Open Letter to the Council: Take the Same Damn Risk You're Asking Us To Take

By David Meinert May 21, 2010

I love most of the folks on the City Council, know most of them personally, and supported many of them during their campaigns. And yet I'm totally baffled about why they support the deep-bore tunnel. On this issue, the council seems to have completely ignored the will of the people who voted them into office.

Correct me if I'm wrong here. Seattle voted on several options for the viaduct replacement. The tunnel (as well as a rebuilt viaduct) lost. And then we had a mayoral election with one person whose number-one issue was opposition to the tunnel, and one person who was among its most ardent supporters. The guy who supported the tunnel didn't even make it through the primary.

Given the results of those two elections, I seriously don't understand how the city council can support digging the largest (and riskiest) tunnel of its kind ever built, with no exits in downtown Seattle, no finished environmental impact study, and questionable safety protections (I recently talked to a Seattle fire captain who said the tunnel is a potential public safety disaster).

Most appallingly, I can't believe the council has shown zero concern about the potential risk of cost overruns to the city. Name one major state highway project that hasn't gone over budget—just one! Given that 90 percent of megaprojects end up costing more than projected, I'm about 110 percent sure this one will too. Yet the council's response—particularly council president Richard Conlin's—has been, consistently: "We're not worried about cost overruns."

Granted, I run businesses and have to actually balance budgets and generate a profit, so maybe I'm naive when it comes to publicly funded transportation projects. But it seems to me that when we are cutting crucial public services because of massive budget shortfalls, we should be taking a hard look at the financials of all projects, and an even closer look at the ones that could sink us financially.

I have to balance six budgets daily, and I would never take a risk like this tunnel. But then, I can't just go force people to give me more money by raising taxes, fees and penalties if my plan doesn't work.

So how about this: In the spirit of creating a level playing field, every politician who votes to support this tunnel should agree to put their own personal finances on the line if it goes over budget. As in, ALL of your money and future income goes to pay off the cost overruns before ANY of mine or Seattle's does. If you're so confident in the project's budget and your ability to oversee it, then you should have no problem with this. I make this sort of decision every day when I decide what to spend and what to cut. It's time those who spend the public's dollars have to do the same thing.

Finally, I have to say, this tunnel idea seems to be a creature from the last decade of cozy relationships between huge corporations and politicians, of unregulated business, lack of government oversight by citizens, and policy embracing our past reliance on oil while ignoring the impact on the environment. This is the sort of government that allowed the current Gulf oil spill to happen and continue. It's the sort of government that rejected police oversight so we end up with police beating up an innocent man walking down the street. We have a problem in American politics, a big problem, and it's playing out locally with the viaduct replacement.

Fortunately, citizens have a voice. We can throw out the politicians who support building financially irresponsible projects, and who abuse their power. We just went through an election cycle that showed how this will play out—Nickels and Carr are gone. The political establishment's candidates lost. And we have Mike McGinn as mayor, a mayor whose oversight on this issue is welcome to many citizens and small business owners alike.

So as much as I like many of you on council, you need to remember who you work for. The citizens of Seattle do not want to pay for the cost overruns on your overpriced pet project.  But if you're going to move ahead with it without a real debate, be prepared for the backlash coming when there are cost overruns, and there will be. Whether or not Seattle is responsible for them, as citizens of Washington, all Seattle residents will be one way or the other. And we will hold you accountable.
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