The Seattle City Council met with state officials this morning to talk about the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project. I wish I could have attended the meeting at City Hall, but PubliCola editor Erica C. Barnett went and reported on this exchange between Council Member Mike O'Brien (tunnel critic) and Washington State Department of Transportation's Ron Paananen (tunnel backer):

O’Brien also asked Paananen whether the state would consider delaying three agreements with the city until voters have a say on two initiatives opposing the tunnel, which could push the agreements past November. “I’m wondering if there’s a way to get creative so that the citizens could have a say,” O’Brien said.

Paananen responded that to delay the agreements further (the city already pushed them back from August to sometime in early 2011) could jeopardize the project. “Without those agreements in place now, we run the risk of potentaily [sic] delaying the design build” contract, Paananen said. “It’s hard for me to imagine, sitting here, that we have any more wiggle room.”

This is a potentially empowering moment for the city.

The council is under pressure to approve the three contracts this winter, thereby approving right-of-way for the state to dig the tunnel later this year. There's some merit to this expedience, from the state's perspective. WSDOT doesn't want to end up in the same position at the MTA in New York City, where costs for the Second Ave Subway ballooned because officials sat on their hands for too long.

But it's telling how antsy the state—Paananen specifically—is getting here. He really, really wants the council to cooperate. So the city can really, really leverage this power—citing the pressure of two city initiatives—to get what it wants while the state is on a short leash. After signing the contracts, the city loses influence over the project but risks getting stuck with any mistakes or yet-to-be unearthed problems. Before signing the contracts, the city can give the state a list of demands (figure out how they will reduce the heavy traffic diversion while still being able to cover the $400 million from tolls it needs for the project, approve bus and transit funding authority to mitigate that diversion, pressure key lawmakers to clarify that the state will pay cost overruns, and complete an honest version of the environmental impact study) while the council has the state by the nuts.