department of Transportation. This is the same department can’t manage basic projects like building curbs, crosswalks, and wheelchair ramps without significant cost overages, according to a recent Seattle Times report.
And history shows that mega-transportation projects have a dismal track record when it comes to cost overruns. An Oxford University study of 258 such projects around the world found that 90 percent were over budget, averaging 30 percent more than original estimates.
This is a critical issue for Seattle. The city has committed $930 million to the deep-bore tunnel. Paying for it will require the largest tax or fee increase in city history. In addition, city taxpayers will be responsible for 100 percent of the cost overruns.
There’s another “misimpression” currently circulating — that the deep bore tunnel project is a “done deal.” Not only is the engineering planning barely under way, but no one has figured out how the City is going to come up with its share of the cost.
The real issue here is that the even if we knew how to build and pay for the tunnel, this solution fails to address the city’s critical transportation needs. Designed only to move cars and trucks past the city center, the tunnel has no downtown on- or off-ramps, which is why a state study says the deep-bored tunnel doesn’t meet the needs of 60 percent of drivers who use the Viaduct today. And the tunnel will never serve the needs of public transportation. This makes no sense at a time when our economy and our environment require a transportation system that is smart and sustainable.
The good news is that there is a better alternative. A plan — recommended by an advisory panel appointed by the Governor that included representatives of the state, county, and city departments of transportation and members of community and business groups — envisions improvements to I-5, public transit expansion, and investments in surface streets. This option costs almost $1 billion less than the deep-bore tunnel plan and invests twice as much in improving transit. It would do a better job of moving people and freight into and through downtown Seattle and save hundreds of millions of dollars.
Whether you call it a “$2 billion tunnel” or “$4.2 billion tunnel” the deep-bore megaproject will almost certainly cost significantly more than either of those numbers — and without truly addressing the region’s transportation issues. Rather than calling it a “done deal” we should recognize it for what it truly is: a bad idea and a poor use of city, county, and state tax dollars.
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