This op/ed was written by city council president Richard Conlin, and does not represent the views of PubliCola's editorial board, whose members do not support the deep-bore tunnel. Today's Seattle Times op/ed by Mayor McGinn raising concerns about cost overruns is  here, and this week's Stranger feature story elaborating on McGinn's concerns is here.


Rarely does a major US city have the opportunity to radically transform a space as significant as Seattle's downtown waterfront. The tunnel replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct creates the opportunity to create an extraordinary waterfront park, improve a major transportation corridor, and prevent a potential seismic disaster—all at the same time—with billions of gas tax dollars from the State of Washington.

If you've ever visited New York City, San Francisco, Boston, or Chicago, you've experienced the positive impact such a waterfront space can have. This is no small event in our municipal history.

That's why the Seattle City Council is working closely with the Port of Seattle, local community, environmental, labor, and business leaders, King County, the federal government, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), and Gov. Chris Gregoire to complete what is now an 11-year regional collaboration.  The process has been exhaustive and the hard work ahead is about doing things well, not deciding what to do.

In a time of economic hardship, the viaduct replacement will create jobs and new opportunities for local businesses. Construction workers can get to work replacing an unsafe and aging structure, upgrading an important regional mobility corridor, and improving pedestrian and bicycle experiences.  Freight that travels north and south through the city will have a secure corridor and will not have to depend on surface streets.  Waterfront businesses will have the chance to thrive in a whole new environment as the viaduct comes down and the waterfront park is developed.

By removing the 110,000 cars that travel through Seattle on SR 99 from our waterfront, we also create the opportunity for better connections between downtown and the waterfront, integrate those two neighborhoods, and open up the waterfront to better public access. That's good for tourism, our business community, and residents seeking a more livable city.

Much ado has been made about a state legislative provision saying that costs in excess of $2.8 billion will be paid by "property owners in the Seattle area". No city council member supports a policy shift that would force Seattle property owners or local municipalities to pay cost overruns on a project managed by the state.

The Seattle City Attorney and legal professionals have clearly stated that this vague and unprecedented language is legally unenforceable.  The legislature would have to take additional steps that have no precedent in state history to actually figure out how to charge a local government or property owners.  Such steps would be vigorously opposed by all local governments around the state—and the work that the council is doing to develop regional and statewide partnerships positions us well to work effectively with these allies.  Frankly, the issue serves only as a way to alarm and divide Seattleites.

Let's remember, State Route 99 (SR99) is a state highway. Governor Gregoire and state legislators acknowledge that the tunnel will be paid for by the state. In fact, the state has invested $2.4 billion in gas tax money, plans to invest $400 million from tolls, and has included $415 million of contingency, risk, and escalation allowance in their project budget to cover any potential problems.

No one can with a straight face assure you that any project is guaranteed to come in on budget.  However, WSDOT’s nationally recognized cost estimating process has proven that it can accurately project costs.  Between March 1, 2009 and February 28, 2010, WSDOT awarded a total of 172 projects. The average amount below the estimate for these 172 projects was 23.8 percent.  With design-build projects added in, there were 177 projects that came in a total of 27.3% below estimates.. The successful bidder for the southern portion of the viaduct replacement came in 25% under the engineering estimate.

Similarly, the Sound Transit tunnel from downtown to the University District – twice as long as the SR 99 tunnel and crossing of the Ship Canal – came in 20% below the $395 million engineering estimate.  The assumption that this project will exceed its budget has no foundation in fact.

The type of contract provides further assurances. The tunneling contract is a “design-build” contract, which involves the contractor at the earliest stages of design, thereby preventing costly miscommunications later.  This might have prevented some of the complications with King County's Brightwater project, which went over budget when the county moved the location of the facility. The tunnel contract will also include provisions that make the contractor responsible for completing the project within the initial bid price.

Finally, the winning contractor will be required to carry seven different kinds of commercial liability insurance and to post an ample performance bond, used to ensure that the state can finish the job even if the contractor should go bankrupt before work is completed.   The $500 million performance bond is sized based on an analysis done by WSDOT and approved by the State Office of Financial Management, which concluded that it will cover 100% of the risk on the project.

The city of Seattle is also working to protect the collective interests of residents and taxpayers and has its own set of measures.  We are now reviewing the agreements between WSDOT and Seattle Public Utilities, Seattle City Light, and Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) that delineate responsibilities for the relocation of utilities and the use of Seattle rights-of-way.  Council staff and our consultants are working through several issues to strengthen the agreements and ensure that the city’s interests are protected. The council has also hired legal, transportation, and engineering consultants to enhance our own review of the agreements between WSDOT and the city. The council is meeting on a weekly basis to monitor progress of those negotiations and will begin our consideration of legislation formalizing those agreements in mid-July.

It takes two parties to agree to a contract, and we are currently working closely with WSDOT to find language that protects the city and is workable for the state.

In addition, the council has formed or is participating in a number of oversight bodies, including:

•    Special Committee on the Alaskan Way Viaduct Seawall Replacement Project and Central Waterfront Planning (Council oversight)
•    Central Waterfront Partnerships Committee (Citizen involvement)
•    Governor’s Project Oversight Committee (Technical and regional monitoring)
•    Three working groups specifically focused on technical issues around the North Portal, South Portal, and Central Waterfront

Additional information about these entities, their roles, and meetings can be found here.

I’m personally looking forward to the day when we are collectively focused on the design of our new waterfront and the benefits that a $2.8 billion state investment will provide to the center of our city - a revitalized waterfront, improved transportation infrastructure, better connections for bikes and pedestrians between the waterfront and downtown, and new businesses and points of interest for residents to visit.

Until then, the council and the region have a lot of work ahead in our collaboration with the state to complete this project.  As your city council, we are making it our first priority to protect the interests we all share as citizens and taxpayers in Seattle.  We will continue our due diligence and oversight for the best possible outcome for Seattle.  The results will be a safe corridor, environmental improvements, a bustling economy, and a magnificent Seattle waterfront for all.