City Hall

Coalition Plans to File Tunnel Overruns Initiative Next Week

By Erica C. Barnett December 2, 2010

A coalition of groups including the local chapter of the Sierra Club, Real Change, and United African Public Affairs of Washington, plans to (finally) introduce an initiative by next Wednesday barring the city from signing agreements with the state on the deep-bore tunnel unless the state agrees in writing that the city does not have to pay for cost overruns on the project."We're almost done with the difficult part, and we are planning to file it very soon," says UAPAW president Yusuf Cabdi.

The group first announced its plans to file a city initiative opposing the tunnel back in October. In the five weeks since then, discussions have reportedly bogged down over the details of the language, which is not yet final or available publicly. However, Real Change editor Tim Harris says the initiative will focus on "holding various branches in the city responsible for ... ensuring that Seattle residents don't wind up being responsible for cost overruns on tunnel construction," specifically by prohibiting the city from signing agreements with the state allowing the tunnel to move forward.

Although no one associated with the initiative has identified specifically which agreements it will refer to, it's pretty easy to guess: Because the city is not a party to the tunnel contract (the two parties will be the state and the tunnel contractor), the only agreements the city will have to sign with the state to allow tunnel construction to move forward are three memoranda of agreement between the state and the city Department of Transportation, Seattle City Light, and Seattle Public Utilities allowing the state to do tunnel construction in city-owned utility and transportation rights-of-way. Back in August, the city council passed a resolution committing to sign those agreements, but holding off on doing so until the two tunnel bidders released their bids, which they did in late October.

The timeline isn't promising for the initiative. Council staffers say they now plan to sign the agreements by February or March at the latest. The initiative process, meanwhile, could take nearly a year, meaning it wouldn't go to the ballot until long after the agreements have already been signed. First, the city clerk has five days to approve or reject a petition. Then, the campaign has 180 days to collect just over 20,000 valid signatures. King County then counts and validates the signatures (it does not have a deadline). Next, the city council has 20 days to introduce and refer the initiative, and another 45 days to decide whether to pass the initiative, put it on the ballot, or put a different measure on the ballot alongside the initiative. Finally, if the council does put something on the ballot, it must do so at least 45 days before a special election or 84 days before a general or primary election. If the agreements have been signed by the time the measure goes on the ballot, the initiative would have no legal impact, because an initiative can't force the council to retroactively un-sign an agreement.

Harris acknowledges that the initiative could be largely symbolic. "State law"---which puts the city on the hook for cost overruns---"will always trump local law. We can't take on the tunnel directly because the legislation that was passed in Olympia around the tunnel is pretty tightly worded to preclude any local challenge, or really offer any power to the locality."

UPDATE:

Although the initiative language has not been hammered out, its current iteration includes general language 1) directing the city attorney to ensure that the state doesn't violate a constitutional provision prohibiting the state from forcing a local government to raise taxes and 2) setting up a process for the council and mayor to review the cost of the tunnel project.

City council member Mike O'Brien, an opponent of the tunnel, acknowledges that the planned initiative may be toothless.

"From what I heard from [initiative supporter] Drew Paxton at last night's [anti-tunnel] forum [at Town Hall], there isn't a whole lot in the initiative that would prevent the state from moving forward on the tunnel, cost overruns or no," O'Brien says. On the other hand, he said, "There's a reasonable chance that this thing [the tunnel] has a ways to go before it's a done deal."
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