The State Is Lying About the Tunnel

And the Project Hasn't Even Started Yet

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James Yamasaki

In the next month, Seattle is supposed to set the terms of a contract to build the most expensive megaproject in state history—a 54-foot-wide tunnel under downtown—with the State of Washington as our partner. The city is relying on the state to be honest as we endeavor to build the widest deep-bore tunnel ever attempted, entrusting it to take every precaution (so the ground doesn't cave in, so the finances come through, so it's done on time). But already, before we sign this contract, it's becoming clear that the state hasn't been telling the truth.

One of the four groups expected to bid on the contract to build the tunnel dropped out in March. Then, on July 12, the city got word that one of the three remaining teams seeking to win the contract to build the tunnel had stopped work on its bid. The team's lead member, Kiewit Corporation, said the state's contract was "not compatible" with its business model.

Losing a bidder typically means losing the competitive pricing among companies vying for a contract, and in this case, it means potentially increasing costs for the estimated $4.2 billion project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. "Logic tells me that when you only have two bidders, it is not as healthy a situation as when you have four bidders," says Thom Neff, a megaproject engineering expert brought in to double-check the state's work.

But it turns out that the Kiewit-led team didn't drop out on July 12. The state had actually known for months that its third bidder was no longer developing plans, says Ron Paananen, Alaskan Way Viaduct program administrator for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). "They have expressed concern for some time of the terms of the contract," Paananen says. "They expressed that in the fall over the qualifications phase. They expressed concern again during the draft-proposal phase in February. They have been quiet ever since." He adds, "We had an idea of where they were at."

But the state didn't just know "where they were at." The state lied to the city.

"Approximately six weeks ago, we heard rumors that the Kiewit had dropped out," says Mayor Mike McGinn. "At the direction of the mayor's office, a Seattle Department of Transportation staffer contacted WSDOT and Ron Paananen to confirm or deny that rumor."

"They told us that there were still three teams in competition," McGinn continues. "We specifically asked if Kiewit was bidding or dropped out, and we were left with the impression that Kiewit was still an active bidder." City council member Mike O'Brien says he asked specifically about Kiewit in May and the state told him, "As far we know, they are on board," he says.

This deception wouldn't matter so much if it weren't for a provision in state law, passed in 2009, that says Seattle-area property owners must pay for all cost overruns on the project. The law also caps state spending at $2.8 billion. So if this not-quite-as-­competitive-as-advertised bidding process goes forward and the project ultimately runs over budget—and authoritative research finds that 90 percent of megaprojects do run over budget, and tunnels run 34 percent over budget on average—the only plan in place is for Seattle to pay.

"I think it is unlikely that today's budget and today's schedule will be realized as it moves forward, because it's an extremely complicated infrastructure project in a major urban area with three particularly high-risk elements," says Neff. He cites soil conditions that "can't get any worse," high pressure under the water table, and the challenge of digging the widest deep-bore tunnel ever attempted.

"When state law provides that Seattle is responsible for cost overruns," says Mayor McGinn, "then the project requires a great deal of coordination. We expect that the state would be forthright with us about the status of the project."

Which brings up the question of how we got that law on cost overruns—and whether the state was being forthright then.

In January of 2009, Governor Chris Gregoire presented a nonbinding agreement with former King County executive Ron Sims and former Seattle mayor Greg Nickels to build the tunnel. Under the arrangement, each party would take responsibility for its own part of the project (Seattle would pay $937 million, the Port of Seattle would chip in $300 million, and the state would provide the remaining $2.8 billion). For instance, in this deal Seattle would rebuild the downtown seawall and take responsibility for cost overruns on its share of the work; the state would dig the tunnel and accept liability for cost overruns on its part of the project.

But the month after the agreement was signed, the legislature passed the law capping spending and requiring Seattle to pay for all cost overruns—including all cost overruns on the state's highway project. Many people say house Speaker Frank Chopp (who represents central Seattle) inserted that clause. But he says it wasn't him.

"The governor came forward with that language," says Chopp.

In other words, the governor promised that the state would pay for the tunnel's cost overruns on the state's part of the highway. But then, in a sneaky move, she reportedly maneuvered through a law that says Seattle would have to pay.

The governor also said that the legislature would let King County raise the motor-vehicle excise tax to pay for transit near the waterfront—transit that mitigates traffic on the waterfront, because the tunnel will handle less than half the vehicles of the current viaduct—but when a bill came to the governor's desk a few months later to allow more taxes for transit, she vetoed it.

And one week before the election last year—when the tunnel was a defining issue of the mayor's race—the state released a fiery simulation video of the viaduct collapsing in an earthquake. "We're simply complying with a public disclosure request and by law we have to release it," WSDOT's Paananen told KING 5 TV.

But that wasn't true—as is evident in three different ways. Paananen told the The Stranger that the state only had to provide the video to the citizen who requested it (not give it to the television station). Moreover, the video that the state gave away was a different video than the one the citizen requested. And lastly, reached the day after the video aired on the news, Elizabeth Campbell, the Magnolia neighborhood resident who filed the records request, said, "I haven't received the video."

So, jumping back to our current predicament, why did the state finally come clean about the bidder?

Paananen says state officials were waiting for a reporter to force them to divulge the information. recommended


Comments (23) RSS

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Dom, this is really getting quite tedious. Beating a dead horse. You don't like cars. We get it. Now please move on.
Posted by Tired of Dominic's Tunnel Stories on July 21, 2010 at 11:54 AM · Report this
Am worried that we not being given the entire cost, especially the cost once completed. Do not see anywhere the ongoing cost, which the current viaduct does not require. There will be large energy cost for ventilation. There will need to be water pumps. Energy for the lights. Cost for continual monitoring. Is the state going to cover this? Don't think so. It will be the Seattle residents who will be paying for these over the life of the tunnel. {PS - can someone fight tunnel tolls?}
Posted by Honestly on July 21, 2010 at 12:25 PM · Report this
One can fight this by living closer to work. Sink the floating bridges.
Posted by Nuclear Marc on July 22, 2010 at 7:18 AM · Report this
Frank Chopp is lying. I called his office soon after this legislation passed in 2009 to complain that he had inserted this language into the bill. I spoke at length with his chief of staff who agreed it had been inserted at Chopp's insistence. Mr. Holden, if a politican you disagreed with had done this you would quickly and forecefully point out his mendacity. Why not call out Frank Chopp's lie too?
Posted by seth on July 22, 2010 at 7:56 AM · Report this
Who is going to do the expose on the Stranger and Dominic Holden? Seattle Times? Seattle P-I? Crosscut? There is nothing that resembles reporting in the Stranger on the subject of the Deep Bore Tunnel. You aren't asking what happens in Seattle if we don't build the tunnel. Will McGinn be empowered? Maybe initially in Seattle but probably not when people realize the consequences: Seattle will not get a timely $2 billion investment and a beautiful new waterfront. And McGinn will be persona non grata at the state level. Where will that get the environmental and livable city movements?
Posted by David Schraer on July 22, 2010 at 8:58 AM · Report this
Personally, I think they should just leave the viaduct as-is until it finally collapses and kills a bunch of people.

We've only been arguing about how to replace it since before I was born. Let's just admit that we don't really want to do anything about it at all and move onto something we actually care about doing.
Posted by maxbell on July 22, 2010 at 9:13 AM · Report this
From The Seattle Times April 22, 2009:
"The vote came after House Democratic leaders added a controversial provision to the bill -- at the insistence of House Speaker Frank Chopp -- that requires downtown Seattle property owners to pay for any cost overruns related to digging the tunnel."
From The News Tribune May 12, 2009:
"I thought Gov. Chris Gregoire might veto the provision in the bill that lays any cost overruns for the tunnel in the lap of downtown Seattle businesses that benefit from having the viaduct removed from the Seattle waterfront. But I'm told there was a deal to keep House Speaker Frank Chopp's language in the bill."
From Seattle PI May 7. 2009:
"That proviso from House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, requires city tax payers to cover cost overruns on the tunnel project."
You need to do more careful research Mr. Holden!

Posted by seth on July 22, 2010 at 10:58 AM · Report this
Rev.Smith 8
Maybe Dom's DeeplyBored tunnel=one big clusterfuck hole obsession and Charles's buildings-like-TheColumbiaTower-are-big-erections,get-it-get-it? obsession should get a room and fuck each other senseless already.

I think there's a big old hanger in Boeing's Everett plant that would suffice, size-wise, ...but I don't know if they charge hourly rates.
Posted by Rev.Smith on July 22, 2010 at 11:05 AM · Report this
"Widest deep-bore tunnel?" Come on stranger. Hypebole's great, but you cite this like a fact. What about tunnels in other countries? Switzerland builds tunnels all the time through mountains. What about the Gotthard Tunnel in Switzerland? The first Gotthard tunnel was completed in 1881 and is 15 kiloeters long. Since then they've built a rail tunnel and are completing a deeper tunnel.

Tunneling may have challnges, but lets put this into perspective. Apprently other countries don't have all the problems you're predicting.
Posted by JusttheFactsMaam on July 22, 2010 at 12:01 PM · Report this
Public works in Seattle have a very poor track record. Think I-90 sinking bridge and the KingDome as well as the viaduct itself. This is likely another half-assed and incompetent project being foisted on the taxpayers. Do we really want a Big Dig West?
Posted by mikeyjk on July 22, 2010 at 3:27 PM · Report this
@10 - I love your thinking, dude!

Let's build us another KingDome -- I firmly believe that will solve the transportation problem.

@6 -- I really love your thinking, too!

But with a KingDome they could do one of those public-private partnership thingies, using securitized debt, and creating a s**tload of credit derivatives instruments, selling them as assets, then various banks and financial institutions could purchase them, then generate ever more debt on the liability side, and then more banks would buy them as assets, then generate ABCP (asset-based-commercial-paper), and then.....

Geez, sounds like I'm describing the American "economy".....
Posted by sgt_doom on July 22, 2010 at 5:20 PM · Report this
News? I saw most of this story in the "other" Seattle newspaper over ten days ago.…
Posted by TobyinFremont on July 22, 2010 at 8:28 PM · Report this
listen up every body. I say we build a big beautiful rainbow that goes way up in the sky and has all the colors and everything, we can have the federal government send us 500 billion dollars and .... well wouldn't that be great!!!
What a bunch of idiotic hippies this town is infested with.
Do you have ANY IDEA what the realities of attempting to do a deep bore tunnel under the existing viaduct will be? That entire area is sitting on fill. they will run into old pilings and who knows what else then they will basically be in elliot bay. I will tell you right now that the tunnell will cost 2X the original budget and I don't believe it can be done successfully in 10 years.

Posted by correct thinker on July 25, 2010 at 10:42 AM · Report this
slade 14
Its the Idiot factor involved? We want a better traffic system and a cool rebuild of the water front would be nice but the factors are the state cant afford to keep criminals in jail and cant afford the police to put them there after they have made every road a toll road and even taxed candy?

The question for the state and the city is what the hell were you thinking?
Posted by slade on July 25, 2010 at 5:57 PM · Report this
Aww crocodile tears for the city that chose the project they knew there was not full funding for after pissing off the rest of the state,(like always with any project that touches your toxic boundaries) who had to vote on the funding plan for it. Maybe next time you will get your acts together, think of this as the though love learning experience.
Posted by BhamGuy on July 26, 2010 at 9:49 AM · Report this
@13 -- brilliant comments, correct think, brilliant comments!

I wonder if anyone involved at the political level re: the viaduct has ever considered that the Kobe monorail, which withstood a truly horrendous quake, might be a perfect model for rebuilding - or retrofitting - the Alaskan Way Viaduct?

After all, a study of the structural integrity and foundations of the Kobe monorail might be in order -- then replicate them with the Viaduct?
Posted by sgt_doom on July 26, 2010 at 12:03 PM · Report this
Spicy McHaggis 17
Maybe Dick Falkenberry can get amother initiative going to build alternative transportations systems like yellow submarines or magic busses.
Posted by Spicy McHaggis on July 26, 2010 at 5:55 PM · Report this
Yet again this shows the ineffectivity of our form of representative government. With no threat of effective remedial action when a politician lies and is caught at it they wil continue to lie and do whatever they want whenever they want. This problem has been rampant since the Bush era when no one cared whothey put into office. This kind of corruption is insidious and must be stopped. I nominate The Flobots to lead a grassroots campaign against political corruption and greed.
Posted by Educated In Seattle on July 28, 2010 at 8:06 AM · Report this

As you may see by going to… the odds of construction disasters is SIGNIFICANT is started any time before July 2012. As you may see by going to… LRT is another $24+BB LIE and the STIMULUS PACKAGE - a dissection of WA STATE $$$ may be found at…

ROCK ON!!!!!
Posted by The MoM on July 28, 2010 at 9:43 AM · Report this
To Answer Sgt. Doom - the reality is that Gregoire is under pressure to pimp the project from her campaign contributors which just happen to include the Engineering Firm that put BOSTON'S BIG DIG together... and is ironically ran in part by former Sec. of State George Shultz (R). Something that blows Godden's outrage when she claims it is not the Big Dig when in fact that is exactly what it is.

Posted by The MoM on July 28, 2010 at 10:04 AM · Report this
The Stranger is just NOW picking up on the fact the Gregoire is a "stranger" to the truth?

You guys ignored her when she said WA budget had a surplus...a lie that was exposed shortly after the election in 2008.

You get what ya vote for ya foolish bunch of
left wing nuts!

If ya sleep with stray dogs don't bitch about the fleas on the sheets...

Posted by You endorsed Gregoire you bunch of dumbasses on July 28, 2010 at 10:15 AM · Report this
anthonyshelley2014 22
maxbell has an excellent point. Bullet train or sub-orbital space travel anyone? Lol
Posted by anthonyshelley2014 on July 28, 2010 at 2:22 PM · Report this
Building that tunnel is irresponsible. Just close your eyes and pretend everything is gunna be ok, but , in fact we know it's NOT!
Picture your property taxes being raised exponentially, or, for that matter, your rent, as higher taxes affect that as well.
Cover the damn viaduct in Ivy, that stuff will probably work just as well as any roll of 'Duct' tape for a quick fix. And, it'll be much prettier.
It's way better that being crushed by a collapsed tunnel we never should've built.
Posted by Doodseattle on July 30, 2010 at 9:49 AM · Report this

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