UP #303 The Deep Bore Tunnel Controversy

Home » UP #303 The Deep Bore Tunnel Controversy

November 30, 2010 

By City Councilmember Nick Licata, with assistance from Newell Aldrich.



Replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct has more twists and turns than a Hitchcock movie, and the final credits are still a long way off. The latest plot twist introduces two new developments.

First, the Sierra Club and Real Change are considering a city initiative to stop the deep bore tunnel from being built unless certain conditions are met. Under the name Move Seattle Smarter, they are trying to craft an initiative that would protect Seattle taxpayers from any potential cost overruns before construction could begin. They would need to collect about 25,000 signatures to assure placing the initiative on the ballot in late summer or fall of next year, although it still could face a legal challenge for overreaching the intended authority granted to citizens through the initiative process.

Second, state initiative promoter Tim Eyman testified before the Washington State Transportation Commission that the commission lost the power under state law to set toll rates when his Initiative 1053 passed this fall. I-1053 said that all legislative action raising taxes must be approved by two-thirds of the Legislature, and any new or increased fees require majority legislative approval. Since funding for the deep bore tunnel is dependent on about $400 million in tolls, the state legislature would have to vote to set the tolls rates, rather than the State Transportation Commission. The State Attorney General is examining this issue at the request of a state senator; opinions generally take 60 days.

It may not be easy for the legislature to set tolls without opening up the issue of project funding and cost overruns. Worse, if the costs for the tunnel go over the set-aside contingency (i.e. goes over budget) the state legislature would need a two-thirds vote if they were to raise taxes to pay for the gap.

Although the Democrats will still control both the State House and Senate, their majority has shrunk. That leaves less room for Seattle’s delegation to collect the votes that may be needed to address these issues if Eyman’s interpretation is correct.

Meanwhile the State is evaluating the two bids that have been submitted for construction of the deep bore tunnel. It is expected that the State will accept one of them before the end of the year. A contract with the winning bidder would then be signed in the first quarter of next year and construction will follow. Any attempts to stop the project would be increasingly difficult after the contract is signed. This means that the question of who covers any eventual cost overruns would be most likely decided through some understanding reached between the Governor and the State Legislature.

The public debate so far has focused on the deep bore tunnel’s financial risk to Seattle taxpayers. Of the $900 million City contribution for tunnel-related projects the Mayor has criticized, $500 million is for the Seawall and utility relocation-costs the state would have picked up for an elevated replacement. It’s ironic that some opponents of the elevated option now criticize this spending, when many urged a no vote on the elevated option in 2007 which would have had these costs paid for by the state. The elevated also didn’t put extra traffic onto city streets, because it had six lanes and tolls weren’t needed, another key objection of tunnel critics. In addition, the Governor agreed the state would pay the replacement cost for an elevated, removing the issue of cost overruns.

Those calling for transparency in the State’s and City’s decision-making would hope to make the potential risk of building a deep bore tunnel readily apparent to the general public. Their focus has been on the financial risk of the project. Thus, the other main objection-made earlier by a number of environmentalists-over the tunnel’s failure to curb vehicle usage is largely being ignored. Why is that? It could be because the other options have major problems.

In 2008 the state’s stakeholder advisory group made two recommendations: one was a 6 lane surface/transit option that would have turned Western Avenue into a 3 lane road, which would have presented a huge environmental impact to the north end of Pike Place Market which it passes by; the other was a smaller 4-lane elevated viaduct, with bigger and bulkier columns, but fewer of them. Political forces representing various constituencies in Seattle effectively blocked either solution. Both options included transit, due to reduced road capacity; the state has yet to authorize any tax options to fund additional transit operations for the deep bore tunnel option.

At the last moment, the Governor met with then Mayor Greg Nickels and King County Executive Ron Sims, and they came up with the deep bore tunnel solution. It was seen as freeing up the waterfront from an obtrusive elevated viaduct and providing a functioning corridor through the city, one that was not seen as viable with the surface-only solution. A surface option could also be more expensive for Seattle than other options, unless the Viaduct is torn down with anything to replace it. It is questionable whether the state legislature would authorize funding a non-freeway surface option, so the City could well be on its own.

Whether Tim Eyman or Move Seattle Smarter efforts to halt the deep bore tunnel succeed or not, the controversy over it as the best replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct will continue until it is built or the bill has been paid.

The Stranger, a consistent critic of the deep bore tunnel, is sponsoring a forum this Wednesday, December 1, at 7:30 p.m. in Town Hall on First Hill. To date three speakers have been confirmed on the panel: Mayor Mike McGinn, City Councilmember Mike O’Brien and a speaker from Move Seattle Smarter.

Below is a short history on how we got to our present situation, for those who want additional details.


In 2001 the Nisqually earthquake damaged the Alaskan Way Viaduct. In 2002, the City Council passed a resolution in favor of a tunnel to the extent feasible (I voted no). The then-estimated cost was $10 billion.

In 2003, I asked the state to examine repairing the Viaduct; they didn’t find it feasible. In 2006, when a new proposal arrived, I again asked the state to study a “retrofit”. They found it could be done, but would cost almost as much as rebuilding it. During this time, various pro-tunnel resolutions were passed by the Council by 8-1 or 7-2 votes.

In 2006, as then Council President I commissioned a study of a 6-lane surface option.  The study indicated it would result in more pollution, greater congestion, and showed how streets with too much vehicle traffic quickly become pedestrian unfriendly. Critics charged the consultants used WSDOT data that they consider unreliable. The 2004 EIS showed that traffic speed with a 6-lane surface option would average about 12 miles per hour in both directions. Many surface supporters favor a 4-lane option.

In 2006 I also proposed a public vote.

In December 2006, the Governor released a report stating the State would fund an elevated replacement, but that the City would need to provide additional funding for a tunnel, including cost overruns.

In March 2007, public votes took place on two options. $2.8 billion was available in state funding for SR 99 replacement, (costs include south end work of roughly $1 billion):

  • Elevated Structure: a $2.8 billion 6-lane elevated: it was fully funded by the state, with no tolls, no impact on city streets according to EIS, utilities and seawall were paid for by the state; the existing Columbia, Seneca and Elliott ramps would be re-built.
  • Surface-tunnel hybrid: a $3.4 billion four-lane cut and cover tunnel, with 2 wide shoulders for peak hours, to be funded with $2.8 billion state funds, $500 million city utility funds; $250 million localized tax on specially benefited landowners.

Both measures went down, with 43% yes on the elevated, 30% yes on the surface-tunnel hybrid.

Subsequent to the public vote, the state legislature removed $400 million from the project and shifted it to the 520 bridge replacement project, leaving $2.4 billion. Any project costing more would need another funding source, such as tolls.

After the vote, the Council passed the Urban Mobility Plan to explore a surface option, and WSDOT, Seattle and King County convened a Stakeholder Advisory Committee that met in 2008.

The Stakeholder group reviewed eight options that were generally 4 lanes for a Viaduct replacement. Because a 4-lane elevated or tunnel (and surface options) would have less capacity than the current Viaduct, a separate menu of options was developed to add capacity to I-5, city surface streets, and transit, and possibly streetcars.

The Stakeholder group then reviewed two “hybrid” options, one elevated, one surface, that all included some I-5 work, transit, and city surface street work.

First was a SR 99 Elevated Bypass Hybrid, with two independent two lane side-by-side viaducts. In South Lake Union, it included a new underpass at Republican, with the following:

  • Cost: $1.67 billion (including risk/contingency)
  • $640 million extras ($103 million I-5 work, $234 million city streets, $267 transit, all include risk), + $130 million construction mitigation
  • Total $2.4 billion (including $1.1 billion south end SR 99 work: $3.5 billion)

Opponents of an elevated option weren’t appeased by this reduced-size proposal.

I-5/Surface/Transit Hybrid The surface option would convert Alaskan Way and Western into 3-lane one-way streets to replace the Viaduct. In South Lake Union, it would include 5 signalized crossings over Aurora, and 28 stoplights in a new SR 99 corridor along the waterfront. The option includes

  • $929 million (including risk/contingency)
  • $1.28 extras ($553 I-5 work, $216 city streets, $476 million transit, all include risk), + $30 million construction mitigation
  • Total, $2.2 billion (including $1.1 billion south end SR 99 work: $3.3 billion)

The Pike Place Market was alarmed by the prospect of converting Western to a high-capacity road adjacent to the pedestrian environment of the Market; in any case, the surface option isn’t inexpensive, as some seem to think.

Around $250 million or so can be reduced from south end cost estimates, since bids have come in lower. The City had already committed to funding some of the road work above. In addition, those estimates included $250 million seawall and $250 million in utility relocation, costs the City has since agreed to pay as part of the tunnel project. Thus, both options could have been economically feasible.

In December, supporters of a bored tunnel proposed a single-bore tunnel, less expensive than the twin-bore tunnel WSDOT had considered. It was presented to the Stakeholder group.

In January 2009, the Governor and then Mayor Nickels and King County Executive Sims signed an agreement to proceed with a 4-lane $1.9 billion bored tunnel as part of a $4.2 billion plan. The City helped reduce cost estimates for the tunnel by agreeing to pick up the utility and seawall costs, roughly $500 million.

This option has one key advantage over the others: it won’t require closure of the viaduct, and a construction impact period of several years. On the other hand, the risk may well be higher. Funding for transit has yet to be secured.

In April 2009, the State legislature required that $400 million in tolls be used to fund the states $2.8 million portion of the agreement.

The use of tolls reduces the projected number of vehicles that would use the tunnel, especially during rush hour, when tolls would be higher.

The legislature further limited the state’s contribution to $2.8 billion, and stated that any extra costs would need to be borne by “property owners  in the Seattle area who benefit from the replacement of the existing viaduct with the deep bore tunnel”, a provision the State Attorney General and City Attorney have both said is not enforceable. The state legislature would need to take action in the future to craft separate legislation to attempt to enforce it, which would be difficult at best, because the state cannot create local taxing districts (only local governments can).

In July, Initiative 101 was filed to prohibit construction of a tunnel or use of City right-of-way for a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Signatures are being collected for this previous effort but it seems unlikely that its sponsors collect enough signatures in time to present it on the fall ballot.

The Council voted in August 2010 to support the tunnel in a resolution endorsing the drafts of agreements that say the State shall pay costs. I proposed an amendment the Council passed subjecting the resolution to the state legislature not enacting legislation to overturn WSDOT’s responsibility for costs, including cost overruns, set out in the agreements.

In mid-October, WSDOT released a poll of Seattle and inner suburban residents.  It showed support 69-27 for a bored tunnel over surface, 65-30 bored tunnel over a rebuild, and 52-41 rebuild over surface. Some criticized it as biased.

In October, WSDOT offered the bidders concessions to cover inflation, bonds, insurance, and building damage. This reduced the contingency budget from $415 million to $235 million.

On October 29, the Governor announced that both bids came in within budget.











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