It was just a week ago that everyone thought the Seattle City Council was about to approve a deep-bore tunnel under downtown—the biggest tunnel ever attempted anywhere and the state's most expensive megaproject at $4.2 billion. But things have changed.
First, on July 13, a group of citizens threatened to run a referendum to put the tunnel on the ballot. At issue is whether the city's property owners should pay cost overruns on the state project—current state law says we must—and the city council was setting Seattle up to get screwed by approving a contract. Then the city council tried to foil a vote by declaring the tunnel an "emergency," which would block a referendum. But then, on July 16, the council realized it can't push through an "emergency" bill without the mayor's okay—the city charter won't let them—and the mayor is trying to stop the state (and the city council) from screwing the city, so there's no way he's going to okay an "emergency" tunnel. Oops!
Then two different consultants—one working for the mayor, one working for the city council—both said that the tunnel may come in over budget. The council's consultant says there's a 40 percent likelihood the project will experience overruns.
Then city council member Mike O'Brien proposed four amendments to the city's end of the contract, including one that would make the state agree to pay cost overruns before the project can begin. The council removed similar language from Mayor Mike McGinn's draft of the contract because—hey!—the city council trusts that the state isn't going to screw us.
Turns out that was an unpopular move: On July 19, a poll from SurveyUSA found that 63 percent of people who live in Seattle agree with the mayor when it comes to protecting Seattle from cost overruns. And 58 percent think we should put this up for a vote.
But delaying the project with a public vote could be a problem because the state may go ahead and start on the tunnel without a contract from the city, says City Attorney Pete Holmes. That would mean the contract we've worked on to protect the city's liability if the ground settles (be sure to call in sick the day they're drilling under the office tower where you work) or if utilities are broken—and lots of stuff unrelated to cost overruns—could go out the window. Meanwhile, the city council claimed that the latest draft of the contract contained key provisions that they negotiated, but it turned out that the mayor's office negotiated many of those clauses with the state. Regardless, McGinn warns that the council's draft—which removed the part requiring a change in state law—isn't enough to protect the city taxpayers.
Now it seems that the only way to avoid a public vote—get out your spectacles, city council—is to pass a tunnel contract that makes the state change the law before the project can continue. Otherwise, the contract will be tangled up with a referendum until there's a special election in winter.
And what impacts would a tunnel have, anyway? The state's impact study isn't supposed to be out until October. But The Stranger filed a records request for a draft of it, which we did not receive by press time. Look for it on Slog this week.