UP #306 Bored Tunnel Agreement Vote

Home » UP #306 Bored Tunnel Agreement Vote

February 7, 2011

By City Councilmember Nick Licata

With assistance from my Legislative Aide, Newell Aldrich

This edition of Urban Politics deals with today’s City Council vote on agreements with the State for a bored tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.


On January 6, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) signed an agreement with a private contractor to build a bored tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The agreement is for a design-build “lump sum” contract, which places most of the responsibility for any additional costs on the contractor.
With this action the tunnel project is proceeding. This might sound surprising given the tenor of the public debate in Seattle about the Alaska Way Viaduct and discussion of the Council’s vote on “the tunnel.” Mostly unmentioned in the boisterous public discussion about replacing the Viaduct is that State power trumps City power. In the end, the State can proceed without the City’s approval.

The Council’s 8-1 (O’Brien voting ‘no’) vote earlier today approved a series of agreements with the State regarding the tunnel and a variety of related projects. It came 21 days before the 10 year anniversary of the Nisqually earthquake that resulted in significant structural damage to the Viaduct.

The State did not necessarily need these agreements to proceed. So why did the City Council vote for them? The reason is that the agreements provide protections and assurances for Seattle residents and businesses. And they did not come easy. They had to be negotiated with the State through hard bargaining in order for the State to maintain the Council’s majority in supporting the tunnel option.

In other words, the Council’s vote was not on whether the tunnel will get built. Whether we like it or not, the State makes that decision and it decided that when it signed the construction contract. The vote was about whether the City has protections and commitments from the State to finish all the related projects, like making local street improvements and improving the waterfront. Without these agreements the City doesn’t get those protections, rather we get whatever the State decides to give us: that’s the issue before us.


The agreement with the State authorizes preliminary design work to proceed until a final Record of Decision is made after the EIS process is complete. Nearly all of it was negotiated leading up to the Council’s pro-tunnel vote last summer, so little of it is new. It covers coordination, scheduling, cost allocation and the assignment of legal responsibility, as detailed below.
The agreements provide Seattle with indemnity against third party claims, stating the City is not liable for its assistance with the project, and that contractors must list the “City of Seattle” as an additional insured for Commercial General Liability, Commercial Automobile Liability, Products and Completed Operations Coverage. The State will make the City a third party beneficiary in the indemnification and insurance requirements of the construction contracts. This may sound mundane, but it does offer the City significant protection from lawsuits.

A second part of the agreement is one that I focused on last year (see UP 294) which ensures that all elements of the overall project beyond the bored tunnel are completed. Some of the most important elements for Seattle include waterfront improvements and reconnecting the street grid between lower Queen Anne and South Lake Union at John, Thomas and Harrison streets. My concern was that if the tunnel costs exceeded the budget-even with the cost protections deriving from a Design Build contract-these improvement projects could see their budgets tapped leaving Seattle without them. To address this I proposed a separate funding category (i.e. locked box) for those projects.

The agreement states these improvement elements must be built, and a separate $380 million fund must be established to assure their completion. The scope of these projects cannot be reduced without joint City and State agreement, effectively giving the Seattle veto power. This pool of funding also includes improving access from Alaskan Way to Belltown.
The agreement also establishes an Advisory Committee on Tolling and Traffic Management, to be jointly staffed by the State, City, King County, and the Port of Seattle. The Mayor, City Council and WSDOT will each appoint one-third of the members.

There are commitments the City is making as well, for example to replace the seawall. King County agreed to provide $30 million toward this last month.


The agreement also addresses cost overruns, stating the City is not waiving its position that the City, its citizens and property owners cannot be held responsible for any cost overruns on projects the State is responsible for. The agreement clearly says the State will fund the tunnel. A February 1st Seattle Times articles recounted State Representative Clibborn, Chair of the Transportation Committee, telling the paper that a future State transportation package would be the logical place to look for any additional funding, which may be needed for projects such as the I-5 Columbia River bridges and the State Route 520 project.


A resolution (# 31267) I co-sponsored and helped draft calls for a separate agreement with WSDOT to provide mutual updates regarding progress and costs in the form of quarterly updates on the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Program (PROGRAM). WSDOT will provide an initial update on expected costs and revenues for each element of the total Viaduct-replacement package within ten business days. A formal agreement will be sent to the Council with a target of twenty business days that will commit to a process and agreed format for providing quarterly reports that will include:

  1. Written updates and presentation of materials detailing any changes to the Baseline Financial Report throughout the PROGRAM – including projected cost at completion.
  2. Narrative reports highlighting the reasons for any key changes in planned costs by PROGRAM element, planned scope of each PROGRAM element, or in planned PROGRAM revenues by element.
  3. Summary of progress in the design and construction of each PROGRAM element.

In return City Departments shall provide similar information in a format consistent with that provided for in WSDOT’s reports.


The vote on the tunnel agreements reminds me of Winston Churchill’s quip about democracy being the worst form of government, except for all the others.

My tunnel vote on the agreements is for the least perilous solution to a tough problem. And given that the State has decided to proceed, the issue now before us is whether the City receives protections and a clear written commitment from the State to finish the projects important to Seattle.

While I’ve long supported taking advantage of the opportunity to improve the central waterfront, a key focus of mine in replacing the Viaduct has been finances. At the risk of repeating some of my earlier UP newsletters (136, 137, 154, 183, 189, 196, 219, 220, 227, 230, 231, 235, 271, 272, 280, 288, 294, 303, 305), here’s a summary of the path I’ve traveled. It may reflect what others have experienced, as well.

I cast one of only two votes against a Council resolution favoring a tunnel that was then estimated to cost in the range of $10 billion. That seemed too expensive. I twice asked the State to study repairing the Viaduct, and they concluded that while it could be done, it would cost 80% as much as building a new elevated option, given the construction standards they used.
After that, I supported an elevated option in the 2007 election, because it fit within the WSDOT budget, and paid for numerous city costs like $250 million for replacing utilities and $250 million for a seawall, even though I wasn’t thrilled with the design and size. Post-vote, I supported examining a surface option and co-sponsored legislation to study it collaboratively with the State, even though my preferred option remained an elevated.

It became clear to me that the elevated option wasn’t politically viable. I didn’t reach this conclusion easily or willingly. A number of the groups that supported an elevated, such as labor and industrial groups, eventually also switched to supporting a tunnel and the political impetus for an elevated gradually dissipated.

At that point, I came to believe the choice was either a tunnel or a surface option. I considered the surface option developed with the involvement of the Stakeholder Advisory Committee. I couldn’t get past the dramatic impact a three lane one-way highway up Western Avenue would have on the Pike Place Market and on the sheer number of cars on downtown streets, significantly more than the worst scenario projected for the tunnel. I couldn’t say I was excited about the bored tunnel option, but its negative physical impact was less than that of the surface option.

The one clear advantage the bored tunnel has over other options-including the elevated option I supported-is that construction does not result in the SR 99 corridor needing to be closed for a number of years. One of the guiding principles of the stakeholder committee that met in 2008 was to maintain or improve the downtown Seattle, Port, State and regional economies. Keeping the SR 99 corridor open will certainly assist in maintaining the economy during construction in a way other options aren’t able to.

Note re: 619 Western Building, I’ll be sending out a separate Urban Politics on that issue later this week.


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