Responding to the feature in this week's paper on the council's Polyanna approach to paying for a megaproject—take a read now if you haven't—Knute Berger writes at Crosscut:

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Perhaps the city should have an overrun policy that places liens on all the assets or estates of every member of the city council in order to hold them personally responsible for any mega-project they approve. Let them pledge their personal assets, not just public ones, to the cause. The purpose isn't to squeeze billions of dollars from a stone, but to signal that public accountability can last for the life of a project, not the gnat-like political life a politician. Too many public entities act like the big banks, who take risks with your money, while covering their own assets.

Let's end the boondoggle bubble by asking politicians to pay personally for their mistakes. I'll bet that would increase skepticism and trigger a harder look at costs, plans, and promised rewards.

If most people thought that tunnel cost overruns were a non-issue—as City Council president Richard Conlin insists—the legislature wouldn't have indemnified itself from paying for them, and County Council Member Larry Phillips wouldn't have said that the county is also off the hook. Phillips wrote last month in a letter to Governor Chris Gregoire that joining an oversight committee was "conditional on King County being held harmless by the state of Washington and any other participating jurisdiction for any cost overruns associated with the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project." So far only the city council seems to think we don't need any mechanism for dealing with a runaway bill.

"If [the city council] is so sure, then they should have no problem putting in place the provision, a mechanism to pay for those cost overruns if they occur," says State Senator Jim Kastama (D-Puyallup). "That, to me, would be the more logical extension of their argument."

Conlin can't afford, financially, to pay for this himself; and he can't afford, politically, to pass a bill that explicitly says Seattle will pay overruns on a state highway. Instead he's playing a game of chicken—another one of his urban farming initiatives, I suspect—with the state. He's betting that when the bill comes, Seattle will be able to go toe-to-toe in court or the legislature and make the state pay the bill. It's a risky gamble.

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But here's where Conlin's hypocrisy (in addition to the hypocrisy noted in this megaproject flip-flop article) seems greatest right now: Conlin insists that city council members are carefully planning for all the tunnel scenarios, they've hired consultants to double-check the state's work, all is being considered to limit liability. But he is simultaneously saying that discussion about this tunnel budget issue is dead, that we don't need to plan for overruns, that "we do not need more debate at this stage of implementation."

Which is it? Are we in the planning stages or not? If we are still planning—and we are—then plan to pay for the cost overruns. Part of the planning process is debate. But Conlin is running away from the planning and from the debate.

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