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Who’s on the hook if Seattle viaduct turns into Big Dig?

Post by News Tribune Staff on Jan. 16, 2009 at 12:43 pm with No Comments »
January 16, 2009 12:43 pm

I think it would be taxpayers statewide, but it’s impossible to tell from the agreement struck by Gov. Chris Gregoire, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, King County Executive Ron Sims and the Port of Seattle.

Here’s the letter of agreement that was signed by the guv, mayor and exec.

Read it carefully. The letter says each government takes on specific responsibilities for parts of the project and that includes “project cost overruns,” for what is now ESTIMATED to be a $4.24 billion project.

(The Big Dig, by the way, is a project in Boston that started out with a $2.8 billion estimate, then ran into trouble and will end up costing $22 billion. It’s the most expensive highway project in history. And it’s a TUNNEL! In a waterfront city!)

First, the governor has committed state taxpayers to spend at least $2.82 billion on the Alaskan Way Tunnel. (Notice how it keeps growing from $2.4 billion to $2.8 billion to $2.81 billion to $2.82 billion?) But even that’s not firm. The agreement doesn’t put that dollar amount limit on the state’s financial obligation. That’s just an “estimate.”

Even worse, the state appears to be taking on the portion of the project that is most likely to encounter Big Dig sorts of overruns: the tunnel.

(I say “appears” because I can’t figure out who gets stuck with replacing the seawall. You know, the one that will flood everything else if they don’t do it right.)

The bottom line, the Alaskan Way Viaduct is Highway 99. That’s a state highway, so ultimately it would seem the state — not Seattle, not King County, not the port — would be obliged to cover cost overruns.

And that might be the case regardless of how cleverly state lawyers try to write a contract that divvies up responsibilities.

Oh yeah. Even though it’s only tangentially related to replacing the viaduct, somehow Nickels got Gregoire to agree to help him try to get first dibs on $88 million of Obama Claus stimulus money. Well, $8 million goes to transit, the other $80 million goes to Nickels to be spent on fixing part of the Mercer Mess, another downtown Seattle traffic problem that has regional, maybe even national significance.

Let’s see what the Legislature does now. Now Nickels has to charm House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, because that agreement still is only a recommendation to the Legislature.

Has the Seattle waterfront promenade (formerly known as the viaduct) now become a candidate for tolling? Tolling had been dismissed because Seattle said it would drive too many cars onto city streets and state transportation officials said others drivers would jam up Interstate 5 to avoid the tolls.

But now the 2-mile tunnel would let everybody bypass downtown Seattle, so maybe they could slap a toll on the tunnel. We’ll see.

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