- Greg Stump
- Now is the time to ask some hard questions about the tunnel. Here are seven to start with.
Seattle City Council president Tim Burgess said something yesterday that should scare Seattle residents shitless. Shortly after a council meeting with state highway officials who run the deep-bore tunnel project, Burgess said in a statement: "There's no turning back at this point. The entire Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project must be completed.”
This—this—is how megaprojects turn into boondoggles: Politicians say they’re willing to keep throwing money at a construction project no matter how much it costs, no matter how long it takes, regardless of how much the facts change or how bad the news gets. That’s preposterous.
Burgess said something else preposterous: “The tunnel project is 70 percent completed.”
The tunnel project appears 70 percent complete the same way the Donner Party's trip to California was 70 percent complete.
You have to know when to turn back. There are seven questions Seattle should ask to decide if it’s time, and I list them down below. But first it’s worth pointing out that the digging of the tunnel itself—which we’ve always known would be the most difficult part of the viaduct replacement project—is only one-tenth finished. We've dug about 1,000 feet have and roughly 1.5 miles to go. It’s finishing the tunnel that replaces the viaduct. And here’s what lies ahead: The tunnel-boring machine is broken (they don’t know why). The ground is sinking (they can’t fully explain this, either). Costs are rising, but there’s no plan to pay for cost overruns. The dangerous 1958 viaduct, an elevated freeway built on infill soil, is getting more dangerous as it ages and sinks. And crews are more than a year behind schedule, while senior officials at the state highway department announced yesterday that they can't commit to a timeline for finishing the tunnel or, in turn, tearing down the viaduct. Doesn’t sound like they know if we’re 70 percent complete or not, huh?
This megaproject is being driven by a clown car of derelicts. Most of the people who hawked the project four years ago—including former governor Chris Gregoire; the conspicuously silent transportation chair on the council, Tom Rasmussen; and Burgess—are either long gone, cowering, or saying things that are irresponsible. So the buck stops with you, the citizens of Washington State and Seattle in particular, to pull the trigger if this project needs to die.
But before I get to the questions you need to ask, a brief historical detour. (I promise it won't stall us out for a year plus.) It begins last week, when I got a call from a producer at KOMO Radio asking for an interview about Bertha, the broken tunnel drill stuck six stories under Pioneer Square. I said I don't live in Seattle anymore. I moved to New York City. "Everyone keeps talking about your 2010 article that predicted all of these problems," he told me.
That article began: “You’re about to get fucked, Seattle.” In it, I wrote that digging the widest tunnel ever attempted on earth through downtown's geologically challenging soil was playing engineering roulette. Even with an unprecedentedly large $4.2 billion budget, the project had only $500 million in insurance, not enough to cover realistic cost overruns. The piece said that the tunnel boring machine could break or get stuck, and might need to be dug out, that our plan to fix a broken machine was inadequate, that the ground could cave in, that revenue would dry up, and that labor clashes could cause delays. The radio producer treated me like a psychic.
"I'm not a clairvoyant," I said on the show. All of this was predictable. Activist Cary Moon, former mayor Mike McGinn, and Council Member Mike O'Brien all predicted it, too—and were pilloried for their predictions by the likes of Gregoire, Rasmussen, and Burgess.
But the question on-air that stuck with me was whether Seattle should pull the plug on Bertha. I've never said the tunnel couldn't be built, only that it shouldn't be built. It won’t replace the viaduct's traffic capacity even if it goes off without a hitch. The numbers show the surface/transit option is a better alternative.
But to answer the question—should we juice this lemon?—depends on whether Seattle can figure out if the project is still viable. (Moon has an excellent op-ed you should read about this.) So, if I have any magical predictive powers left, my advice is to answer these seven questions. If you can't get the answers, or if the answers suck, kill the tunnel.
1. What is the timeline to finish this project? “We cannot commit to a specific timeline,” Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson said yesterday. If the project can take an infinite amount of time, and thus require an infinite amount of money, and the viaduct can experience infinite decay in that time, then this project has no real accountability. Not committing to a timeline is an unacceptable position.
2. What is the plan if the tunnel-boring machine breaks down again? Bertha broke in December of 2013 after seals broke and the central bearing was busted, and now officials have pushed back her repair date until April of 2015 or later. That's because building a rescue pit to reach the machine (the bottom of Bertha's cutterhead is about 110 feet underground) requires draining the water table, and that's all really, really difficult. After the hole's dug, the plan is to haul the cutterhead to the surface. Apparently that's all easier than fixing the machine from underground, from the back end of the machine inside the tunnel. Okay. But if this repair works and the tunneling machine breaks down again while it's farther along the alignment, deeper underground, how will the state deal with that? In that scenario, digging a rescue pit would be impossible—and some speculate the problem we have right now can't be fixed without digging a rescue pit. Would a fix further along the drilling route be impossible? This is a critical question. If it's not impossible, what is the plan, exactly?
3. How many more setbacks can Seattle Tunneling Partners (STP), the private contractor digging the tunnel, afford before it abandons the project? STP sounds like a local firm, but it was actually formed by international corporations Tutor Perini and Dragados USA solely to dig this tunnel. Is it possible that STP's autonomy allows it to fold while the parent companies walk away, leaving a broken drill 60 feet underground? STP won a roughly $1.1 billion contract for the project, but costs are rising. Now, with the repair effort underway, STP is trying to collect more money from the state. They were after $188 million more as of August. But, because STP has what's called a design-build contract, the primary burden is on STP to cover all costs. There is almost certainly a price point at which STP can no longer afford the rising cost of fixing a broken machine and pulls out. What is that point? A half-billion more? One billion more? The company will be loath to admit this. It's a private company! Those matters are private! That's no excuse. Seattle deserves a prognosis of the sick drill company's finances so you know when to take it off life support. If this company abandons the job, we'd be left with evidence that the tunnel is unfeasible for the price we're willing to pay and the project may be functionally dead. Most of the city council and the mayor have shown they will not ask difficult questions. But if these politicians wanted to exert a fraction of the chutzpah to maintain accountability on this project that they used to get it started, they would nail STP to a tree to get the answer to this question. After all, if you don't have a tunnel digging company, you don't have a tunnel, a budget, or a timeline.
4. If the contractor does pull out, what's the state's backup plan? Public officials, too, will want to duck this question; sock them in the face with it instead. To be clear, the state needs a current plan—based on what we have heard since we started learning more about soil conditions, engineering challenges, and costs—not an abstract backup plan from four years ago when this egg was hatched. The state must state whether losing the contractor will kill the project. If the project would still be alive, the state must articulate its plans to hire a new contractor, craft a strategy to asses whether a new contractor could perform better, lay out a funding plan to pay for all of this, and stick to a timeline to complete the project. There is zero question the tunnel needs a Plan B right now. If Olympia and city hall don't have one, Seattle must demand one. If they refuse, Seattle should give them another Plan B: Kill the project.
5. If the tunnel boring machine fails and the state decides it needs more money, where will that money come from? The project only has insurance bonds to cover cost overruns up to $500 million (less than half of the base cost of the tunnel portion of the project). For the record, state law caps its expenses at $2.8 billion and says Seattle must pay all cost overruns. If all the available money is eaten up, where does the rest come from? If now is not the time to answer this question, when is? It would be irresponsible for the council, mayor, and governor to fail to have an extremely detailed answer to this question.
6. How much more can the ground settle before we close the viaduct? KOMO News reports 30 buildings are sinking in Pioneer Square. The viaduct has sunk more than an inch near the tunnel machine’s rescue pit. The state has reportedly said the viaduct could sink two inches before STP must take further action and that the viaduct can sink up to six inches overall. But now that it’s sinking, state officials say they forgot to bring the tunnel contract with that information to the recent hearing on all this. Oops! The state must name the amount the viaduct can sink and all other metrics that will be used to decide when the viaduct must close. If they are vague about this, pull the plug.
7. When the viaduct closes—not if, when—what is the city's plan for traffic around downtown, Ballard, and West Seattle? If the viaduct comes down before the tunnel is finished, tens of thousands of cars would divert onto downtown streets daily. What is the city going to do with the street grid and transit to prevent gridlock? And that's not a hypothetical problem. Even if the tunnel is working exactly as planned, tens of thousands of cars will flood downtown streets. Roughly half of the 60,000 to 110,000 vehicles a day that have been driving along the viaduct won't use the tunnel, according to the state's environmental impact study on the project. Drivers will avoid the tunnel because toll fees will incentivize using other free routes and the tunnel will have zero exits downtown. When I asked Rasmussen, the city council's transportation chair, this question in August, he ducked. A transportation project that stands to make traffic worse is not a transportation project you want.
Ask all of these questions, Seattle. And if you feel the answers you're given are inadequate, press harder. When it comes to megaprojects, obfuscation is par for the course. With that in mind, I want to leave you with one last idea that comes, in part, from the work of a professor at the University of Oxford.
In a 2002 report in the Journal of the American Planning Association titled "Underestimating Costs in Public Works Projects: Error or Lie?," researchers Bent Flyvbjerg (the guy from Oxford), Mette Skamris Holm, and Søren Buhl discussed how megaprojects are misrepresented. "Cost underestimation cannot be explained by error and seems to be best explained by strategic misrepresentation, i.e., lying." They add: "The use of deception and lying as tactics in power struggles aimed at getting projects started and at making a profit appear to best explain why costs are highly and systematically underestimated in transportation infrastructure projects."
Don't get fucked again, Seattle.
PS — I miss you, Slog. I write for BuzzFeed News now as the national LGBT reporter. This is the first listicle I've written (no joke!) You can follow me on Twitter here.