Four years ago, politicians told us that building a $4.2 billion underground freeway would be no problem. Even though this freeway would require digging the widest deep-bore tunnel in the world (58 feet), elected leaders said not to worry about it. Even though 90 percent of transportation megaprojects run over budget—tunnels by an average of 34 percent, according to research from Oxford University—the politicians involved insisted this project would never run over budget. This project would not be delayed. This project was the exception.
Bertha, the $80 million drill, broke down underneath downtown Seattle in December 2013. The seals are broken and a central bearing is busted, and the state still doesn't know exactly why. Contractors are planning to attach 86 tons of steel ribs to reinforce Bertha's structure, but a construction official told the Seattle Times this week that they actually "don't know" what problem those ribs will fix. This underscores that the tunnel constitutes an untested, unprecedented technical challenge—Bertha is the widest tunneling machine ever built, and it is attempting to penetrate an infamously complicated mix of waterfront soil, rocks, and seawater. Contractors say they won't have Bertha running again until March 2015, or possibly later: "It is too soon to know if they will meet this milestone," says a state spokesperson. Another spokesperson says he is "skeptical" of that timeline. The tunnel was supposed to open in late 2015, but now the new estimate is November 2016. But who knows.
Costs are racking up. The contractor is now asking for an additional $188 million to cover unexpected expenses, much of which the state refuses to pay, so it looks increasingly likely that the contractor could sue the state—or, if costs rise too much, possibly abandon the project.
Washington State transportation secretary Lynn Peterson recently acknowledged in a radio interview that there is now a "small possibility" the tunnel will never be finished. Prominent Seattle attorney John Ahlers, who specializes in construction disputes, agrees. "It is entirely likely that, at the end of the day, forces will align and the once touted project to improve Seattle's waterfront never becomes a reality," he wrote in a blog post last month.
It's fair to say this may become the biggest debacle in Seattle's transportation history. It's already the most expensive.
Of course, when the tunnel was up for debate four years ago, critics warned of this exact scenario. But the tunnel backers promised they would be accountable. So now that we're here, who is taking responsibility?
The people behind this project—the ones who sponsored legislation to build it, sold it to voters in a glitzy campaign, and told us to trust them—now refuse to take responsibility. So who are they? And what do they say when asked to take responsibility?
Mayor Ed Murray
The primary sponsor
Nobody is more responsible for the deep-bore tunnel than Ed Murray. As a state senator, he was the primary sponsor of a 2009 law to build the tunnel. That law requires charging drivers who use the tunnel a toll. A fee of $1 to $1.25 would cover $200 million of the expenses, according to a tolling commission's recommendations in March. But there's a catch: In order to pay for the toll collection, maintenance, and financing, users must actually pay $1 billion in tolls over three decades. Those tolling rates will also cause an estimated 48,000 vehicles to divert from the tunnel onto downtown streets during daytime hours (not even counting nighttime traffic). That's about half the viaduct's current traffic spilling onto the streets. The toll revenue, if approved next year, could cover a small amount of transit, but the committee warns it won't be nearly enough to solve the problem. The city and state will need more money for "transportation system improvements" on the street grid to mitigate those 48,000 extra cars a day.
Does Murray take responsibility for the troubled megaproject he sponsored? Does he have a plan to mitigate traffic when it's done? Money to do it? Has he met with a single transportation official about these problems since taking office? I asked Murray all these questions. Murray's spokesman said the mayor would "decline" to answer them.
Seattle City Council member Tom Rasmussen
Tom Rasmussen is chair of the Seattle City Council's transportation committee, and he fought hard to pass city legislation to build the tunnel, even though it meant he would be responsible for eventually figuring out how to deal with the tunnel's traffic fallout. At the time, Rasmussen ridiculed tunnel critics who cautioned that the project might have cost overruns, fall behind schedule, or get stuck during construction. For instance, Rasmussen said former mayor Mike McGinn was trying to "create doubt" by bringing up those issues and scolded, "I don't think he is representing the city very well because of his obsessive obsession with this project." Rasmussen is the opposite of obsessed. Asked if he takes any responsibility, has a budget or plan to mitigate traffic, or has even met with a single transportation official this year to develop a plan, Rasmussen ducked the questions. "We are all working to meet our obligations and are committed to the successful completion of the project," he said robotically.
Seattle Tunneling Partners
The contractors who funded the pro-tunnel camp are golfing!
Two of the top donors to the campaign to approve the tunnel were also—wait for it—THE TWO COMPANIES WITH A CONTRACT TO BUILD THE TUNNEL. Funding a campaign to pay yourself to build your own project is the political equivalent of a snake eating its own tail. How did they do it? Seattle Tunneling Partners (STP), which got a $1.1 billion contract for the project, is made up of two corporations, Tutor Perini and Dragados USA. They each gave $25,000 to the Let's Move Forward campaign, election records show.
STP didn't answer questions about whether the company was taking responsibility for the mess, if its campaign tactics pass the smell test, if it would sue the state to collect $188 million that it claims the state owes them for additional costs, or if it would abandon the project. A spokeswoman said on their behalf: "STP will not be providing answers at this time."
Maybe they were too busy playing golf.
As KIRO Radio reported on May 30, several of STP's top project supervisors have been visiting the Interbay Golf Center three to four times a week, after driving there in company vehicles. STP officials told KIRO that we should excuse the midday golfing trips because the supervisors "work extremely hard and serve STP and the tunnel project well."
CEO of the business group that donated most to the tunnel campaign
For the past two decades, Kate Joncas has been CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association, a business- and real-estate-oriented group with 550 corporate members. Under Joncas, the organization was the number-one funder of the tunnel campaign, with $32,775 in reported donations. Does she take responsibility for the project she backed but that is now in peril? "I can no longer respond on behalf of DSA," Joncas said in an e-mail. Why not? Because this week Joncas took a $170,000-a-year job as deputy mayor for Ed Murray, who is responsible for the project but, again, also refuses to take responsibility. Nobody else from DSA answered questions about the tunnel, either.
Former governor Chris Gregoire
Cheerleader in chief
Way back in 2008, Governor Chris Gregoire insisted the decrepit viaduct, which has a 9-out-of-100 safety rating in places, was too dangerous for drivers. "It's coming down in 2012. I'm taking it down," Gregoire said. "That's the timeline. I'm not going to fudge on it." But the next year, Gregoire brokered a deal to build the tunnel, which kept the viaduct up at least four years longer (maybe more—we'll see). Was Gregoire worried about what could go wrong during construction? Not really. At a forum held in January 2010, she dismissed tunnel critics who specifically warned the project could experience technical complication and run behind schedule, thereby driving up costs and leading to disputes over who would pay the bills. "There is no indication that we are going to be over budget," Gregoire said. HA-HA-HA.
Christian Sinderman and Dan Nolte
The guys who ran the pro-tunnel campaign
Christian Sinderman was the consultant on the Let's Move Forward campaign, which used its $500,000 budget to sell the tunnel to voters as the fastest way to replace the viaduct (it wasn't) and a way to provide more bus service (it hasn't). As for the claim the tunnel project funded buses, Seattle Transit Blog ran a watchdog piece called "That's a Lie." Does Sinderman take responsibility? No. "I cannot take credit for the good things smart people do following passage of a measure any more than I should be held culpable for delays on highly complex projects," he says. Dan Nolte was the campaign manger. Does he take responsibility? He did not respond to a request for comment.
While holding it in your head that these are the people most responsible for the tunnel, keep in mind that they are responsible for that even bigger impending problem mentioned above. The biggest problem with this tunnel isn't what happens when the drilling machine breaks. The biggest problem will be what happens when the tunnel is finished and working exactly as planned.
The state predicted in 2011 that the tunnel would cause roughly as much traffic congestion on city streets as simply tearing down the viaduct and doing nothing. Here's why: Roughly half of the 110,000 vehicles a day that have been driving along Highway 99 using the elevated Alaskan Way Viaduct won't use the tunnel. That's according to the state's own environmental impact study on the project. Drivers will avoid the tunnel because toll fees will incentivize using other routes, thereby diverting drivers onto downtown streets, and because the tunnel has zero exits downtown. So the tunnel will be useless for people going downtown.
You remember the downtown traffic clusterfuck last week, the one that was caused by an accident that shut down the viaduct? Prepare for more scenarios like that if we tear down the viaduct, half its traffic gets pushed onto downtown streets, and the street grid isn't revamped to help move traffic around.
Responsible people would never let that happen, right?
When city officials agreed to build this tunnel, they knew full well they needed a plan to mitigate all that diverted traffic—that's part of their responsibility. The city must remake key arterials and provide transit to prevent downtown from getting clogged. Those changes will cost at least tens of millions of dollars and require years of work. But four years later and two years before the tunnel opens, there is still no clear plan to deal with this problem.