This morning, the city council rolled out a resolution to defer signing a contract on the deep bore tunnel until next February. They were planning to do this next month. But now they want to wait until the bids are in, to know it's financially feasible and that the state has chosen the team to build it. The council insists they have the state's blessing on holding off.
But this is the opposite of the council's position all year.
I'll get to some theories about what's going on here in a second, but first look at just how adamantly the council and the state have previously insisted that we can't delay this. We can't make the state legislature address this issue in January. We can't debate the risks of the deep-bore tunnel—or about who will pay cost overruns—because that would be causing a delay. And those very delays would be causing the cost overruns.
"It’s time for Seattle’s Mayor and those opposed to the regionally approved replacement alternative to face facts; the primary cause of potential cost overruns is intentional delay. Delaying the project only increases the danger of a catastrophe and hurts the economy and Seattle taxpayers."
"The Council is keeping a close eye on the agreements between the city and the state that allow the project to go forward. We will thoroughly review those agreements in June and July, once the initial negotiations have been completed."
"The mayor's formula is a recipe for delay one that will cost this project money and one that will cost [sic] cost overruns."
"I don't think that he understands that delaying this project is very, very risky... I think it's a dangerous game. I think it's harmful. It's disingenuous."
"One thing I can guarantee to everyone at this table is we will have cost overruns if we delay."
"This is the time to move the contract forward."
WSDOT Spokesman Lloyd Brown:
"This project's an urgent safety problem and we need to stay on schedule, but it's really hard to build a project in a city that won't work with us."
But by putting this off now, the City Council is, at the least, postponing a referendum that would put the tunnel contract to a public vote. (Background in case you live under a rock: At issue is committing the city to a state law that says city property owners should pay overruns, which the legislature intends to do. Groups have threatened to force a public vote unless the council requires a change in state law.) The council already tried to block a referendum once this month, but they didn't have a legal way to do it. And once February comes, they may have another way to block the vote. Sources at City Hall say the council is trying to approve the permits for the state to begin the project with some sort of administrative authority instead of by passing legislation (which is subject to the referendum process).
When asked directly about the council's intentions to quash a referendum, City Attorney Pete Holmes said, "That is a question for another day that may never even arise." Asked after the press conference—specifically if it is possible to approve the contract in a way that doesn't allow a public vote—Holmes added, "The simple matter is that the question of a referendum is not relevant yet." He said his office won't issue an opinion on the matter.
That seems to leave open a wide possibility that the council is trying to block a public vote. It also seemed to be the intent of council member Sally Bagshaw, who when describing the need for this approach at the council briefing this morning said, "A friend pulled me aside and pleaded, 'Don't take this back to a public vote.'"
Unbelievably, some council members make the case that this six-month delay isn't a delay. "It is important to point out that the council decision is not to delay the program," says City Council Member Tim Burgess. "The bids are still due when they are due," said Burgess. "Our action is not delaying the project."
(Of course, when other people were asking questions and concerned about risk, Conlin and others said that simply asking those questions would kill the project. When the mayor suggested that this be pushed back until January to be fixed by the legislature, the council said that wold interfere with the bids. But now that the council has pushed the timeline back even further, that's not a delay. and the bid timelines is unchanged. See how that works?)
So if they're not trying to block a referendum (which it appears likely they are doing) and they're not delaying the project (which looks even likelier), what in god's name are they doing? What will happen to the tunnel?
"There may never be a tunnel," says Holmes. "We don’t know what those bids are going to be. This is all premature." Maybe the council thinks that this project just can't be built for $4.2 billion.