There are some things we know about the deep bore tunnel proposed as a replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct. It’s going to be expensive, costing the state, city and port a combined total of at least $4.5 billion dollars. We also know that it will only add to Seattle’s carbon emissions problem. Building highways has a tendency to do that. And most experts agree that there will be cost overruns on the construction. That means the project will likely encounter problems that will slow the project down (see the Brightwater debacle) and materials and labor will end up costing much more than expected. Right now the legislation authorizing the tunnel project says that Seattle is on the hook to pay all of these overruns. But what happens if the revenue for the tunnel doesn’t come in? Even if all the projections for the costs of the tunnel are spot on (which is unlikely) if tolling revenue doesn’t come in as expected, the cash strapped City of Seattle will have to make up the difference. And a closer look at the revenue claims—both tolls and promises from the port—should give the Seattle City Council another reason to pause before diving into an agreement in which it obligates Seattle taxpayers to pay for overruns.
The legislation states pretty clearly that the state’s contribution will not go higher than $2.4 billion dollars. It further stipulates that “if costs exceed two billion four hundred million dollars, no more than four hundred million of the additional costs shall be financed with toll revenue.” First off, the legislation makes it impossible for the project to make up cost overruns using tolling revenue because it limits that revenue to $400 million. But what happens if that revenue doesn’t even get to $400 million?
Just do the math. If the project comes in perfectly on budget but tolling revenue ends up being just $300 million, that extra $100 million comes out of the City of Seattle’s budget. And is there reason to think that would happen? Just consider State Route 167. That project was supposed to be paid for largely with toll revenue. The problem is that the Hot Lane experiment—allowing drivers to buy their way onto a special lane to beat congestion—is failing. People aren’t buying into the program. Less than half of the drivers expected to use the Hot Lanes actually are doing so, and the revenues aren’t paying for project costs.
And why would people want to pay extra for a trip through a gold plated tunnel? Consider the fact that projections indicate that the trip along Alaskan Way—which is not tolled—will take the same amount of time as going through a tolled tunnel which will cost $7.50 or more. Why would drivers spend that kind of money when they can literally just by pass the tunnel for free? And strangely, the Washington State Department of Transportation’s projections have been revised down from about 118,000 vehicles per day down to more like 49,000 cars at peak use. Mayor McGinn’s most recent review indicates that number may be even less, more like 26,000 vehicles. One way to help with the problem might be to increase the toll, but wouldn’t that just push more cars on to Alaskan Way?
And what about the $300 million the port has said its going to kick in for the project? That would likely come from property taxes levied on people throughout King County, most of whom won’t ever use the tunnel. And if they did they’d still have to lay down the cash for a trip through it. Imagine how a family in North Bend will feel paying for the deep bore tunnel on their property tax bill and then, in the unlikely event they would ever drive through it, pay a hefty toll. The politics of property tax hikes for things property owners will never use are pretty dicey. The Port of Seattle might change its mind.
So add these sketchy revenue predictions to the sketchy cost projections and any policy maker and any level of government would have to wonder what on earth are we doing here? But the Council seems determined to plow ahead insisting that, in the words of Council President Richard Conlin, “there will be no cost overruns.” This is the same Richard Conlin who recently in Yes! Magazine was giving the rest of the region lessons on how Seattle is going to achieve carbon neutrality. Talk about a Sustainability Gap! If the Council President manages to get his way on the tunnel we’re almost certain to see overruns because of higher costs. And we may see overruns because of poor performance of tolling revenue and a collapse of the promise from the Port. We might get overruns because of costs and flagging revenues. And these overruns will come out of the wallets of hard working Seattleites. Is it too much to ask our City Council to get us off that hook?