In Seattle, a Tunnel Plan Sits in the Big Dig’s Long Shadow

By: - August 19, 2010 12:00 am

Photos courtesy of the Washington State Department of Transportation

SEATTLE — It’s been almost a decade since the Nisqually earthquake damaged the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a double-decker freeway that runs through downtown Seattle. After years of debate, Washington State, the city of Seattle and King County decided to tear down the waterfront highway and replace it with an underground tunnel.

Then, on April 22, 2009, an earthquake of the political sort struck. The state House of Representatives, while debating financing for the tunnel, decided that the state would not pay a penny more than the $2.8 billion it has said it will pay — leaving any cost overruns to “property owners in the Seattle area who benefit.” The political aftershocks from what became known as the “Stick-it-to-Seattle” clause have been rumbling ever since.

The decision to build a deep-bore tunnel was intended to allow Seattle to reclaim waterfront areas that have sat underneath the highway since the 1950s. The tunnel option would give drivers the same express route through Seattle they’re accustomed to, while limiting disruptions during construction. Most of the work, after all, would go on 200 feet underground.

But for more than a year, the original purposes of building the tunnel have faded into the background of public discussion. What dominates debate now is what some see as the possibility — and others see as the inevitability — of cost overruns.


Graphic courtesy of the Washington State Department of Transportation

A tunnel, 200 feet underground, will replace the old double-decker Alaskan Way Viaduct, which was damaged in a 2001 earthquake.

As the fretting mounts, tunnel opponents are mounting a local ballot initiative aimed at unraveling the whole deal. Meanwhile, supporters worry that continued rancor over the Stick-it-to-Seattle clause could contribute to delays and make cost overruns a self-fulfilling prophecy. Douglas MacDonald, a former secretary of transportation in Washington State, says an increasingly adversarial atmosphere over the tunnel threatens the project far more than the engineering challenges.

Seattle’s anxiety over the tunnel project shows how the ghosts of Boston’s infamous “Big Dig” continue to haunt the minds of state and local officials across the country. Like the Seattle project, Boston’s involved relocating a downtown freeway underground. By the time that and other work was done in 2007, years late, costs had soared from an expected $2.6 billion to $14.8 billion.

The Seattle tunnel’s government backers go out of their way to show how different their project is from the Big Dig. The Boston tunnel was longer in miles, more complex in scope and used a more complicated combination of construction methods than what is planned in Seattle, they say. Clear lines of authority are in place, in contrast to the management turnover that beset the Big Dig. And the Washington State Department of Transportation is using a cost-estimate technique that has proven itself in other big projects that came in on-time and on-budget.

Still, there’s a lingering perception that hidden dangers lurk whenever governments go underground with infrastructure. And anyone who feels that way in Seattle doesn’t have to go far to find proof. Just a few miles up the road, King County is building a 13-mile tunnel to carry wastewater. The project recently hit a major snag when the boring machines got stuck and were left to idle underground. If the same thing happened in downtown Seattle, it would constitute a worst-case scenario that the DOT says could cost more than $450 million extra to resolve.

With this as a backdrop, t he research of Bent Flyvbjerg, a professor at Oxford University in England, has been coming up in Seattle quite a bit lately. Flyvbjerg studied 258 mega-projects around the world, and found that officials underestimated the cost in nine out of 10 cases. On average, tunnel and bridge projects came in 34 percent higher than expected. Flyvbjerg goes so far as to suggest that governments underestimate costs deliberately; if taxpayers knew ahead of time what mega-projects would wind up costing, he says, they’d never approve them in the first place.

Fuzzy language

One of the most hotly debated aspects of the Stick-it-to-Seattle clause is what it actually means. State Attorney General Rob McKenna and Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes both have issued legal opinions saying that the provision as written cannot be enforced — and creates no mechanism to impose costs on Seattle taxpayers, in any case. Even Judy Clibborn, the state legislator who inserted the wording at the behest of Democratic House Speaker Frank Chopp, says the clause uses “fuzzy language that is unenforceable.”

Nevertheless, the clause says what it says. As McKenna noted in his legal opinion, “a future legislature may choose to enact additional legislation necessary to make this cost overrun provision operative.” And that’s why elected officials in Seattle are taking the wording at face value.

The issue came to a head last month when the Seattle City Council met to consider the city’s agreement with the state to move forward on the tunnel. Mayor Mike McGinn, who campaigned into office last year on an anti-tunnel platform, threatened to veto the agreement if the Stick-it-to-Seattle clause wasn’t removed. Meanwhile, Governor Christine Gregoire warned that if Seattle failed to move ahead, she’d be happy to redirect the state’s share of the tunnel money to other transportation projects around Washington State.

The city council opted for a third way — to postpone a final decision on the tunnel agreement until early 2011. In lieu of formal approval, the council adopted a resolution that allows the planning and bidding process for the tunnel to continue, but without obligating the city. Local officials hope the delay will buy them time for two crucial data points to come in: first, an environmental impact statement that could offer clues to any geological hurdles the tunnel could potentially face, and second, the official bids from the two construction firms competing for the contract.

Mega-project math

For all the consternation over cost overruns, the irony is that the method the state DOT used to estimate the tunnel cost is considered a best practice in engineering. In fact, it was originally designed to build public and legislative trust in the management of big infrastructure projects.

The process, called CEVP, looks at all of the things that could go right or wrong on a project and assigns a probability and a potential cost to each. Then, it produces a probable cost range for the project, rather than a single number. By forcing planners to think through potential pitfalls, CEVP is supposed to provide better estimates and project outcomes, as well as manage public expectations.

In this case, Washington State budgeted for the tunnel at an amount that CEVP said had a 60 percent chance of being enough to cover the final cost. CEVP has worked well for the DOT on other projects that exceed $100 million in cost. Unfortunately for tunnel supporters, however, the calculation boils down to the sound bite that there is a 40 percent chance that the project will go over budget.

MacDonald, the former transportation secretary, says too much of the discussion lately has become “wrapped around the axle of the cost-overrun question.” That, he says, should be a side issue to the central question of why the tunnel is worth doing in the first place.

Sally Bagshaw, a Seattle city councilwoman, agrees. She’s dismayed that the cost questions are getting more attention than the plans Seattle has to replace the elevated highway with more open public spaces and reconnect the waterfront with downtown. Despite the Big Dig debacle, she says, Bostonians now are glad to have a string of city parks where the aboveground highway once was. “What we need to get back to the voters is the longer term vision,” Bagshaw says, “not debating ‘Are we going to spend one dollar over the $2.8 billion?'”

Seattle has a history of going back and forth on big transportation projects, or as one commenter calls it, a knack for “snatching incompletion from the jaws of completion.” A decade ago, the city spent years batting around the question of whether to build itself a light-rail transit system or expand a 1960s-era monorail system. (Light rail eventually won.)

Two other proposals for how to replace the damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct have been shot down by voters. It wasn’t until 2009 — eight years after the Nisqually earthquake — that the tunnel option emerged as the plan supported by all of the state and local political leaders whose buy-in was needed.

So even tunnel opponents, pleased as they are to see the cost debate is stirring second thoughts, are in a be-careful-what-you-wish-for predicament. “There has been very little discussion about Plan Bs,” admits Mike O’Brien, the one Seattle councilman who voted no on the resolution to reconsider the tunnel agreement later. “I hope someone somewhere is thinking about what happens if…”

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