The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT)’s proposed deep-bore tunnel project is complicated, ambitious, and alarming in its technical risk. The state basically holds all the power, but all the hazards fall on Seattle. Regardless of what they think of the tunnel, Seattle government officials have an overriding responsibility to protect Seattle’s public good: our streets, our buildings, our neighborhoods, our safety, and, ultimately, our finances.
Unfortunately, city council president Richard Conlin has made a mockery of the tunnel process, signing the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the city's behalf when Mayor Mike McGinn said he needed another week tor eview it. The city council is poised to pass legislation this afternoon "ratifying" Conlin's signature on the document; McGinn says Conlin's signature is illegitimate.
The city plays two contradictory, even conflicting, roles in developing the Environmental Impact Statement: We are both a "co-lead" (equal partner) on the project, meaning that we would have to defend the EIS against any challenges, and we bear the primary brunt of any negative impacts. In this arrangement, the city has two ways to protect its streets, private property, and historic districts:
First, the city can negotiate with its partner, WSDOT, as co-lead. More accurately, we could, if the relationship between the state and the city was healthy and we actually shared power.
O, the city could challenge the state under the Washington State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA).
The city, as well as Seattle citizens and community groups, can do this in two ways. First, it can insist that the EIS thoroughly document the harms and risks and any potential problems that could arise from the project. Later, it can demand that the state pay for sufficient protection or mitigation as part of its portion of the tunnel project.
Seattle has a strong practical interest in making sure the EIS is thorough and legally compliant.
• The EIS is the best, perhaps the only, source for analytical data about a project’s costs, risks and impacts. The data here is supposed to be spin-free.
• Decision makers and the public use the data in the EIS to compare reasonable alternatives to find the best answer. Remember, the tunnel proposal is a "preferred" alternative, selected on a napkin sketch of an idea. To enable an informed final decision, the EIS compares data for alternatives, side by side. The winner must show it does the job at the best price and the most acceptable risk.
• The city of Seattle, as the host to WSDOT’s project, must insist that the EIS thoroughly documents all the risks and potential collateral damage caused by the preferred alternative. This is crucial so that the city can negotiate adequate mitigation and protection of public assets on behalf of its citizens.
• Other parties that also have an interest in protecting property from potential harms—including the owners of the 14 buildings at risk of structural failure, neighborhoods disrupted by the two tunnel portals, the defenders of historic resources, fans of Underground Seattle, and environmental organizations, to name a few—need to be able to use the EIS to understand the harms, and then demand the project avoid, protect against, or mitigate them.
• Making sure the environmental review is adequate lessens the possibility of time-consuming and expensive litigation down the road.
WSDOT released an early draft of this draft EIS in July. At that time, the media, SDOT, and the mayor’s office raised many serious red flags about the document. Among its most egregious problems:
• The statement of "purpose and need" was rewritten to replace references to improving "mobility" with references to car "capacity"---a change that would allow only a replacement highway. Because the I-5/Surface/Transit alternative only improved mobility, not car capacity, it was disqualified (see how that works?)
• In an attempt to cover up the fact that the agency officials actually recommended against the tunnel (and for I-5/Surface/Transit), the EIS included a fabricated history of the 2008 stakeholder process.
• The EIS included implausibly high predictions of future car travel, contradicting city and state policy as well as the current reality of declining driving habits.
• It ignored the state’s intention to toll the facility (the project depends on $400 million in tolls), which inaccurately exaggerates tunnel usage and underestimates the number of cars that will divert to city streets.
• It declined to reveal the number of vehicles that will use narrow historic Pioneer Square streets as highway access ramps, and what ‘improvements’ WSDOT might make to these streets to accommodate that additional traffic.
• It revealed that soil settlement and uncontrollable groundwater disruptions could cause building damage, sinkholes, or sudden flooding to underground Seattle.
Given all those flaws, McGinn's hesitation to put his name on the EIS shows integrity and basic concern for the city’s interests. It’s a hard choice: Deciding whether the city is better off as complicit partner on the tunnel, trying to steer the project from within, or whether the city should walk away and take its chances on SEPA as protection.
If WSDOT were actually sharing power with the city and revising the EIS so it meets the city’s expectations too, the answer would be obvious: The city should keep its status as co-lead and keep trying to make this marriage work.
If WSDOT is jerking Seattle around, ignoring the city’s requests, the city may be better off breaking off the relationship. The protections guaranteed under SEPA are a thin line of defense -- but perhaps better than a dysfunctional relationship in which the city has no contract defining its rights and seems to lose every dispute.
By jumping into the middle of this difficult negotiation between the two co-lead agencies, Conlin may be sabotaging the mayor’s ability to negotiate protections for Seattle.
These shenanigans, if they continue, may cripple the city’s ability to protect itself.
Step away from the political theater for a minute, back to the reality of finance and feasibility. Consider these strong indicators the proposed tunnel project may fail, all by itself:
• Both the tunnel experts hired by the council and the mayor advised the city that the project, as promised, is likely to exceed the state’s target price. However, every government involved---city, county, and state---has officially refused to pay the anticipated cost overruns.
• Two of the bidders pursuing this project have recently dropped out, determining the cost / risk/ budget picture was not good business for them.
• Before the governor told him to shut up, in 2008 the leading WSDOT official distinctly opposed the tunnel proposal, offering a “cold dose of fiscal reality” with his public statement, “It is out of reach in the current state of affairs to make it happen.”
• To meet even the basic budget, the state is relying on an unsecured $300 million from the Port of Seattle and $400 million from tolls. Both may fall through.
So what if the project financing is shaky – that’s not our problem, right? Here’s why, this time, it is: When asked how WSDOT aims to keep on budget, they answer ‘by managing scope.’ That’s engineer-speak for ‘Cut anything except the highway itself.’ So when the bids come in, be prepared for the news that everything Seattle cares about may no longer be funded.
Is this paranoid? Look at the evidence. Before the ink was dry on the first memorandum of agreement between the state and the city, the state reneged on its promise to help King County raise $190 million for transit service. Before that, the state shifted $200 million of tunnel costs to the city, burdening Seattle citizens directly with the cost of rearranging utilities around the tunnel portals. The governor originally promised the state would pay for any cost overruns, until the legislature shifted this liability to “Seattle-area property owners who benefit” from the project. The Governor has delayed her promise to tear down the unsafe viaduct by 2012, twice.
The city should be marshalling all the forces it can to defend Seattle’s interests, given the massive challenges of this project. There are precious few tools remaining for the city to negotiate a good outcome: the content of the EIS, a possible legal challenge to the EIS, the MOAs with the state, and construction permits.
It’s time for the council and the mayor's office to aside their political wrangling and start working together, strategically, to protect Seattle.
• Mayor’s office and SDOT, lay out clearly what you see as the problems with the current draft of the EIS. Does it comply with the city's environmental protection standards, or not? Does it fairly consider reasonable alternatives? Does the preferred alternative provide good access to downtown? Does it overburden Pioneer Square streets? Does it show an unacceptable risk to historic buildings? Explain what changes you proposed to the early draft in July, and how WSDOT responded. In this relationship, does Seattle have sufficient authority to ensure a fair EIS, one that can stand up to legal challenges?
• Council, stop screwing around with the authority of SDOT and the Mayor. It’s not your job, and it’s not what you’re good at. It’s time to set aside political differences, and speak in a single voice as the city---are we better off as co-lead in this EIS, or outside and protected from financial liability?
• Council and mayor, enlist your experts to work together to do real due diligence on the EIS and the forthcoming bids. You need to protect our waterfront, local mobility and access, local property, and our finances.
When the bids come in:
• Ensure there is a complete and transparent funding plan.
• Ensure the state will pay for what they promised the city, especially the lids to cover two blocks of cut-and-cover trenches near the portals, reconnecting the street grid in South Lake Union, and the $290 million promised for the waterfront street.
• Ensure there is sufficient contingency funding to adequately protect or mitigate any local problems, and to pay any cost overruns---with their money, not ours.
Problems between the city and state were inevitable and will likely worsen. Getting the city in the strongest possible position to defend Seattle’s interests should be our elected leaders' top priority.
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