This story has been updated several times with comments from council transportation chair Tom Rasmussen, council member Mike O'Brien, and  Mayor Mike McGinn.

The Washington State Department of Transportation has announced that it will give the three teams bidding to build the deep-bore tunnel on the waterfront an extra year to finish building the tunnel, meaning that it may not be finished until as late as November 2016.

According to a report in the Seattle P-I, the three potential contractors told the state that the state's original deadline of 2015 may not give them enough time to build and acquire the massive tunnel-boring machines that will be required to dig the 54-foot-diameter deep-bore tunnel, or for maintenance and unforeseen events. WSDOT's new deadline for tunnel completion is the end of 2016.

Kelby Vaughan, a spokesman for the tunnel bidding team Seattle Tunneling Group, would not say anything about the request for delay.  "We don't want to comment on any of that stuff," he said. None of the other potential contractors would comment on their request.

Rumors have been swirling that one team plans to drop out of the bidding process, but we have been unable to confirm if that is the case and, if so, which team may drop out.

Irony alert: Officials who have supported moving ahead with the tunnel as quickly as possible—pointing at Mayor Mike McGinn, in particular, as an obstructionist for wanting to wait until the city has an assurance that it won't be on the hook for cost overruns—have said repeatedly that the primary cause of potential cost overruns is delay. In a blog post, city council president Richard Conlin argued that "Delaying the project only increases the danger of a catastrophe and hurts the economy and Seattle taxpayers."

I have a call in to Conlin to find out whether he thinks a potential yearlong delay increases the risk to Seattle taxpayers.

Council transportation chair Tom Rasmussen says the delay he's most concerned about is delay at the front end of the project not the back end. His reasoning: Once the state signs a design-build contract with the tunnel bidding team, the team will be locked into that contract throughout the designing and building process. Given that the bidding climate is currently favorable to government agencies (i.e., construction and materials are cheap right now), the sooner the state signs a contract, the better the price it will get.

"My thought is that if the state is hearing from the potential teams that might build this that they should be given months, or up to a year, longer to complete the project, you’ve got to listen to the experts," Rasmussen says. "Who wants to push a project like this at an unreasonable speed, where corners could be cut?"

City Council member Mike O'Brien says he disagrees with Rasmussen's analysis. "I don't think what happens in November or December of this year is going to tell us the whole story," O'Brien says. "We're not going to know the whole story for five years or maybe ten, if something bad happens. The idea that this fall is what's really important—I would take strong exception to that."

And O'Brien points out that the state originally said that it would take the viaduct down by 2012 because it's such a huge disaster risk. Putting demolition off until as late as 2016 would seem to contradict those expressions of concern.

"I think there should be immense pressure to take it down now," he says. "What I hear out there is, 'How dare you ask these hard questions, Mike? You're going to delay this project. We can't stand to have that thing up there a day longer.' Well, I agree that having that thing up there a day longer than needed is a real problem. So let's tear it down in 2012."

Cary Moon, head of the anti-tunnel People's Waterfront Coalition, says the request for delay is "just more proof that this is a very risky project and the contractors, who are well aware of that risk, know what needs to be done to minimize it."

Mayor Mike McGinn, meanwhile, issued the following statement: "“This is a very complex project, as the bidders and state are now confirming. We’ll be watching developments closely.” (Translation: I told you so.) McGinn's spokesman Mark Matassa declined requests for additional comment.

We have calls out to viaduct project manager Ron Paananen and city council member Mike O'Brien for comment on the potential yearlong delay.
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