City Council: Don’t worry, we are taking over on tunnel

An Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement option.

Credit: WSDOT

The Seattle City Council said today that it plans to move forward with the state of Washington on a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct while holding off a final signing of agreements until it sees whether the state receives good construction bids for the huge project.

The council unveiled near-unanimous agreement on a plan to approve a resolution stating the city’s intent to reach final agreements with the state next year. Mayor Mike McGinn, an increasingly firm opponent of the tunnel, cannot veto council resolutions, although he has a choice whether to sign or not. A resolution is also exempt from being overturned by a referendum that might be forced if opponents undertook a drive to get petition signatures for a vote, as some critics have discussed.

Late this afternoon, the mayor responded to the council’s plan in an e-mailed statement to the media. “It appears that council is doing everything possible to prevent a public vote. Yet they still have not dealt with the underlying issue — who will pay for overruns given the $2.4 billion cap in state law. Until the state law is changed, Seattle remains at risk of paying cost overruns.”

Amid considerable talk at the council press conference in the morning about wanting to work with the mayor, Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, chair of the transportation committee, expressed the most annoyance with McGinn, with whom he has clashed before on the issue. Apparently referring to proposals to withhold city action on approving agreements with the state until the state legislature guaranteed it would accept any cost overruns, Rasmussen said the mayor “tried to insert a poison pill.”

“It was another tactic of the mayor to kill the project, which is something he said he would not do when he campaigned,” Rasmussen said. Because of that, he added, “the council took over.”

The council’s plan, however, is a clear acknowledgement that members had listened to concerns that signing final agreements with the state would be premature without bids on construction and a final environmental approval for the tunnel. Councilmember Sally Bagshaw said the approach allows the city “the best of both worlds,” getting more time to see that reasonable bids come in while sending a “very strong signal to the contractors” that the city will be part of the project with the state.

State officials evidently agree. Gov. Chris Gregoire issued a statement praising the council’s action. Gregoire said, “The Seattle City Council, as partners in this project, understand that after nearly a decade of process, that further delays will cost money, risk our economy and threaten public safety. We are in an unprecedented climate for construction bids which allows us to stretch taxpayer dollars even further.”

City Attorney Peter Holmes repeated his assurances that a state law on city property owners near the project picking cost overruns is unenforceable. Holmes said he was surprised by one thing about a poll showing that more than 60 percent of city residents were concerned about how cost overruns might be covered. He suggested 99 percent might have been a reasonable figure, but he said the council, with whom he worked on the plan, is also very concerned. He said the proposed agreements with the state protect the city on that issue and others, including environmental mitigation and the protection of valuable city infrastructure along the existing right of way for the viaduct.

Rasmussen called the plan a “team effort.” He added, “Each council member has been heard.” He specifically included Mike O’Brien, the member whose position has been closest to McGinn’s.

O’Brien didn’t join other six other council members in presenting the plan at a late morning press conference and he didn’t endorse it. But when asked by members of the media afterward whether the council had done something “sneaky,” he demurred, saying it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment when he hadn’t been involved. However, referred to the plan’s development “as what went on behind the scenes.”

Nevertheless, O’Brien appeared upbeat, saying, “I think we did as good a job as we can” in negotiating agreements with the state. The agreements specify the state has responsibility for the tunnel’s costs.

O’Brien said he also wants commitments from the Port of Seattle on financing its promised $300 million contribution and from the state on transit money to help move people during construction. And he said he will want the council to make it a priority to work on the state legislature to overturn the intent language on city coverage of cost overruns in existing law. Some of the other council members weren’t so sure how much to push.

While the resolution does an end run on any McGinn veto, the council member repeatedly expressed hope to work with him as the project moves forward. Councilmember Sally Clark said she “would love to have him sign” the resolution, which he indicated might be passed next Monday (Aug. 2).Council President Richard Conlin said the best way to prevent cost overruns would be everyone “working together.” Councilmember Sally Bagshaw cited the pedestrian and bicycle elements of new waterfront arrangements as an area of common interest with McGinn.

While McGinn did not elaborate on tunnel issues in his brief statement, the mayor’s office said he would answer media questions Tuesday morning (July 28).

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