Mayor Mike McGinn will hire a consultant to examine the risks of digging a deep bore tunnel under downtown and deliver a report before the city enters into a contract with the state to build it.

“I think it is important that there is at least one expert who wasn’t hired by tunnel cheerleaders," says McGinn.

The city council hired its own consultants earlier this month to look at various potential risks—such as those associated with relocating utility lines, soil conditions, and insurance, among other things. The council's majority has repeatedly dismissed the risk of possible cost overruns, citing their careful planning, saying that examining them further is a tactic by the mayor to kill the project. The City Attorney’s Office is working with another consulting firm to examine the city’s liability.

The mayor’s office characterizes the work of the other consultants largely as nipping at edges of bigger problems while ignoring some of the project’s larger, inherent risks. Those include constructing the widest deep-bore tunnel in history, building tunnel-boring machine of that size, and issues relating to the state requiring smaller bonds than the actual expense of the contractors’ liability.

The mayor's chosen consultant, Thom Neff, has a long history examining risks of major infrastructure projects, particularly tunnels. A founder of Massachusetts-based risk-analysis and consultant firm OckhamKonsült, Neff has been an engineer on geotechnical project since the 1970s. And lately he’s been a critic of poor planning for expensive infrastructure projects.

In an April article in Tunnel Business Magazine, Neff and Gary Brierly wrote an article (huge .pdf) titled “Bullshit as Applied to Tunneling Projects,” which called on stakeholders to “debate, argue, make your claims and counterclaims, and do everything possible to come up with the best possible project.” They write, “The initial cost for a tunnel is usually high, however, so errors in the planning effort can lead to problems with procurement, prequalification of the project designers and contractors, inadequate financing, unreasonable debt for the local citizen and agencies, and, in rare cases, a tunnel that should have never been built.”

And in a 2006 report on major infrastructure projects, Neff wrote, “Owners have turned increasingly to risk management to help mitigate these adverse effects, but it is still the rare project that does not suffer costly over-runs.” He added, “Most of our projects don’t measure up, they’re often late, over budget, and frequently plagued by nasty surprises.”

A scoping document for his work says that Neff, who will receive $44,000, must provide a report on the “completeness and appropriateness” of documents from the state to plan for the tunnel. In addition, he must “review and provide written comment on a Seattle City Council commissioned report… [on] the contract and the risks and engineering challenges inherent to the deep bore tunnel.” The council's consultants will make about $125,000.

“Given the potential for cost overruns," says McGinn, "it is important that we have a critical look at the project.”