Outside City Hall: The parents of Bertha's expensive journey

In April, Bertha, the world’s largest boring machine, finally broke through just west of Aurora, completing a 1.7-mile underground journey. However, the tunnel itself won’t be finished until 2019 -- four years from its original 2015 completion date.  

The delays and fixing the drill translated into a half billion dollars in overruns that will bring total costs of the project well over $3.2 billion, including boring, viaduct removal, and new surface boulevard on Alaskan Way -- perhaps the priciest single piece of city infrastructure ever. To top it off, when completed the tunnel will have 30 percent less vehicle capacity. And with tolling now required for a portion of its cost, planners estimate half of the 100,000 vehicles now using the viaduct will divert to already gridlocked Interstate 5 and surface roads.  

A retrofit or simple fix of the viaduct would have cost about $1.2 billion, ($2 billion less than the tunnel), been completed years ago at no loss of capacity. It would have allowed freight to continue to move, and preserved the waterfront's historic character to boot.  

We bring up the tunnel not to say “we told you so” (although in a 2012 column, we did predict the tunnel would run up costly delays), but because three of the candidates for mayor [that number is down to two, now that Mayor Ed Murray has dropped out of the race. -Ed.] share responsibility for allowing this fiasco to move forward despite numerous opportunities to stop it.

The first tunnel measure on the ballot in 2007 gave us a choice to vote for or against a “rebuild” of the viaduct, essentially a new elevated highway -- at a cost substantially less than a tunnel (but a billion dollars more than a retrofit), and another separate vote for or against a “cut and cover” tunnel. Voters never were given the chance to vote for or against the fix/retrofit option.  

Nickels was Mayor. He and most City Council members shamelessly catered to downtown interests including those owning and developing the area immediately east of the viaduct who suddenly would have prime view property once the viaduct went down.  This is, and was always, the primary driver pushing the tunnel forward regardless of cost, delays, and lack of capacity.

At the time, John co-chaired a "No Tunnel Alliance” composed of Ballard commercial and industrial interests, freight haulers dependent on the viaduct, waterfront businesses fearing displacement, and neighborhood and mass transportation advocates.

We asked all factions opposing the tunnel to set aside their differences to defeat it. Later, we could fight over what would replace it. Among the potential allies we called upon were those backing replacement of the viaduct with only improvements to surface streets. This group included current mayoral candidates Cary Moon, and former Mayor Mike McGinn. Other factions backed fixing/retrofitting the viaduct or a new elevated rebuild of the viaduct.

For a time we were able to hold these factions together but the first to split from our coalition were the surface-only folks who began publicly trashing the other options. Their critics jokingly called them “flat earthers'” because they actually believed that if you tore the viaduct down and replaced it effectively with nothing (other than a little reworking of the downtown grid and a few more buses into and out of downtown) that 100,000 plus vehicles now using the viaduct would simply be absorbed into the remaining grid. Cary Moon and Mike McGinn either naively believed in this approach or simply didn't care much about the consequences for thousands of commuters.

Come election time in 2007, voters overwhelmingly rejected the tunnel nearly two-to-one, but by a narrower margin, also voted down the rebuilt elevated option. When both went down to defeat, the powers that be at the Mayor’s and Governor’s offices, and Ed Murray, then a powerful state senator, offered a new “deep bore” tunnel option instead of “cut and cover.” Their line was “Hey we heard voters, we've taken the rebuild option off the table and we’re giving you a new and better tunnel”.  

In 2011, surface-only backers including McGinn and Moon made a last minute Hail Mary attempt to kill the tunnel, collecting enough signatures for a referendum on whether the tunnel should go forward. But it was too late; funding commitments had been made and design of the tunnel was well underway. And voters really weren’t given a choice. With a rebuilt elevated structure off the table, it was either the tunnel or surface-only, which for most voters meant replacing the viaduct with nothing. Understandably they chose the tunnel.

Now downtown elites, the Governor and Murray had their mandate.  Construction began on the tunnel late in 2013, only a few hundred feet from where drilling began, it stalled for two and a half years, swallowing hundreds of millions more in state and local funding.

Ironically, Cary Moon, Mike McGinn and the other “flat earthers” helped ensure -- in an indirect but very real way -- that the tunnel would be built. Instead of joining with all other factions to kill the tunnel, they flirted with the pro-tunnel forces, opposing any rebuild or fix option that left an elevated structure in place. The result:  Seattle is likely doomed to generations of gridlock.