PubliCola Morning Fizz logo
Morning Fizz

Some big news was revealed at the AP's annual legislative forum yesterday where, questioned by reporters, the legislature's transportation leaders indicated there's a showdown coming over the crazy-making question: Who will pay for cost overruns on the deep bore tunnel?

Republicans stood by the "Stick-It-to-Seattle" provision and the Democratic house transportation chair said the state would pay.

The AP's Chris Grygiel summarized:

On the issue of the viaduct tunnel, a leading Senate Republican said Seattle taxpayers should foot the bill for any potential cost overruns on viaduct replacement. Sen. Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said it would be difficult to convince people in other areas of the state to help pay more for the tunnel. In 2009, the Legislature approved the tunnel replacement. However they included a provision in the law requiring Seattle to pay for any cost overruns.

“The law is the law,” Schoesler said.

Legal experts have said enforcing that requirement would be difficult, noting that the language of the amendment was vague. Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said “Seattle is not on the hook … we will deal with this as a state.”

Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson said at the forum that there was a $400 million risk reserve fund for the tunnel, including $40 million for “running into stuff.”

House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, said the state needed to reassess who is ultimately responsible for cost overruns for state “megaprojects” like the viaduct and the replacing the State Highway 520 bridge across Lake Washington.

“We as a state cannot continue to take on liability,” he said. “When’s the last time we didn’t have a cost overrun on a megaproject?”

The battle will ultimately land on Seattle Mayor Ed Murray's desk. Whether he likes it or not, construction on Seattle's waterfront —including a stalled tunnel boring machine (even if it is a state project)—is going to force him to take up the overruns question.

In the face of: 1) A GOP-controlled senate; 2) pathological animosity toward Seattle's ritzy ways—oh my God, we want to move freight in and out of the port!; 3) the provision that says Seattle is responsible for any cost overruns; and 4) even wavering Seattle pride from state house Speaker Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43, Wallingford), a tunnel critic, who did not get Rep. Clibborn's back yesterday, saying he didn't know who should pay for cost overruns, Seattle may have to fall back on the nuclear option and sue the state.

They'd have a good case—former Washington State Attorney General Republican Rob McKenna issued a finding in 2010 saying the "stick-it-to-Seattle" provision is "unenforceable" because the tunnel is a state project.

We put the question to the mayor's office. Are you prepared to sue the state over this?

Mayor Murray's communications director Jeff Reading told PubliCola:

It’s too early to talk about lawsuits. Mayor Murray has been in office only for a few days, and is making his first trip to Olympia as Mayor next week.
 
Important to point out: There’s not a city or town in this state that can or should assume financial liability for the state highways that run through their jurisdictions, so the framing of this as an issue of Seattle versus the Legislature is incorrect.
 
The real issue isn’t even about how we’re going to pay for cost overruns. The real issue is: how is the state going to manage projects – the tunnel included – to ensure their delivery on time and on budget? That’s the issue the Mayor wants to work with legislators on, and that’s the conversation that he hopes to begin with them next week. 

Okay. But if we may: Framing the state as the keeper of the tunnel may come back to haunt the Murray administration.

The city is expecting to raise $200 million to $300 million for the proposed $1.07 billion waterfront revamp—waterfront promenades, pedestrian-friendly boulevards, performance spaces, trees, swimming pools (OK, they nixed that last one)—from a Local Improvement District. But LIDs raise money from local property owners based on the increase in property values from improvements to the property. The problem is: If the state is the one paying for the crux of the improvement—tearing down the viaduct (great views now) and building a tunnel—the city doesn't have the legal right to the money from the increased property values.

The city can't have it both ways. The tunnel isn't both their project and not their project. 

Stay tuned.

For the latest on Seattle news and politics sign up for our Seattle Met Daily newsletter, subscribe to PubliCola’s RSS Feed, follow us on Twitter @publicolanews and @SeattleMet, and visit our News & Profiles page.