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”.