If Bertha busts the budget, who pays?

Crews drill to look for an obstruction in front of the tunnel-boring machine on Seattle's waterfront. Credit: Washington State Department of Transportation

Maybe Seattle should be on the hook for Bertha overruns.

Big revelations about Bertha and the 520 Bridge costs make you wonder if Seattle and the state of Washington have bitten off more than they can chew, boondoggle-wise.

Bertha has literally ground to a halt while digging the deep-bore tunnel. And, as the new legislative session begins, the folks building the 520 Bridge have given us some new numbers about the size and scale of their cost overruns to date, with more anticipated.

If anything, the two troubled projects are giving legislators cause for pause as they contemplate a new state transportation package.

In Bertha's case, since we're at the beginning of what could be a quagmire, we don't yet have a full handle on the cost of delays, damage and other issues related to the project. The Washington State Department of Transportation has been reluctant to be pinned down, but the project has a $40 million fund for "running into stuff," according to state Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson. And running into stuff it has done.

On the other side of town, a year after we learned about the 520 pontoon design and cracking fiasco, we're finally getting the bill for the faulty pontoons that need to be repaired or rebuilt: $208 million. The project's contingency fund is essentially blown, WSDOT revealed last week. They are requesting another $170 million to cover additional expected overruns and future costs over and above what was originally planned. The $2.72 billion project will now cost $2.89 billion.

While the focus has been on the pontoons, WSDOT documents reveal that there are over $134 million in other 520-related cost overruns, changes and delays in the offing that we haven't been hearing about, a big chunk of that on the Eastside.

One hundred million here, 200 million there, and pretty soon you're talking real money.

WSDOT assures us that the $170 million now needed to complete half the 520 job (the funded eastern half— there's still the connection to I-5 to figure out) can come out of other state projects and bonds sold against expected toll revenues. In other words, no tax increases. Is it real money if it's not a tax increase?

Of course it is. Taxpayers and toll payers will be paying to borrow that money, and citizens counting on other projects might find their work delayed or downsized. Just because the state can put overruns on its credit card doesn't mean the money is imaginary.

Still, you wonder if anyone really cares. We expect mega-projects to go over budget. We complain loudly and say "I told you so," but these monsters lumber along and the debt piles up. The long time-frames ensure anger will cool down, lawsuits and negotiations will determine who pays the final bills, and people will enjoy the benefits of the new projects, eventually. The pols who pushed them are long gone by the time the piper is paid. We're expected to give a big, worldly shrug.

Mike McGinn made an issue of overruns and was overruled by the political leadership and Seattle voters, who insisted Bertha go ahead. Since it's reasonable to speculate that Bertha's final bill might be higher than anticipated, the former mayor's concerns about who's on the hook have come to the surface like the bits of steel pipe in Bertha's path.

It's a state project, Seattle argues, so the state should pay the entire tab. Pro-tunnel legislators have argued that even though there's an overrun provision in the Bertha bill that says Seattle pays, it's not legally enforceable. Too vague, they say.

But surely the intent is clear. Votes to approve the tunnel bill were gathered on the guarantee that Seattle would pay.

New mayor and former state Sen. Ed Murray says not to worry about paying any overrun. But, when Seattle could have selected less expensive options, it came up with a risky plan with a Tiffany price tag ($2 billion for the tunnel and another $1 billion for taking down the Alaskan Way Viaduct and related work). Seattle insisted on a project that was more than the state wanted to spend. We could have had a surface project, a new viaduct, a retro-fitted viaduct or a cut-and-cover tunnel. All were problematic, but all were likely cheaper and less risk-prone.

Is it right for Seattle to insist on foisting any Bertha overruns onto state taxpayers? Doesn't Seattle have at least some liability for the insisting on a one-of-a-kind project? In the city referendum in 2011, the deep-bore tunnel project was approved by 60 percent of Seattle voters who said go ahead (the pro-tunnel group was Let's Move Forward). Shouldn't those voters have some accountability in the event of a fiasco?

Gov. Jay Inslee articulated the strategy of pushing off overrun concerns for now. "Let's drill Bertha, let's get this job done, let's focus as a team to get the job done and we'll worry about some of these cost issues at the appropriate moment," MyNorthwest.com quoted him as saying. It's a pragmatic approach, an engineer's approach. It encourages people to forget, to forgive, to repeat. We'll sort out the bill, alki.

If Bertha busts the budget, the answer will be largely in the hands the courts and Olympia, a nexus for the rest of the state to express its low opinion of Seattle priorities. Already Bertha is giving some legislators a reason to go slow on new transportation spending, including finishing the 520 project, which has another quagmire waiting for it at the west end in Montlake.

Sure, Seattle is the state's economic engine, but like Bertha, it's a high-maintenance, expensive machine.

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