The tunnel: McGinn should be careful what he wishes for

Suppose the mayor succeeds in his relentless pursuit of the problems he sees with the tunnel. Then what?
Crosscut archive image.

Under the Alaskan Way Viaduct on Seattle's waterfront. (Chuck Taylor)

Suppose the mayor succeeds in his relentless pursuit of the problems he sees with the tunnel. Then what?

Mayor Mike McGinn strives for lawyer-like finesse in his rebuke to the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, the deep-bore tunnel.

Carefully, he insists it's just the 'ꀜoverrun'ꀝ problem that must be fixed to protect the wallets of Seattle citizens.

But he does not conceal his personal distaste for the tunnel as an infrastructure investment.

At a meeting with Crosscut writers on Tuesday, he waffled on whether he would support simply shutting down the existing vulnerable viaduct structure if no solution can be agreed upon for replacing it. Yet he acknowledged the legitimacy of viaduct seismic safety concerns, worrying about his own "complicity" if a deadly seismic collapse of the viaduct should happen on his watch.

So, on the overrun dispute, the furious chase by McGinn brings with it the old question: What happens if the dog catches the car?

Almost ten years after the Nisqually earthquake put the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project in the headlines, this much is undeniable: There is not and never will be a solution to the Alaskan Way problem that will please everybody. So, there is no realistic prospect of a new, different consensus.

As to the susceptibility of any solution to the endless layers of artful obstruction, the best illustration is Speaker Frank Chopp'ꀙs elegant gambit in his personal opposition to a waterfront tunnel. It was he who planted in the legislature'ꀙs 2009 approval of the tunnel program the poison pill proviso: The cost of overruns would be "borne by property owners in the Seattle area who benefit from replacement of the existing viaduct."

McGinn's continuing campaign has deftly re-crafted that as a generic threat to Seattle taxpayers. As Speaker Chopp undoubtedly foresaw, the game is on, and there is at least the possibility, if still short of a distinct likelihood, that the confluence of Speaker Chopp's legislative stratagem and Mayor McGinn's transportation ideology will bog down the project yet again, throwing open for the umpteenth time the question of what is to be done, and extending indefinitely the futile quest for the holy grail solution that makes everyone happy.

There is, however, a matter of fact challenged by almost no one: Every day, the Alaskan Way travel corridor is critical to the task of getting around for much of Seattle's population and many of its commercial enterprises. Yes, it's a state highway, but its actual use and benefit is largely local to the people and businesses of Seattle. Fortunately, the state legislature in 2003, 2005, and 2009 allocated money and authority to Seattle's transportation needs as served by the Alaskan Way/SR 99 corridor. That was to the tune of more than $2 billion promised, and with encouragement and endorsement of the plan that emerged in 2009 as the deep-bore solution.

State money is already being spent on transportation improvements. For example, a big chunk (nearly $500 million) will soon start going into actual construction for the broadly welcomed and highly satisfactory program to improve Highway 99 south of the central waterfront from King Street to Holgate.

Millions of dollars of state viaduct replacement funds are already in use and will to continue to be applied through 2013 to pay for as much as 60,000 Metro bus service hours a year, mostly serving downtown and West Seattle.

But if McGinn's crusade succeeds in derailing the tunnel project, back to square one goes the planning program for the hardest part of the Alaskan Way puzzle, the traffic corridor along the central waterfront. To say nothing of everyone's hope for recapturing Seattle'ꀙs central waterfront to put water and people, not traffic, first.

As McGinn surely recognizes as an unavoidable corollary to the safety risks of the current viaduct structure, something will then have to be done.

It's a fair expectation that, if the program grinds to a halt, whatever else then does or doesn'ꀙt happen, the state will still come through with the $200 million already committed to take down the existing structure and probably another $100 million or so for new street connections and the upgrade of the Battery Street tunnel.

But would Mayor McGinn be safe or wise to assume that the state legislature would leave another $1.5 billion or so just sitting in the bank — patiently allowing it to molder while Seattle wallows in unpromising division and indecision until some new idea might catch favor with some new fragment of the Seattle polity?

His view, stated at Crosscut on Tuesday, is that the legislature would likely not re-program the money to other projects elsewhere in the state and away from the viaduct. That would be because, he suggested, Seattle voters had helped support the statewide program of gas-tax revenues (and transportation project spending) that built most of the kitty for viaduct funding. Seattle voters earned entitlement, he essentially argued, by lining up to help defeat Tim Eyman's gas tax rollback initiative in 2005.

That answer fits well McGinn'ꀙs earlier calling as a courtroom lawyer, but probably is not well-grounded in Olympia realpolitik. Transportation projects deeply desired by local communities all across the state are starved for funding. The 2005 gas tax increase Eyman attacked in his unsuccessful rollback initiative was already widely perceived across the state, although this did not succeed in spurring its repeal, as sending too much of the money to Seattle, certainly vastly in excess of the share of gas-tax receipts Seattle actually contributes to state coffers.

Would the legislature now rewrite the spending plan to move viaduct money elsewhere should the Seattle project stall in flight? In Olympia language, it might be time to "re-rack" the funding. It's worth recalling that the legislature's transportation committees first write and then can (and do) rewrite the transportation budget. There are 28 members currently on the House committee, and just one represents a Seattle district. There are 16 members on the Senate committee, and just one represents a Settle district.

The financial quandary for citizens of Seattle and their prospects of facing heavy financial burdens for transportation are already pretty brutal. At the fore, completely apart from the viaduct, is the cost of fixing the other crumbling Seattle arterial and local streets, in every neighborhood, that suffer from years of the city's delayed and deferred routine renewal and repair. The commendable and successful Bridging the Gap initiative identified the problem but made only a small down payment on its solution. The rest of that big financial cost for simple city streets will not receive sympathetic treatment in Olympia for Seattle — or any other local community.

Then there is the financial crisis of maintaining Metro Transit's current level of operation, to say nothing of service expansion, in and into Seattle. There are mayoral visions of hundreds of millions of dollars for laying new ribbons of expensive light rail around the city. And it would require tens of millions of dollars to implement the bike and pedestrian master plans, an undertaking for which McGinn has palpable affection.

What if you add to all those problems the prospect of the city itself having to step up to a big piece of any modernization of the central portion of the waterfront corridor, even without overruns? Remember the price tag for the so-called I-5/transit/surface surface viaduct replacement scenario to which the legislature gave such a chilly reception? $2.2 billion!

Perhaps a deep-bore tunnel budget bust, a more descriptive term than cost overrun, might happen. Perhaps, after the state pays the contractor, as law would require it to do, a future legislature might fashion a way to put the unexpected costs not on the shoulders of the big downtown property owners, as Speaker Chopp postulated, but on the backs of ordinary citizens. Neither of those outcomes is foreordained. More importantly, neither may be the most problematic of the wallet-denting possibilities lurking in this current phase of the viaduct debate.

If risk is the coin of discussion, all the risks should be plainly in view on the table. A McGinn-prompted message from Seattle that would motivate Olympia to put then-idled money on projects elsewhere in the state could be a financial disaster for Seattle. Seattle could be left on its own to find the money for a future Alaskan Way solution.

Or a really odd and more ironic alternative might result: Mayor McGinn would be set to pleading with Seattle voters to support a new round of gas-tax increases for state highway projects to include a fresh stack of chips to keep the state in the game of bailing out Seattle'ꀙs unavoidable road needs on Alaskan Way.

When Mayor McGinn jousts ultimately with the state legislature, don'ꀙt undervalue this risk to Seattle citizens: In politics, payback's a bitch.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Doug MacDonald

Douglas MacDonald

Doug MacDonald is a pedestrian activist who once served as the Secretary of Transportation for Washington state.