City council president Richard Conlin is on vacation in Greece this week. From afar, he wrote a blog post announcing that Seattle shouldn't get bogged down discussing who will pay for cost overruns on the deep-bore tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct because discussion itself could cause delays. "The primary cause of potential cost overruns is intentional delay," he warned.
This is a direct jab at tunnel skeptics like Mayor Mike McGinn, who have been hollering about the potential that cost overruns will fall on Seattle taxpayers. "It seems to me that the argument is that there is some sort of voodoo," McGinn says," that cost overruns are caused by talking about cost overruns."
Conlin, who has been on the city council since 1997, should be able to debate city policy with his eyes closed, especially because he seems to have strong convictions on this issue: "The claim that Seattle is 'on the hook' for... cost overruns is an exaggeration and serves solely to instill fear and doubt," Conlin wrote on his blog. "It's time for Seattle's Mayor and those opposed to the regionally approved replacement alternative to face facts... Delaying the project only increases the danger of a catastrophe and hurts the economy and Seattle taxpayers."
But Conlin has yet to publicly explain who will pay for overruns if the $4.2 billion project exceeds its budget. Roughly 90 percent of tunnel megaprojects run over budget, according to University of Oxford professor Bent Flyvbjerg.
The day Conlin wrote his post, McGinn challenged him to a debate. Town Hall Seattle agreed to host the debate and KING 5 agreed to air it. But Conlin refused. He announced in a statement (three days after McGinn's offer) to the press, "We do not need more debate at this stage of implementation." In other words, he'll debate the tunnel in a blog post, but once someone might refute his arguments on television, we don't need a debate. They take too long. An hour-long debate is just too much to ask. Besides, it takes Conlin three days to answer a question.
So is McGinn being Chicken Little? Or is Conlin being a chicken?
"As the council president, it seems he has no reason not to debate the mayor on an issue of major importance to the city," says Roger Valdez, a leading Seattle sustainability advocate who served on Conlin's reelection-campaign steering committee last year. "If he is so confident that there are not going to be any overruns, then he owes it to the voters of the city to explain why this project is different from 90 percent of other capital projects like this. If he has information—if he has a guarantee that this isn't going to have overruns—then he should share that with us."
Locally, overruns have affected a tunnel under Beacon Hill for light rail (30 percent over budget), the Brightwater sewage tunnel in east King County (24 percent and counting), and the downtown transit tunnel (56 percent over budget). If the deep-bore tunnel were to run a realistic 30 percent over budget—the tunnel itself is $1.96 billion, other costs are for associated expenses—that could create cost overruns to the tune of $580 million. According to the city's tentative agreement with the state, passed by the city council, Seattle agrees to a state law passed last year. It says any costs exceeding the state's commitment "shall be borne by property owners in the Seattle area."
It's a confusing agreement because, as City Attorney Pete Holmes says unequivocally, the provision about cost overruns "is not enforceable." But the state's spending limit is. So if the project's cost exceeds current funding—$2.8 billion from the state, $900 million from the city, the rest from the county and the Port of Seattle—the state could essentially wipe its hands of the project and walk away (among various scenarios). "The cap on the state's contributions is essentially carved in stone," says Holmes. As the city attorney puts it, Conlin "does not address the issue of what happens if there is a cost overrun. Saying that the city cannot be made to pay a cost overrun doesn't address the problem."
Where else might the money come from? The first piggy bank to be robbed would likely be the $290 million budget for rebuilding the waterfront—where the Alaskan Way Viaduct now stands. And if that happens? Instead of beaches, parks, event spaces, and a boulevard, the waterfront would be "just some pavement and sod," says Cary Moon, director of the People's Waterfront Coalition.
May 31 is the date the city has been aiming for to settle Seattle's end of the deep-bore tunnel agreement. But Conlin—supposed avenger of delays, ostensible champion of expedience—is out of the office until June 1.
"Speaking as someone who supported Richard in the last election," Conlin campaigner and environmentalist Valdez adds, "the rest of Seattle is still waiting and asking a lot of really tough questions, and I think the city council owes it to us to answer them. This is going to be Conlin's legacy; he's going to be the guy who forced the tunnel through. And I think he is feeling the heat. This is the chance to explain himself."
You know what would really cause delays? Exceeding costs on this project the same way other projects like this have, getting a boring machine stuck under downtown because we've run out of money to pay a contractor, driving the city further into the red (where it already is) while a legislative session is months away (when we'd be able to seek more funding from the state), and sitting around like idiots hoping to suck up to the legislature (which hates our city and has vowed not to pay another cent on the tunnel) for money because Richard Conlin and our city council were too goddamn chickenshit to sort out the problem when they had the chance. Nobody wants a delay like that, Dick.
If you'd like to make your feelings known to council president Richard Conlin, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 684-8805.