// Isn’t It a Done Deal?

No. And it’s not even close.

(Before I continue, I would be remiss not to point interested readers toward the excellent recent piece by hugeasscity’s Dan Bertolet, which can be found here.)

“The time for debate is over,” Governor Gregoire said at the ceremony held to celebrate the signing of the tunnel bill, “now is the time to move forward.” But moving forward will prove to be difficult for a multitude of reasons. All of these reasons stem from the haste with which the plan was conceived. Haste, as they say, makes waste, and waste on a huge scale is all but guaranteed by the glaringly obvious flaws in the plan. From completely untested technology, negligible engineering plans, no Environmental Impact Study, and, most of all, no financing plan to speak of, the deep bore tunnel project seems all but destined to go the way of the monorail, another planned megaproject that was supposedly a “done deal.”

As we note here, the tunneling technology on which we are relying to complete this project is untested and unreliable. Delays and the resulting cost increases could be catastrophic.

monorailEven if Seattle taxpayers could be confident in the drilling technology upon which the entire project (and its rose-tinted cost projections) depends, the engineering plans have just barely begun, and the planners in charge have alarming track records. The deep bore tunnel project has been repeatedly compared to Boston’s infamous Big Dig for a couple of reasons. First, it is a massively expensive tunnel through the central business district of a large city. Second, the engineers we’ve invited to dig up downtown Seattle are the same ones who bungled the Big Dig in Boston. This early in the planning process, anything could happen to derail the project and until the engineering is actually completed, estimates should be regarded with circumspection.

Beyond the lack of real engineering plans, large building projects like the tunnel are subject to full environmental impact studies, which require planners to develop a thorough account of a project’s impact on the environment, and to compare that impact to possible alternatives. The study for the tunnel hasn’t even begun, and it’s already running into trouble. Concerns have already been raised about the scope of the planned study, which are considerably narrower than usual for a project like this one. Those concerns could easily lead to protracted lawsuits that could have serious consequences.

But nothing makes this project’s status more doubtful than the fact that not a single dollar has been appropriated by either the State of Washington or the City of Seattle to back up the pledges made by the bill signed in May. Neither any new funding source nor any program cutbacks have been identified for either the state or the city’s portions of the funding. Worst of all, the bill signed by the Governor assigns responsibility for all cost overruns to the city of Seattle’s taxpayers. Not only is this provision without precedent in the history of state projects, it comes attached to a project that will almost certainly incur massive overruns. The state, by including that provision in the bill, has unequivocally refused to take any responsibility for those inevitable costs, which could begin to rack up even before ground is broken. At the same time, Greg Nickels hopes that the court will deem the overrun provision illegal, thereby excusing Seattle from the same overruns that the state refuses to pay.

In the current contexts of state and local politics, such a stalemate could prove fatal to any solution to fix the problems on the waterfront. The state is in charge of funding our viaduct replacement, and by selecting the most expensive and uncertain option, our leadership has risked the chance at any effective replacement at all. Just like the monorail progressed haltingly from one stage of planning to the next until its unworkable financing plan caused local politicians to kick it to the curb, the tunnel project is so fraught with obvious flaws and unanswered questions that it is only a matter of time before the project caves in for good.

So why not get out while we still can?