On Monday, August 2, the City Council approved Resolution 31235 endorsing three agreements with the State of Washington.  The agreements provide the framework for managing Seattle’s relationship with the State during the process of constructing the SR 99 bored tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.  The vote was 8 to 1, with Councilmember O’Brien voting no.

These agreements have been negotiated to protect the City’s interests.  SR 99 is a state highway, and the State could proceed with the project, provide no explicit protection to the City, and avoid all City regulations.  The Council added a number of provisions to the original agreements that make this strong package even stronger:

  • An agreement with the State that the Council can fully review the proposed contract for tunnel construction prior to formally approving these agreements.  The resolution provides sufficient guidance to the contractors and State to negotiate the contract and keep the project on schedule, while the Council will now have a complete understanding of how all risks and contract provisions will be managed before giving final assent.
  • The State agreed that it would take full responsibility for all costs of the project.
  • The Council included a provision clearly stating that we would not approve the final agreements if the legislature took any steps to require Seattle area taxpayers to bear any special costs of the project.
  • The State agreed to set aside the $390 million reserved for surface street improvements and not reallocate any of these funds without the agreement of the City.
  • The State agreed that no provisions of these agreements could be changed without the approval of the Council.

The Council also unanimously approved a companion resolution acknowledging that the State has funded $93 million in transit improvements associated with this project, but that the Legislature has not yet acted to provide the long-term funding options that will permit King County to complete the transit portion of the project, and called on the State to take this action in the next legislature.  State legislative leaders have indicated that their goal is to have a transportation package including this funding a key priority for the 2011 legislature.

The two consortiums that are bidding on the proposed tunnel will now complete their proposals in the early fall, and, if there is a bid that falls within the budget for the project, the State hopes to conclude a contract by mid-winter.  The Council will complete a final review of the proposed contract, and can then proceed to formally approve the agreements with the State.  Initial construction work will begin sometime in 2011.

As this project unfolds, the City will begin planning for the opportunity to radically transform the downtown Waterfront, an opportunity that few major cities have had the chance to take advantage of.  The tunnel replacement allows Seattle to create an extraordinary waterfront park, improve a major transportation corridor, prevent a potential seismic disaster, and still maintain the current corridor in operation for almost the entire duration of the construction, while allowing waterfront businesses to keep operating with minimal disruption.

The Tunnel as a Green Alternative

The transformation of the Waterfront into a great amenity for the people of Seattle is a key element making the tunnel a green option for replacing the viaduct.  Creating the great downtown park will critically assist Seattle’s ability to attract jobs and housing to downtown, our key step in implementing the Growth Management Act and in providing maximum opportunities for people to walk and bike between home and work.  The freight mobility the tunnel provides will help Seattle’s manufacturing sector provide employment opportunities.

The tunnel is also an important green transportation asset, encouraging walking, bicycling, and transit.  In 2008 the “Urban Quality Evaluation” by Gehl Architects of Copenhagen, internationally respected experts on pedestrian-friendly design, examined the effect of traffic on the pedestrian realm.  Gehl Architects concluded that all surface options made the downtown as a whole a worse environment for bicyclists and created worse traffic levels on downtown streets.  “The less vehicle traffic on the surface, the better,” Gehl found. “A double-edged strategy is called for:  get traffic underground and start lowering traffic volumes on the surface.”  County Executive Dow Constantine’s office testified to the Council that the tunnel is the best option for transit, as it preserves the opportunity for transit to operate smoothly and rapidly on Seattle’s downtown street network.

On balance, constructing the tunnel is likely to be an effective tool for reducing greenhouse emissions from automobiles — probably more than the surface alternative that was my first choice for the replacement project, and that some environmentalists still support.  The tunnel immediately reduces highway capacity by 33% — its four lanes replace the current six.  Because there will be no downtown exits, it nudges people towards using transit instead of cars for the journey to work, where congestion is worse and transit most available.  Because traffic will flow smoothly through the tunnel, it avoids emissions from idling vehicles.  Both of these further reduce carbon emissions.  The surface alternative would have involved adding at least one lane to I-5, a formidable engineering task, as well as creating more congestion on downtown streets, slowing transit and generating more emissions.

Managing Risks and Costs

All projects have risks and uncertainties, and no one can guarantee the outcome of any project.  However, WSDOT has an excellent track record on estimating projects, has employed the world’s leading experts in developing this project, and has included contingency, risk, and escalation allowances in its budget to cover any potential problems.  The Council engaged experts to review the State’s work, and they agreed that the State has acted prudently and that the project is doable with minimal risk.  They further noted that the contractor is required to carry eight different kinds of commercial liability insurance as well as a $500 million performance bond.

Curiously, those who have raised fears about this tunnel have never expressed such concerns about Sound Transit’s University Link tunnel, which is twice as long, deeper, and runs under the Ship Canal.  The contract for that tunnel came in 20% below the engineering estimate.  The Council’s expert legal consultant noted that the state’s tunnel project provided a greater level of protection for the public than the Sound Transit tunnel contract — which he had written.

The City does not have the option of selecting another alternative — that is a State decision.  If the City decided not to proceed with its partnership on this project, there would be significant risks:

1.  The State could reallocate the money to other projects.

2.  There could be a failure to agree on a new alternative, and delay in the schedule for replacement.

3.  Construction costs could increase from their current low levels.

4.  Seattle could end up without a great new waterfront.

5.  The good faith relationship between Seattle and state and regional partners would be badly damaged, preventing much needed cooperation on many other fronts.

Seattle is fortunate to have a State government that comes to the table in good faith, works out issues, and has met all of our requirements.  These are very good agreements.  They have received support from a strong majority of public comments, both in person and via email.  It is clear that most people are ready to move on with the work at hand, regardless of their original preference for an alternative.

The Council will continue its oversight of this project, and will continue to work for a safe corridor, environmental improvements, economic opportunity, and a waterfront for all.