Some people will tell you the tunnel project is 70 percent done. Thats bullshit.
  • The Stranger
  • Some people are saying the downtown Seattle tunnel project is 70 percent done. That's bullshit. The tunnel is not 70 percent dug, and the overall viaduct replacement project is nowhere near 70 percent complete.

Remember on Monday, when the Washington State Department of Transportation and Council President Tim Burgess told us all to just calm down about the tunnel already because it’s mostly done?

“The vast majority of the replacement of the viaduct is complete—in fact 70 percent done and on the ground,” WSDOT secretary Lynn Peterson told the city council.

“The tunnel project is 70 percent completed, according to WSDOT, so there’s no turning back at this point,” Burgess wrote in a press release soon after.

Anyone who’s been paying even casual attention is wondering how this project—in which a tunnel boring machine has dug only 1,000 feet of a two-mile tunnel and is now stuck underground with no certain rescue date in sight—can be so close to the finish line.

The answer is that it’s not. WSDOT is misleading you by omission.

There is only one way to calculate that the tunnel project is 70 percent done, and that method leaves out a lot of important (and expensive) facts. To get to the 70-percent-done figure, you have to look only at the state’s $1.35 billion contract with Seattle Tunnel Partners, the group designing and building the tunnel. According to WSDOT, about 70 percent of the work included in that contract is done and, expectedly, that means 70 percent of the money has been spent. Even though Bertha’s been stuck, WSDOT says the tunnelers have been working on all the other things they’re responsible for in an effort not to get too far behind schedule.

“There is a tremendous amount of work that has already been completed at either end of the project. The concrete tunnel liners have all been manufactured and await the machine’s repair,” says WSDOT spokesperson Laura Newborn in an e-mail. “The tunnel contract is 70 percent complete, even though the tunnel itself is 10 percent complete.” (Actually, if only 1,000 feet of the two-mile route has been dug, the tunnel itself is only 9.5 percent complete. But I'll let her round up on that one.)

But look at the bigger picture.

The design-build contract with STP is $1.35 billion of the state’s overall $3.1 billion project*, according to Newborn. The rest of that state money—in other words, a still-to-be-spent $1.75 billion in taxpayer dollars—will pay for stuff we haven’t even started yet, including tearing down the Alaskan Way Viaduct, building the new street that will go where the viaduct is now, and decommissioning the Battery Street Tunnel.

Let’s do some math. If we’re 70 percent done with the $1.35 billion chunk of work, that means about $945 million worth of tunnel-building has been done. How much of the total project ($3.1 billion) is that? About 30 percent. So we’re not 70 percent done with the state's project of replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel, and then revamping surface streets in the area. In truth, we have about 70 percent of the way left to go.

*I’m using WSDOT's total here since they’re the ones making this claim. They’re overseeing $3.1 billion of work. But it’s worth noting that that doesn’t include hundreds of millions of dollars in additional costs to the city to rebuild the seawall and relocate utilities.