As everyone knows, Mayor Mike McGinn has proposed amending agreements between the city and the state to specify that the deep-bore tunnel won't go forward unless the state legislature removes language from state law stipulating that Seattle property owners must pay for any cost overruns on the tunnel project. City council members, in turn, proposed a resolution today that would delay the signing of those same agreements until next year, after the council gets a chance to look at the tunnel bids and decide whether they adequately protect the city.

Although council members and the mayor have strongly criticized each others' proposals (McGinn says the council's language doesn't protect the city from the risk of overruns, and the council says McGinn's proposal would unnecessarily delay the project), neither side is exactly right.

For one thing, neither McGinn's proposal nor the council's would actually prevent the contractors from continuing to work on their bids.

Moreover, both proposals would still allow the city to pull the plug on the project in the future—the only difference is when. (I'm not naive: Obviously, the council isn't interested in pulling the plug and the mayor wants to. But let's take each side at their word for the moment.) The council could decide to pull the plug after October, if the contractors' bids come in too high or saddle the city with too much of the risk, whereas McGinn's would pull the plug if the state decided not to change the overruns language in a future legislative session.

Under the resolution proposed by the city council, the city and state will continue their discussions about the tunnel, the state will continue moving forward with its environmental impact statement, and the contractors will continue putting together their bids. The only things that will be delayed are the agreements between the city and the state, and that delay, in itself, won't do anything to slow down the current trajectory of the project.

McGinn's proposal would mandate that the tunnel contractor could not begin building the project unless the state removed the cost-overrun language, potentially throwing the contract itself into question if the state refused to remove the language. However, even McGinn's proposal wouldn't keep the contractors from coming out with their bids.

Although state transportation leaders have been slightly more receptive to the idea of revisiting the language, they've also said they have no intention of doing so in the upcoming legislative session, when they'll be focused on the budget. McGinn's language, in other words, has the potential to delay the project until at least 2012 (or permanently, if the legislature declined to remove the language).

Finally, today's resolution would delay any potential referendum. However, it wouldn't make a referendum impossible. Instead, referendum backers couldn't put anything on the ballot until August 2011 at the earliest. If a referendum effort started now, it's conceivable that it could go on the ballot next February, although that would require a costly ($1 million-plus) special election.