Tunnel debacle bodes ill for safety, future projects

The 2001 Nisqually Earthquake hit my hometown of Olympia hard. Roads were destroyed and, just 11 miles from the epicenter, the Fourth Avenue Bridge over Budd Bay had to be torn down.

In a city that loves process as much as Seattle, the earthquake forced the long-debated replacement of the 79-year-old structure; the new span opened in 2004.

Despite almost being collapsed by that same earthquake, and with any future seismic event certain to pancake it, Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct still stands 14 years later. No sense of urgency has been brought to replacing it, though, as a state highway, it carries infinitely more traffic than Olympia’s old bridge did.

Tired of the dithering (though personally preferring a surface boulevard option), I was among the legislators who voted in 2010 for the city’s preferred viaduct replacement: a tunnel. It was a terrible mistake, even if no alternative was before us.

The mistake was foreshadowed by the Stick-It-To-Seattle clause amended onto the project on the House floor. Because it was Seattle leaders pushing for a tunnel – the conception of a Seattle “think tank” no less – the aim was to have Seattle pay for any cost overruns.

Ironically, the amendment only passed 49-47 with the support of seven Seattle legislators. Voting no, I thought it improper to force Seattleites to pay for a state project’s overruns, no matter whose foolishness inspired its design.

Today, with the tunnel-boring machine long dormant, it seems more likely Pioneer Square will fall into the giant hole initially dug than than an exit at South Lake Union will ever open. Yet while a News Tribune editorial argues that the cost overruns provision should be enforced, others argue the burden of completion (and overruns) is upon the project’s private contractors.

Further, this debacle has probably doomed future voter approval for much-needed, perhaps lifesaving, projects elsewhere. To fund the viaduct replacement, most legislators voting for the last gas tax increase (in 2005) deferred our own constituents’ needs. For example, Pierce County got back 84 cents on the dollar; my Thurston County got 85 cents. It’s fair to be furious over this as we sit in Interstate 5 traffic jams in the Joint Base Lewis-McChord area.

Debate over accountability ignores, however, the human consequences of keeping the viaduct in operation – no matter who is on the hook for replacing it – during a long, failed experiment in earth excavation.

The scheduled tunnel opening has been artfully delayed well past the 2016 election (September 2017 is the latest target). Are we really prepared to wait that long for an inevitable Plan B? How much longer, then, might the viaduct be in use?

Even if Seattle Tunnel Partners are, eventually, held responsible for a Plan B, court proceedings could drag on for years and shift jobs from construction to armies of attorneys (with bankruptcy’s shelter – perhaps the ultimate Plan B – a wild card).

The Nisqually Earthquake will live forever in my memory. Yet the potential death toll of the next, inevitable earthquake is lost in politics and process – with no end in sight.

Olympia attorney Brendan Williams represented the 22nd Legislative District in the House of Representatives from 2005 to 2011.