Opponents of the deep bore tunnel are getting desperate. Now some are proposing a City referendum. Assuming your standpoint is something other than “stop the tunnel at all costs,” this is a ridiculous idea. Without getting into the minutiae, here are a few major flaws in their thinking.
1. It would cause delay, which would increase cost. To ensure top-quality, low-price proposals, WSDOT would presumably postpone the team selection, and much of the public deal finalization would be delayed as well. Even if the referendum resulted in a “go,” this would risk moving the pricing into a period of general economic recovery. As everyone in construction knows, any economic recovery will cause prices to rise substantially due to higher material costs, normalization of margins at every level, etc. The current RFP process is well timed to take advantage of low pricing that we know will last into early next year, but might not last much longer.
2. If opponents were to win, what then? Would it be a simple matter of clarifying Seattle’s exposure to overruns, or would it stop the tunnel concept entirely? Does anyone think that another option would be more popular? Based on who is supporting the referendum, it sounds like the “surface” option is their intended goal. That might play well in some neighborhoods, but it’s the worst nightmare for many of the viaduct’s
The deep bore tunnel being studied as part of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement will carry four lanes of traffic under downtown Seattle. Much of the two-mile-long tunnel will go through glacial till, reaching a depth of 220 feet. Image courtesy of WSDOT
current users, much of the business community, and many of us Downtown workers/residents who would see our Downtown avenues turned into pedestrian-unfriendly throughways for drivers who don’t want to be here. Others insist that we’re all insane if we don’t retrofit the viaduct so it’ll last two or three decades longer, or we’re insane if we don’t rebuild a similar viaduct, or the only solution is a bridge in Elliott Bay, or we should revisit the cut-n-cover idea… Every one of them has a built-in opposition, which I think will be larger than the opposition to the tunnel. Anyone who thinks their pet idea will magically make a majority happy is delusional.
3. It would be a City referendum for a State project that affects the whole metro. I agree that the cost risk should be shared by the State and the City…which currently appears to be the case, barring any future contract language that specifies otherwise. Aside from the issue of Seattle’s risk, there’s the issue of who the viaduct belongs to. Referendum supporters appear to be forgetting that tunnel is a State project, and serves a region-wide traveling public. Do they really think the State will let Seattle delete a regional lifeline? If the tunnel were stopped, the result would be another highway of some kind. Probably an aerial replacement, built a couple years after the current plan during a time of much higher pricing. The no-replacement people would get to look at THAT for the next 60 years, which horrifies me as well.
4. The other concepts have MORE cost risk. In 2008 it could be argued that a tunnel had higher cost risk than an aerial option. Off the cuff, the opposite seems to be true today. The tunnel has gone through a year and a half of intense study, design, and improvement since becoming the chosen option. A replacement viaduct (or any other concept) would start over with very minimal design, very minimal knowledge of what’s under the existing viaduct, and very minimal idea of what would be needed to minimize the considerable construction inconveniences. Further, those who prefer other options typically forget to include the cost of knitting South Lake Union and Lower Queen Anne back together via a lowered Aurora, which would be a much more difficult project in their scenarios, and they leave the current tunnel severely under code. (This is all completely separate from the hidden costs of disruption (during construction and permanently) with the surface, aerial, or cut-n-cover options, which would dwarf the project cost in every instance.)
In another blog post I discussed why the idea that driving will suddenly become unpopular (an idea held by many surface option supporters) is wrong as well. I won’t get into the opponents claims about overruns on past projects, which are based on ancient history rather than the modern practices of agencies like WSDOT, Sound Transit, etc., who have done well in keeping their recent work on budget.
I suspect the referendum won’t happen because smarter heads will prevail. And if it does, it’ll probably lose, because as some old polling suggested, the public’s #1 priority is to get it done, even among many people who consider the tunnel their second or third favorite option. The tunnel is a good plan, which does an excellent job of balancing millions of viewpoints, and is ultimately the lowest-risk concept.