Emerald City, get ready for the big bore

Lately, the political zeitgeist is all about hope: about a government that actually cares about its citizens' concerns and respects them, and us. Autocratic leaders that dump all over the will of the people are so 2008.

Except in Seattle, where we still have Greg Nickels.

And Christine Gregoire. And Ron Sims. And Frank Chopp.

They all got together this month to inflict - I mean, announce - a grand "compromise" plan to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a new tunnel. It is, essentially, the same plan 70 percent of Seattle voters rejected in an advisory vote two years ago, primarily due to its extravagant cost. The difference now? The economy has gone south, governmental budgets are facing shortfalls left and right and our all-seeing Great Leaders just picked a plan that will in all likelihood at least double the cost of that originally rejected extravagance.

Of course, that's not what they're telling us. The official line is that it's a $4.2 billion project, with the result a four-lane tunnel under downtown (down from six lanes in the $4.6 billion 2007 proposal) whose construction will, thanks to brand new technology, be via boring rather than digging. Hence, The Big Bore will be far less disruptive to downtown commerce and traffic than The Big Dig would have been.

All other things being equal, this would be great. Three years ago, I thought a tunnel was the best long-term solution for replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and I still do. Such a project maintains traffic flow (which, global warming or not, we'll still need) and at the same time potentially opens up our criminally underutilized waterfront, now separated from downtown and all but the hardiest souls by a hideously ugly and intrusive 1950s-style expressway.

The problem is, all things aren't equal. The proposal is a blank check of the most dangerous kind at, economically speaking, the worst time imaginable. That $4.2 billion price tag has as much credibility as if you or I had pulled it out of our nether regions. No engineering has been done on the project yet, let alone bids taken. By the time those studies are even done you can bet the price tag will have gone up a couple of billion.

By the time the tunnel is really bored (insert punchline here), $10 billion is more realistic - at exactly the time when the city and county are cutting vital services to the poor, to the elderly and infirm, to everything from cops on the street to, um, snowplows. (Insert another punchline here.)

No matter, cry the downtown (and potential waterfront) developers who (SURPRISE!) will be the big new winners in this plan. The state has generously agreed to pick up not only $2.8 billion of the $4.2 billion price tag, but any cost overruns.

Here's the problem: The state had previously agreed to fund $2.4 billion of the project. (But only if the replacement SR 99 carried as much traffic as the Viaduct did - 110,000 daily trips; the current proposal would only accommodate 85,000 daily trips. Never mind.)

It hopes to make up the other $400 million through tolling (meaning that Seattle folks pick up the cost anyway). But what happens if the costs overrun, as they will?

How will a state facing billions in budget shortfalls this year, and which is already cutting education and social services to the bone in response, absorb another $4 or $5 billion in costs? And what will your average lawmaker from Yakima have to say about that if the funding mechanisms involved don't rely heavily on taxing Seattle, rather than the whole state, for this very local project?

Meanwhile, another $1 billion of the project is being picked up by the City of Seattle and the Port of Seattle, through a variety of proposed funding mechanisms: higher commercial parking taxes, higher utility rates, higher car tab fees and higher property taxes.

This is a classic case of government leaders and bureaucrats spending as much money as they can get their hands on, because they can. Demolishing the Alaskan Way Viaduct and replacing it with a surface boulevard could potentially have cost less than $1 billion. But the state wouldn't pay for that, because it reduced traffic capacity on SR 99 to, well, about to the level of the current proposal. (Did I mention "never mind"?)

City and state officials managed last month to "narrow down" the options to this and a surface option that cost over $3 billion, largely because they threw in Mercer Street improvements (!) and anything else they could think of to jack up the perceived cost - and then they went for the more expensive option anyway. ("See? A surface plan would've cost nearly as much!")

And while the state Legislature and both the city and county councils will need to take action on the various funding mechanisms, the plan itself, after several years of tiresome wrangling, is not open to any sort of public vote or input. We had our input, and it was spit upon. Why would they want it again now?

More to the point, the next time Nickels or Gregoire say they care what voters think, why should we believe them?

Geov Parrish may be reached via the contact information listed below.

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