The Seattle City Council is working with the mayor’s office on legislation that would obligate the state to pay for parts of the downtown tunnel project regardless of costs. The language doesn’t go so far as Mayor Mike McGinn's past proposals—insisting that the state be liable for all cost overruns—but it does represent a shift on the council.

The provision at issue is part of a contract—detailing funding, liabilities, and responsibilities for the city and state—that the council must approve as an ordinance before the state can begin formal work with construction contractors.

Still in draft form, the provision would require the state to reserve $290 million of the project budget for tearing down the Alaskan Way Viaduct and rebuilding the waterfront—regardless of cost.

The genesis of the provision is city council member Nick Licata, who has expressed concern that if cost overruns do occur on the project, money would by siphoned away from waterfront improvements. “It's conceivable that if there is a cost overrun on the construction of the tunnel that they would use funds from the [waterfront] project,” Licata says. “It’s the city receiving a critical assurance that the state won’t spend our money on the tunnel when they should spend it on removing the Alaskan Way Viaduct and providing the new street on the waterfront."

Are there enough votes on the council—such as president Richard Conlin, who wrote that "the risk of overruns has been distorted and overblown in order to kill the project"—to support this provision? Licata provides an unequivocal: "Yes, the council members recognize the need to keep the state as a partner in getting the waterfront done and paid for." A call to Conlin was not immediately returned.

“The whole reason supporters picked the tunnel is because it gives them the waterfront back, but what if there is no money to pay for it?” says Cary Moon, director of the People’s Waterfront Coalition, stressing the need to protect funding for the waterfront.

However, the proposal raises questions about whether the state can realistically accept a contract that requires it to finish the project regardless of cost. The state has capped its commitment at $2.8 billion and says additional costs must be carried by Seattle property owners. Licata, however, argues that Seattle's law would be “akin to the language that came out of the state legislature… this agreement with the city and state has equal footing if not more.”

If the council can say the state must pay overruns here, is it reasonable then to say the state must pay overruns on all portions of the project?

Unlike the mayor, Licata doesn’t foresee the need for any other clauses pertaining to cost overruns, calling this “the most critical provision.” But he says this language “gets us there same way. Maybe it’s just a question of not being in your face.”