How to prevent a boondoggle, on the waterfront and beyond

The debate over the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel suggests a way to reduce the risk of public boondoggles. Put politicians personally on the hook.
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The debate over the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel suggests a way to reduce the risk of public boondoggles. Put politicians personally on the hook.

Partisans on both side of the debate over a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct are digging in.

Seattle City Council President Richard Conlin wrote a "what, me worry?" editorial defending the project for Publicola last week, reassuring any cost-overrun doubters that there is nothing to be concerned about. The council is working to reduce the risk of overruns, he says, and besides, despite language in the legislation holding Seattle area property owners responsible, he maintains that provision is legally and politically unenforceable. Debate on the topic only has one purpose, he concludes: "To alarm and divide Seattleites."

Tunnel opponents are launching their own broadsides. Dominic Holden in The Stranger took aim at Conlin's Panglossian sanguinity with a sober look at all the things that could go possibly wrong with the tunnel project (cave-ins, machine breakdowns, overruns). The worst is that the tunnel might not only be way too expensive, but unneeded on the long run, and that's if it's actually finished.

In another article, Holden also helpfully points out that Conlin used to be much more skeptical about mega-boondoggles, and offers quotes of Conlin raising questions about the Seattle Monorail Project project a few years back, much like today's anti-tunnel crowd. Of course, that leaves one asking, why was Conlin's opposition to the Monorail, a project that Seattle voters actually approved multiple times at the polls, any less "alarming" and "divisive" than the worries tunnel skeptics are voicing today?

When it comes to selective boondoggle opposition, hypocrisy abounds. While The Stranger is now fiscally alarmed at the potential fiasco the tunnel represents, it previously devoted endless column inches to being the chief PR organ of the Monorail project. Fortunately, despite that boosterism and thanks to the skepticism of people (like the old Richard Conlin), the Monorail was stopped in its tracks. Once a clearer picture of its ridiculous junk-bond funded $11-billion price tag became apparent, Seattle came to its senses and pulled the plug (with another vote). Reversing course in the face of reality was a great Seattle civic moment.

The oddity of The Stranger leading the anti-tunnel charge based on boondoggle concerns is amusing. When called on that by Erica C. Barnett on KUOW last Friday, the paper's representative on the "Weekday" news roundtable, Eli Sanders, offered the defense that the mega-projects The Stranger has supported were at least mass transit projects. That Barnett herself was one of the biggest pro-Monorail reporters at the paper made the confrontation rather surreal.

Mark Fefer at Seattle Weekly was already on to boondoggle hypocrisy in a piece he did in June noting that many Sound Transit boosters, like the Sierra Club, who defended that massive (and over-budget) project's worth are now among those most vocal in their concerns about the tunnel, among them Publicola's Hugeasscity columnist Dan Bertolet. When it came to Sound Transit (which is a bona fide boondoggle), he disliked doubters almost as much as Conlin hates tunnel worry warts.

One can only conclude that there's a double standard: My boondoggles are okay, yours are not.

A more consistent position would be to oppose all boondoggle waste. Or to endorse it no matter what. There really are two approaches. One is to minimize risks in advance, the other is to bow to the reality that mega-projects come in vastly over budget 90 percent of the time, and that you need to be prepared to pay for it.

David Brewster of Crosscut articulated the latter view, saying that for mega-projects, citizens "might keep in mind the same rule of thumb that works when you call an architect to remodel your house: Double the budget and double the estimated time. And remember, it's usually worth it, if you somehow get it built."

I'd rather see us try to find innovative ways of reducing the inevitability of overruns. This involves a hard look at projects, it involves getting the best data, it involves making sure that whoever decides to go ahead on a project has some skin in the game. This is what the legislature was trying to do in requiring Seattle to cover cost overruns on the tunnel: if you're on the hook, Seattle, you'll be more careful because you won't simply be spending other people's money.

As the much-quoted expert on mega-project boondoggles, Bent Flyvbjerg, has pointed out, one of the biggest reasons for overruns is over-optimism and outright deception on the part of politicians. You might call it lying; Flyvbjerg identifies it as "strategic misrepresentation." Politicians win by being overly optimistic, promising large transformational change, and doing so without having enough information at hand to know what they're talking about. It's also called "optimism bias." Anyone who questions "the vision" is a naysayer, a NIMBY, a divisive alarmist.

It's not just the tunnel advocates who are engaging in "optimism bias" but also those who promise that, say, a surface-only solution will be transformative. While the no-tunnel alternative solution to the post-Viaduct waterfront doesn't involve a tricky dig, it does involve a huge rewiring of the city's grid and major freeway work on I-5 plus more transit and rail. Its costs could also be in the billions, making it a complex social re-engineering of the city, susceptible to massive cost overruns too.

So how do you get the politicians to own up to the risks of any major project? How do we get beyond public bailouts of public projects that do less than promised and cost more? Here's one idea.

Most of the politicians who will approve the tunnel or any alternative will likely be beyond the reach of the voters by the time these projects are finished, and the overrun bills become due. In other words, they're in Palm Springs by the time the poop really hits the fan.

Perhaps the city should have an overrun policy that places liens on all the assets or estates of every member of the city council in order to hold them personally responsible for any mega-project they approve. Let them pledge their personal assets, not just public ones, to the cause. The purpose isn't to squeeze billions of dollars from a stone, but to signal that public accountability can last for the life of a project, not the gnat-like political life a politician. Too many public entities act like the big banks, who take risks with your money, while covering their own assets.

Let's end the boondoggle bubble by asking politicians to pay personally for their mistakes. I'll bet that would increase skepticism and trigger a harder look at costs, plans, and promised rewards.

That ought to inject some realism into the public process, rather the selective, cynical, and often hypocritical optimism that too often dominates.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.