Seattle Transportation Director Accuses State of Cutting City Out of Tunnel Project

By Erica C. Barnett April 29, 2011

This post has been updated with comments from SDOT director Peter Hahn.

In a letter to state viaduct replacement manager Ron Paananen today, Seattle Department of Transportation director Peter Hahn accused the state transportation department (WSDOT) the city out of the process of planning the construction of the deep-bore tunnel---canceling a series of meetings on the final environmental impact statement, refusing to release the Final Environmental Impact Statement to the city until the state deems it "ready for a signature" from SDOT, and putting the city "in the dark for almost two months" about the environmental review process---all because Mayor Mike McGinn submitted comments expressing concerns about an earlier version of the environmental impact document.

Specifically, McGinn expressed concerns about the the impact of tolling on downtown traffic, the settlement of buildingsin Pioneer Square, and the fact that the study predicts tolling the tunnel will dump 50 percent of the cars that currently use the viaduct onto city streets.

In a letter three days ago, Paananen told city viaduct replacement planner Bob Powers that the state was now "in discussions with the [federal highway administration] about the City's co-lead status," in response to comments Mayor Mike McGinn made last year that "directly conflict with the city's policy, as adopted through ordinance by the City Council, which has been established over the last two years."

Hahn's letter indicates strongly that the city no longer considers itself a partner in the tunnel process. Instead, he said, the state has "transformed [the city] from a somewhat junior partner in the FEIS effort to what amounts to a silent non-partner. You state that we will no longer have input into the" final environmental impact statement on the tunnel, or FEIS."

Previously, the state and city were both "co-leads" on the project, meaning they had an equal seat at the table when discussing what the project will look like and reviewing the environmental impact statement. Hahn's letter indicates that he and Mayor McGinn no longer think the state considers the city an equal partner.

Contacted by phone today, Hahn said Paananen's letter "implies that [the city's co-lead status] is up in the air. We don't know where our status is, or exactly what role, if any, the city has in this process. ... We obviously haven't been told [whether the city is still a co-lead], just like we weren't told for two months when we carefully set up meetings" with WSDOT.

Those meetings, Hahn wrote in his letter today, were subsequently canceled by the state agency.

"Your February 11, 2011 letter described a substantial role for the City and included a detailed schedule of joint FEIS reviews and meetings, with most of those meetings in March and [the] first half of April," Hahn wrote in his letter to Paananen. "It is extremely troubling that the City did not learn until approximately April 10 that there has been a major (perhaps complete) retreat by WSDOT from the commitments of that letter," including the promised series of meetings. "We have been in the dark for a period of almost two months, when in fact WSDOT easily could have sat down with us to discuss any issues of comment content, language, scope, etc."

However, the state argued that the city's comments decrying the tunnel project were highly unusual, if not inappropriate for an agency involved in building the project.

"The letter sent to us on December 13, 2010, which provided comments on the Supplemental Draft EIS, was an extremely unusual, perhaps unprecedented, letter from a co-lead agency," Paanenen wrote.

Hahn responded that the city has every right to comment on the environmental documents, and that WSDOT shouldn't penalize the city (by canceling meetings and refusing to let city officials see the final EIS until it's ready for a signature) for that reason.

"It is extremely unusual to exclude a co-lead agency from the process of preparing an EIS simply because the agency also submitted comments," Hahn wrote. "My disappointment in this exclusion is even deeper because in three formal letters from [WSDOT], the City was assured of continued cooperation in the EIS preparation, including very specific meeting dates and milestones.

On the phone this afternoon, Hahn said the city wanted to make sure WSDOT was aware of its views on the EIS "whether we were co-leads or not. We didn't want to be in Never-Neverland. The city has a right to have its comments heard."

Hahn hasn't heard back from Paananen (nor has PubliCola), but says it may not matter if he does. "It's clear that the EIS has already gone to the Federal Highway Agency, so it's hard to envision us having a role" now, Hahn says.

We have calls out to McGinn and Paananen.
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