Yesterday Mayor McGinn held a press briefing with Thom Neff, a Strategic Infrastructure Management Consultant that the Mayor had retained to complete a risk analysis on the likelihood of on-budget, on-time completion of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel. Neff, with a 40-year vocational history managing large tunneling projects (including Boston’s Central Artery, the “Big Dig”), offered a cautiously pessimistic assessment of the project. Noting that the tunnel represented technology “at or beyond precedent” in the “worst geologic environment [he'd] ever seen,” Neff said that the project presents a substantial risk of exceeding budget and a moderate risk of not being completed at all. Among the geological anomalies, historical glaciation was so extensive that there is “residual lateral stress at depth” that “exceeds the vertical pressure.”
Everyone expected our anti-tunnel Mayor’s hand-picked consultant to say such things, but Neff was impressive and decidedly apolitical, stressing that, “I love tunnels, that’s what I do. But some tunnels shouldn’t be built.”
More after the jump.
Neff made several administrative suggestions that would increase accountability and incentivize safety, including:
- The builder of the ($80m) tunnel-boring machine having to share financial risk.
- Real-time construction monitoring data being handled by WSDOT rather than the contractor, lest we get a situation in which “the fox is watching the chicken coop”.
There is not much new here, and there are already a dozen articles online about this, but I’ll make a cautious editorial point (entirely my own) relating to transit advocacy. Precedent-busting technology is appropriate for projects emanating from exceptionally high travel demand, but the AWV clearly does not represent such demand. Accordingly, we should be wary of pushing too hard with risk-aversion rhetoric when our primary reasons for opposing the tunnel relate not to risk but to utility. If we appear too technophobic or risk-averse, only to call for innovative transit tunneling later, we risk accusations of disingenuousness and hypocrisy that limit our political effectiveness. If in future we want new right-of-way for high-speed rail, a 2nd Avenue subway, etc…we need to resist this sort of situational technophobia today. Isn’t it better to be authentically ideological than inauthentically risk-averse?