To synthesize several posts that have been bouncing around the local blogosphere, including Zach’s, it’s kind of unfortunate that the argument has degenerated into assessing the probability of overrun, made necessary by the blithe assertion of tunnel supporters that there wouldn’t be any.

If the gas tax was covering this project, no one who thought that replacing the viaduct with the tunnel was a good idea would suddenly oppose it if the cost escalated from $4.2 billion to $4.7 billion. Likewise, no one who thinks the tunnel is counterproductive would change their minds if the cost came in at $3.7 billion or $3.2 billion. More after the jump.

I’ve pretty much made up my mind that the tunnel is a bad idea on the merits, for basically the reasons that Dan Bertolet outlines. However, what’s made me passionate on this subject is the overrun provision. The marginal gas tax dollar is committed to sprawl-inducing projects that are terrible for the environment, so sinking it in the tunnel is not necessarily better or worse than the alternative. Unless you consider the state to be especially malicious, my best estimate is that the tunnel is costing the city $100-300m more than surface/transit/I-5 would. That’s not chump change, and I wouldn’t build it if I were dictator. But I wouldn’t lie down in front of the TBM, metaphorically, over that.

Potentially saddling the city with overruns, however, adds a new dimension of terror to this project. The bicycle and pedestrian master plans are pathetically underfunded. If we’re to wait less than 50 years for Ballard-West Seattle rail, the city needs either every dime of taxing authority it can scrape together, or a gift from the legislature.

To reiterate, and echo Josh Feit, all tunnels face overrun risk to some degree. The problem with this project is how that risk is handled, or rather how it isn’t. If Sound Transit overruns, or revenues come in under projections, it cuts into their reserves. If the reserves are wiped out, we get less rail, delivered later, as happened with Sound Move. That’s a bad outcome, but it’s better than nothing if you support rail; if you think rail is useless, getting less of something useless is hardly a tragedy. Since half a DBT is undeniably useless, however, the money is going to come from somewhere. If the pavement lobby wants their tunnel so be it; but let the pavement lobby assume whatever risks are associated with their project.

I want to make this distinction because it should be clear that “significant chance of overrun” is not an automatic disqualifier for a project. Sometimes, a project is worthwhile even at a higher price or with fewer features; in other cases, it’s a bad deal at any price. I don’t want my position, or STB’s, to be caricatured as “OMG overruns”.

28 Replies to “Editorial: It’s Not the Overruns, It’s the Overrun Provision”

  1. “Since half a DBT is undeniably useless, however, the money is going to come from somewhere.” Absolutely, once it has begun if WILL be finished, by cannibalizing all other funding if necessary. That’s what is terrifying, especially for the city.

    My post this morning was intended to convey a similar point, namely that ‘on the merits’ is a better platform for opposition than this-or-that probabilities of overrun or safety risks. If we give in to the the safety or overrun arguments, we risk losing control of the rhetoric. Better to stick to our guns; the DBT is a bad project that is virtually guaranteed to reduce transit funding over the next decade.

    1. So essentially you’re saying that overruns and risky projects are acceptable as long as its a transit project that we think is good? That seems backwards to me. Anything that has the potential to cannibalize all other funding should meet intense scrutiny.

      Overruns are partly the result of policy makers who don’t want to address the true cost of different projects, whether they be roads, transit, or military hardware and not adequately accounting for risk. Clever accounting and rosie projections are used to make it seem like we can get something for nothing or at least something for dirt cheap, obfuscating the risk until the bill comes due later, but at that point its too late. Why wouldn’t we want to know understand the real risk and benefit for any project upfront? That way we can make informed decisions.

      This is why people don’t trust their public leadership. If transit over roads is going to gain greater public acceptance it needs to be built on honesty over the costs and trade-offs involved. Otherwise we merely open it up to the same criticism major road project failures have been. If a new $4B transit tunnel was going to carry 1000 people a day I sure would question whether it was worthwhile investment. Maybe a different investment should be made to improve transit, etc.. Otherwise we’re building infrastructure for the sake of infrastructure. Overruns and safety are legit criticisms for any project and addressing those in this context is a good thing for effective transit projects not worse.

      1. No, what he’s saying is that if Sound Transit has cost overruns they don’t steal money from the city to make up for it.

      2. No, Zach is talking about something different. He’s talking about how we argue against the tunnel. He think we should stop the overrun talk because it will hamper us when we advocate for transit projects because opponents often use those types of concerns to create obstacles….that’s at least what I read in it.

        I think the dishonesty about overruns is a crucial part of this because its deceptive on the part of our public leadership to think there won’t be any overruns on such a risky project with insufficient risk mitigation or even realization.

      3. I’m saying that, presented with a real project, no real person thinks it’s great at $1.9 billion but terrible at $2.3 billion. If you think a project worthwhile or a waste, a change from one abstractly large number to another (within reason) doesn’t change your perception. Overruns, in general, don’t convince anyone of anything.

        It’s the structure of this overrun provision that makes them particularly explosive.

      4. I agree with Martin that the DBT is a poor transportation investment for our region even without any cost overruns. It doesn’t create enough value to justify its cost.

        For some reason the debate on the merits of the tunnel and its utility vs. cost has not had adequate public discussion. I think it is because there are a lot of people who want the viaduct torn down and gone (I’m among them.) But they seem to take it on blind faith that we have to build something to replace it, and they don’t want another viaduct, so they support a tunnel.

        It seems hard to get people to accept the argument that there is little through traffic, and that access to the downtown area can be provided in other ways, and that some induced traffic will disappear.

        Perhaps the issue of the risks in constructing this tunnel and the risk of overruns does help assemble a coalition to get the region to make a better decision on this project.

      5. But there were at least 2 other options that didn’t require rebuilding the viaduct that would have been far less expensive and risky. I personally liked the idea of a lidded freeway in the same space as the viaduct. It reclaims the airspace and reconnects the waterfront for pedestrians and could be done at a fraction of the price of a tunnel and probably completed much more quickly.

      1. The viaduct can come down and does not need to be replaced.

        The DBT does far less than the viaduct did, since it has no exits, and it doesn’t carry much traffic.

      2. I disagree on two points. Unlike San Francisco where there was adequate capacity in other roads (and transportation modes) to absorb the removal of some of their viaducted roads, Seattle doesn’t. Second, much to your chagrin, the primary purpose of that road was not to funnel traffic to downtown, but facilitate traffic to their destinations not in the CBD. Specifically, SODO, Boeing, Interurban. You know, where “real” work gets done.

      3. Charles, that is one of the main arguments that is made by DBT proponents. However, the DBT is entirely useless to access Interurban and Ballard. That traffic stays on the surface with DBT.

        Further, the traffic studies showed that 93% of the truck traffic from SODO, Boeing, and the port uses I-5 and will not be served by the DBT.

        The DBT isn’t relevant to the economic activity in the industrial areas. And for the CBD it doesn’t provide access. The massive expenditure is not justified and should be used in more effective ways.

      4. This may be all anecdotal but my father commuted for about 15 years from Broadview to Boeing field. As did many of his neighbors. It would have been silly for him to take I-5 as it would have added nearly 1/2 hour to his commute. I’ve seen many people travel from Shoreline and other neighborhoods in North Seattle to SODO and points south via Aurora to Pacific Hwy South via the viaduct. There are easily over 100,000 people employed in jobs in that area whether its for Boeing, Boeing assembly partners, the Federal government, and various light industries in SODO. Many of those choose Aurora and HWY 99.

        You can’t tell me that all those people aren’t choosing this path because it is the most direct and most convenient manner in which to get to work. The DBT is a continuation of this traffic pattern. It isn’t necessarily about trucks. Its about commuters going to high value jobs in that area.

        Now, I am not a proponent of the DBT but something has to be built to continue this capacity. I-5 WILL NOT cut it. We will see why when people are forced to use it while the DBT is under construction.

        I understand that traffic bound for downtown will be exited before the tunnel. The pathway that most people take from Ballard to the south end has been to access the viaduct near Western. I can see that traffic going over lower Queen Anne to join 99 there I suppose. Not an elegant solution.

      5. Yes, I’ve done it too. The viaduct is the bypass from north Seattle to the airport, West Seattle, or southwest King County, and gets you out of the I-5 slowdowns. The issue is, now that the viaduct is at the end of its life, do we have an absolute obligation to replace it with an equivalent?

        As Martin said, many people don’t like the tunnel but are willing to go along with it if the overruns don’t come out of the transit budget or basic city services. But we’re looking at the potential of no more transit improvements for the next few decades, or severe cuts to city services, or city bankrupcy, if the city is stuck with the bill. So this provision needs to come out, and if the state can’t finance the tunnel another way, it should cancel or modify the project.

        I do wonder, if a judge rules that the provision is uneforceable, and the state continues to refuse to contribute more than its limit, will the project just stop midway?

      6. Of course, we already have a new bypass to the airport. It’s called Link, and it runs through a tunnel (of all things) under downtown. Doesn’t the transit tunnel itself count as substantial replacement of the viaduct’s capacity?

        Unfortunately, the new automobile tunnel, heading to Aurora, and not Interbay, is designed to replace the capacity of North Link and the RapidRide Line E, not the viaduct. Doh!

        Wasn’t the original justification for the auto tunnel supposed to be to move freight, since, as the cutesy and disingenuous talking-point goes, “Bikes can’t carry freight.”?

      7. A bypass would infer that it goes through DT rather than too as Central Link currently does. When extended Link will be headed away from 99 so no it doesn’t really count as replacement for any significant amount of the current SR99 traffic. As far as the purpose of the DBT that remains the $2 billion dollar question. The only reasoning I’ve heard that holds any water is that it will relieve pressure on I-5. But, for $2 billion I’m not convinced that there aren’t other measures that would be more effective or just as effective and cost a lot less.

      8. North Link will end up little over a mile from Aurora when it opens. That is what I am trying to point out as the DBT duplicating trip capacity with Link, while the BDT fails to duplicate freight trip capacity with the viaduct without expensive re-engineering of streets and an out-and-out ban on freight using the shorter waterfront route.

      9. Central link serves an entirely different market than the Viaduct. Eventually people from Northgate will have a rail connection to the airport but those people aren’t using the viaduct; they’re using I-5 (Express lanes if they’re lucky). The viaduct is Queen Anne, Ballard, Lake Union and maybe Greenwood. Those folks aren’t going to drive to Northgate and then take the train back south. Parking DT is so ridiculously expensive that nobody is going to drive and take link. Taking the bus to DT might be attractive to some but they’re not the crowd that would jump in their car to use the viaduct.

      10. Lake Union is getting a streetcar, eh?

        And likely a Ballard Subway could be built for about the same price as the Giant Road Tunnel, and be more useful….

        So it doesn’t make sense to build the road tunnel. No matter how you count it up. But if the state government disagrees, let it build the road tunnel. Don’t let it loot Seattle’s treasury to do so, though!

      11. I don’t see Seattle’s treasury building the DBT. I think Seattle’s contribution is primarily just the seawall replacement which needs to be done anyway:

        State funding
        The viaduct replacement projects have $2.4 billion in committed funding from the state gas tax and federal sources:

        * 2005 Gas Tax (Partnership Funding) – $1,559.4 million
        * 2003 Gas Tax (Nickel Funding) – $253.1 million
        * Other State Funds – $247.4 million
        * Federal Funds – $341.8 million
        * Local Funding – $6.5 million

        To fill the funding gap, the 2009 Legislature stated the finance plan must include no more than $400 million in toll funding.

        The Port of Seattle also committed $300 million to the replacement program.

        Now, if the cost overrun provision only applied to the portions of the project where the City is the lead then it would seem fair. Although I’m guessing the City is already responisble even without any language in the finance bill from the legislature. It’s ironic that the 12th hour language inserted to assure passage may be the unraveling of the whole deal.

      12. If we went with the lidded freeway idea, that could eliminate the risk of cost overruns beyond the present budget AND leave money to spur additional transit projects such as a Ballard/Westside Light Rail.

  2. Looks to me like there’s no chance the City of Seattle would be responsible for any overruns beyond the very generous pad that’s already been approved by the state. The City will not be contractually bound, obviously. The proviso in the state law is viewed as unenforceable by any objective lawyer.

    Terror? The only people going there seem to be wildly anti-tunnel.

    My worry is that somehow Moon will get her way and a cool billion or so in gas tax money will be redirected to build new freeways to Podunk and Seattle’s waterfront will soak up all the money needed for all the things Martin mentions: bike/ped, better buses and light rail. My other worry is that somehow this extended brawl will continue into next year’s legislature and ruin serious efforts to fund more transit and get a storm water solution, which came close this past year.

    There seem to be a whole lot of people who don’t get out of Seattle much who somehow think that the state legislature will ultimately bend to their will on this topic. Fat chance.

    1. Marge,

      I really didn’t mean to imply “terrorism” when I said “terror”.

      The city is already basically on the hook for the waterfront. The state’s putting in a grand total of $290m into the waterfront under the tunnel plan. So if the state decided they wouldn’t fund any new highway work and cut their contribution by over a billion dollars, the city could still come out ahead.

  3. The cost overrun issue is a ruse:

    There are 4 main concerns with the AWV replacement project, in this order of priority: engineering, environmental impact, risks, and costs LAST. The AWV replacement must achieve the main objectives of managing traffic, minimizing environmental impact, incur inherently few risks, and be affordable. There is also the concern of construction disruption, but no avoiding it.

    There are 4 basic replacement options for the AWV: A cut/cover tunnel, the surface/transit option, an replacement viaduct, and the deep bore tunnel. In every main concern, comparing all replacement options, the deep bore tunnel is the worst option. Worst engineering, worst environmental impact, most risk, most likely to be most expensive.

    Deep bore tunnel supporters dishonestly limit discussion to issues of cost and cost overrun in order to ignore the more important issues.

    “Traffic management? Environmental impact? Danger to building foundations? Who cares about all that stuff? Where’s the Big Money?”

    Any voter referendum that neglects to fully inform voters on all concerns can be considered rigged. The March 2007 vote was rigged. The public is still uninformed ‘why’ the best replacement option for the AWV is the cut/cover Tunnelite. The public believes only that (rightly or wrongly) Tunnelite would be an inconvenience to construct.

    1. There are other problems with the tunnel, but a viaduct rebuild shares those problems. First and foremost: utility. What’s the point?

      We’ve built a transit tunnel, Sounder, Link, and are deploying those ugly RapidRide buses. (Did someone do an EIS on that choice of colors?) How much more capacity do we need to replace? Wouldn’t the viaduct rebuild undercut the utility of a future West Link?

      The only point seems to be freight mobility. But can’t that happen by dedicating the waterfront boulevard to freight? We don’t even need it to be lanes shared with transit, if we just bring back the George Benson Waterfront Streetcar, and extend it to the cruise terminals.

      If we absolutely cannot abide trucks on the waterfront, then ditch the boulevard, have an overhead truck bypass with one lane each way, and have the Benson be the one and only ground-level non-human-powered transportation option.

      And if drivers insist on being able to pay a toll to access Freightway 99, and are willing to pay $25 per entry, let ’em in, I say.

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