Mayor Mike McGinn fired off a three-page letter to Governor Chris Gregoire yesterday, saying that—in case anyone in the state missed his opinion before—he really doesn't want Seattle to pay cost overruns on the deep-bore tunnel (letter: .pdf). The Seattle Times asked for the governor's reaction:
[W]hile acknowledging McGinn's concerns about overruns, and who pays for them, the governor's office said the issue is a nonstarter because "we intend to bring the project in on time and on budget," Shelton said.
In a post called "The Road That's Paid With Good Intentions," Eric de Place at the Sightline Institute responds:
That's wonderful news. I mean, it's certainly better than intending to bring the project in late and over-budget!
But here's the thing: what if something doesn't go as planned?
I hate to be all gloom-and-doom here, but it does seem like we might want to have some idea of who pays for the costs. It's a well-established fact that big infrastructure projects very often do not go as planned. Perhaps you've heard of some local examples — Sound Transit's Beacon Hill Tunnel, King County's Brightwater sewage tunnels, and the downtown Seattle bus tunnel — each of them went over budget.
In fact — wait for it — the deep-bore tunnel already has a cost overrun, of sorts. We're nowhere near beginning construction, yet the deep-bore tunnel's budget has been bumped up by $60 million, a figure that is roughly equivalent to Seattle's entire current budget shortfall. Right now, Seattle appears to be on the hook for cost overruns, but the state refuses to even clarify the issue.
Good call, Eric. I agree that McGinn has good intentions, but the letter seems weak. How does the mayor think Gregoire—who supports the tunnel project proceeding as is—can address this? She can't pass the law herself and certainly isn't going to draft and recommend legislation. In this year's session in Olympia, McGinn didn't attempt to wrangle Seattle's delegation to introduce a bill that would remove the provision that puts Seattle taxpayers on the hook for cost overruns, nor did any lawmaker seriously contemplate a bill like that. McGinn also hasn't challenged the legality of the requirement—which some people claim is unenforceable, but has yet to be formally reviewed by the city attorney's or state AG's offices.
So, I asked the mayor's office today, how does McGinn think the governor can address this?
"I don't believe the mayor is interested in speculating about how the governor or other stakeholders might respond," says spokesman Mark Matassa. "That's up for them to say. As for how it all might play out, Mayor McGinn has not addressed that either. For now he's merely clarifying and formalizing his position, which I believe is pretty clear with this communication."
I'm all for making our opinion clear. But McGinn and Seattle have been pretty clear already. It seems that now's the time to leverage a strategy with some muscle. To his credit, the letter calls on the city council to take an up-or-down vote on the city's willingness to pay cost overruns. "I will promptly seek a City Council determination of whether a majority nevertheless wants work on the tunnel to proceed," McGinn writes. The council has long been able to play both sides of the fence—saying they don't want to pay cost overruns but they do want the project to go forward without set forth a strategy to avoid paying those overruns. Can McGinn make the council do that? If he isn't going to show muscle with the governor, then he needs to show muscle with the council, laying out a strategy to gain their cooperation.