Updated: Why did McGinn reopen the waterfront tunnel war?

Time is running out for the mayor's effort to block the project. His opponents decline the offer for a public duel, though the governor does release a condescending letter.
Time is running out for the mayor's effort to block the project. His opponents decline the offer for a public duel, though the governor does release a condescending letter.

On the face of it, yesterday's performance by Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, reopening the shooting war over the waterfront tunnel, seems oddly timed. Here's the mayor in a world of problems: finding a new police chief, deep budget cuts, replacing his parks superintendent, looking for a new deputy mayor. Why escalate the waterfront war?

Part of it might be the mayor's unpredictable style; part could be shifting the topic from tough choices to one where he can at least rally his base of green urbanists. But mostly, McGinn probably realizes that time is not on his side on the deep-bore tunnel. The City Council, pushing ahead, is about to sign utilities agreements later this month, which McGinn now says he'll veto. That means that the council needs six, not five votes. (It probably has at least seven at the moment.) The real point of no return will be next December, when the state and city are scheduled to sign the big design-build contract for the tunnel.

The tunnel advocates, knowing for some time that McGinn (despite his campaign pledge not to block the tunnel) is openly fighting it, pretty much brushed off the McGinn fusillade. Tunnel advocates figure that McGinn likes to pick fights, so there's not much point in returning fire. "We treat him like a screaming kid at a party, where the best strategy is to ignore him," says one leading tunnel-booster.

Gov. Chris Gregoire did respond by releasing a April 23 letter that was full of false cordiality, commending the mayor for the ways he is cooperating on the tunnel approval (even though he isn't), and stressing all the ways the tunnel hopes to avoid any cost overruns. Here's the money graph, rich with gubernatorial condescension:

Every month of delay could cost the taxpayers millions in additional costs. I am sure you agree that accumulating unnecessary additional expenditures is unacceptable. I hope you will work together with me to ensure we do not delay and, as a result, incur additional costs to the project. To that end, I remain committed to the agreement I signed with then Mayor Nickels and Executive Sims regarding our respective responsibility...

It's unlikely that McGinn will take these reminders from the governor to heart. On Friday, he sent Gregoire a fairly snarky letter, saying that he interprets the governor's willingness to live up to her state obligations as being "willing to work to have the State take responsibility for cost overruns for the tunnel." (Not at all what the governor implied in her letter.)

Mayor McGinn is sticking with his argument that he is fighting the tunnel not on its merits (though he says he doesn't like it and never has) but because of the cost-overrun provisions, sticking "Seattle area taxpayers" (meaning a local improvement district, not the city government) with the prospective overage. That fiscal argument resonates with people who may even prefer the tunnel but are understandably worried about overruns. And it gives the mayor a fig leaf of consistency with his campaign pledge not to block the tunnel, per se.

It's a bogus argument, in my view, not because there are all kinds of extra dollars put into the project, meant to deal with overruns, and not because now is a good time to get low bids, since contractors are desperate for work. The real reason it's a phony argument is that, regardless of whether that legally dubious provision stays in the legislation, and clearly the legislature is not going to take it out, in the event of serious overruns the state department of transportation would inevitably turn to the city and say: Shall we share the overruns, find a new source of money, or value-engineer the project back to what we can afford? Even if McGinn somehow managed to get the provision removed, the city would still be on the hook in the case of big overruns, as would the state and probably the contractor.


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