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City of Seattle

February 17, 2:33 PM click here to comment > 20

Mayor’s letter to veto Council’s tunnel ordinance

February 17, 2011

Honorable Members
Seattle City Council
600 4th Avenue
Seattle, WA 98104

Dear Council President and Members,

On February 7, 2011, the City Council adopted Council Bill 117101, relating to the State Route 99 Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall Replacement Program; entering into certain agreements with the State of Washington as provided in RCW 39.34.080, RCW Chapter 47.12, and other applicable law; and ratifying and confirming certain prior acts. After careful consideration, in order to protect Seattle from the unacceptable risks of this project, I hereby veto this ordinance.

A veto is a serious act. Such an action calls for sober analysis and full transparency to both you and the public. As Mayor, it is my duty to safeguard the public interest. It is my responsibility, along with the City Council, to protect public assets and the public purse in our care. This is not about politics. The people of Seattle expect us to make sure the laws of the City are faithfully executed, to ensure the City is protected from harm and risk, and to invest the public resources entrusted to us prudently. This ordinance will prevent us from meeting those expectations.

First, we must protect Seattle from the likelihood of unaffordable cost overruns on the tunnel. A comprehensive Oxford University study concluded that 90 percent of megaprojects experienced cost overruns. The Brightwater sewage tunnel is just one local example of a megaproject that has experienced cost overruns. The deep bore tunnel would be the largest tunnel bored anywhere in the world, and it would be bored through extreme soil conditions. We should therefore expect cost overruns on this project.

When those cost overruns occur, Seattle residents will likely end up paying to complete the project. Although Governor Christine Gregoire originally promised the state would cover cost overruns when the tunnel was announced in January 2009, the state legislature changed the deal and passed a law capping the state’s contribution at $2.4 billion, leaving Seattle taxpayers to carry the burden of paying for cost overruns. State legislative leaders have since made it very clear that they have no intention at all of changing this law – and that they expect Seattle to pay for any cost overruns. Worse, funding for the state’s tunnel project is incomplete, short $700 million of their basic project budget. This funding shortfall has been known for two years, but it remains unresolved. This does not inspire confidence that Seattle taxpayers will not be given a bill we cannot afford to pay.

Second, we must protect basic city services from severe cuts initiated by cost overruns. Last year we worked together to close the $67 million budget deficit in a thoughtful and sustainable way. We had to close some community centers and lay off City employees, among other cuts, to bring our budget into balance without undermining the quality of services we provide to Seattle residents. The massive size of the tunnel project means that even a small cost overrun would force us to make further and deeper cuts. The average cost overrun on a megaproject is 34 percent. A cost overrun of that size on the tunnel would obligate Seattle taxpayers to spend hundreds of millions of dollars that we currently do not have. We must not force Seattle to choose between paying the cost overruns on the tunnel and keeping officers on the street, keeping our parks and libraries open, and providing important services to Seattle residents in need.

Third, we must protect downtown Seattle businesses and residents from the crippling impact of adding more than 70,000 new cars per day to our already overburdened streets. The current viaduct is used primarily to access downtown neighborhoods. About 50% of viaduct users are coming from West Seattle, Ballard, and Aurora north to destinations within downtown. Downtown Seattle is the central economic engine for our state. Seattle needs a viaduct replacement solution that increases access to the commercial core of downtown, and provides mobility for freight. The tunnel proposal is a bypass highway that does not provide for either.

The tunnel project not only fails to address those needs – it worsens the ability to get to downtown and Pioneer Square to live, work, shop, and do business. The round-trip tolls of $8-$10 that the state will impose on the tunnel will divert two-thirds of the existing Alaskan Way Viaduct traffic onto city streets. There is no plan to accommodate all that traffic. There is no money to improve transit services to accommodate all that traffic. There is no assessment of how badly that traffic will hurt downtown businesses, one of the key economic engines that make Seattle a prosperous place to live. Although the tunnel would carry fewer than half the cars it is designed for—less traffic than the Ballard Bridge—this ordinance commits the City to supporting its construction before work has been done to mitigate its impact on our City’s streets.

Fourth, we must protect Seattle from a hasty rush to approve this project before these concerns are addressed. The State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) exists to show the public the harmful impacts caused by a project, both to inform the decision process as well as to provide an opportunity for leaders to negotiate solutions. Both City and State law are clear: a final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) must be completed before a final decision is made that commits the government to a particular course of action. The EIS on the tunnel project will not be final until fall 2011. To commit to the tunnel alternative before the EIS is complete raises serious questions about whether the City and State are complying with SEPA and certainly is not consistent with the intent of the law. Furthermore, it is not prudent. The City should be using this time to negotiate necessary solutions and ensure they are funded.

I have received letters from Seattle residents, including the artists living at 619 Western and from businesses in Pioneer Square, expressing their frustration that important issues such as construction impacts to buildings and streets are not being properly addressed. The National Historic Preservation Act requires the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to get approval from historic preservation experts on their plans to protect historic properties and the historic district from harm. This expert assessment, called Section 106 review, must be complete before we commit to a specific alternative. Section 106 experts are sounding alarms that WSDOT’s plans for protection of historic properties are grossly insufficient. Again, committing the City to the tunnel before this review is complete violates at least the spirit of the law, and it is also not prudent. We as a City should be using this time to review and improve WSDOT’s plans for protecting 14 historic buildings, safeguard the Pioneer Square neighborhood, and negotiate adequate funding. That is our job as elected leaders. The community has asked us to protect their interests and respond to their concerns. This ordinance will prevent the City from doing so.

Finally, the public deserves a chance to weigh in on this important matter. We routinely ask the public to vote on levies that fund our most important services. But this ordinance commits the City to moving ahead with a project that costs more than all of our levies combined – without a public vote. In March 2007, the Council asked voters to decide whether they wanted to rebuild the viaduct or build a similar tunnel in that location. Voters overwhelmingly rejected both options. Two initiatives have been filed to give the public a chance to vote on the tunnel. We should not deny them that opportunity by enacting this ordinance.

For the reasons outlined above, and to fulfill my responsibilities to the people of Seattle, I have decided to veto this legislation. I am committed to working with you to find ways to improve mobility in the downtown core and build a better transportation system for the City as a whole. We must keep working together to address these issues as a City. We can have respectful disagreements on policies, but let’s not forget that we all want the same thing: a transportation system that helps us build a safe, vibrant, and prosperous Seattle.

Yours in service,



Copy: Peter Holmes, City Attorney
Monica Martinez Simmons, City Clerk

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Posted by: Aaron Pickus, Spokesperson


Comment from Rob
Time February 17, 2011 at 4:01 pm

Dear Mr. Mayor,

The public has spoken. The state has spoken. The city council has spoken. You appear to be the only one not listening when it comes to the Viaduct.

We have other issues we need to tackle. It’s time to move on.

Comment from Jeff Hall
Time February 17, 2011 at 4:49 pm

Hear, hear! This is a very articulate explanation of a well-grounded decision that is the right move for the people of Seattle.

Comment from Elizabeth Campbell
Time February 17, 2011 at 6:49 pm

Granted I’m biased, but this actually is a very well written letter that makes practical and logical arguments. Frankly, if I was the City Council, I wouldn’t be so hasty to just dismiss what the Mayor is saying here – this is the most coherent statement he has made about this, and it doesn’t attack the council, it points out very real things that they should be thinking about.

They misread the electorate and the times if they think that there is this groundswell of support for the tunnel – there isn’t!

Comment from Dorli Rainey
Time February 17, 2011 at 8:16 pm

The mayor articulated what we have been saying all along: there already is a money shortfall of between $700,000 and $900,000, which cannot be made up. Tolls will only drive more vehicles on to city streets and further interrupt transit between West Seattle, Magnolia and Queen Anne neighborhoods. Securing permission to tunnel beneath the old Federal building, which is owned by the Federal Government at a time when the Federal Government is facing deficits of immense proportions, might be enough to slow down Federal funding for this tunnel project.
Cost overruns are a statistical certainty.
Show me the money!

Comment from Sam in Seattle
Time February 17, 2011 at 8:21 pm

The tunnel opponents totally misread the residents of Seattle. Most people have moved beyond this topic and want the tunnel project to move forward. Only a few initiative-pushers and the mayor oppose this thing. I welcome any vote to finally shut down the naysayers. Naysayers have slowed progress in Seattle in the past, but they won’t this time.

Comment from Thalia Syracopoulos
Time February 17, 2011 at 8:25 pm

Thank you, Mayor McGinn, for a well thought out and reasonable explanation for your veto. I would only add that going forward in light of the lack of agreement between WSDOT and the Federal GSA about the old Federal Courthouse status and the possibility that GSA could still cancel the state’s right of way to tunnel under that structure makes this veto even more important.

Comment from Vanessa
Time February 18, 2011 at 8:42 am

Thank you Mister Mayor for having a backbone. We voted against it, we don’t want it. The tunnel is kickback central. Doesn’t make logical sense to do the more expensive, difficult project unless someone is getting PAID for it. We do not have alternatives like other cities for example San fran and the BART system. Tolling every hwy is ridiculous. Before this stimulis money our roads were in dire straits BUT we were still paying taxes for roads in all those years what happened to that money? and the rainy day fund? This is totally outrageous that we would discount all other options for the most expensive one. 8 to 9 dollar toll!!!!! outrageous the state wants tax money for roads then they want toll money for roads want want want spend spend spend. Oh and by the way WE ARE BROKE!! that’s why we are slashing human services and countless other services and the gov. is just so heartbroken over it (yea right), yet we move fullspeed for this stupid tunnel. Arrrrgggghhhh!!!

Comment from Janet Winans
Time February 18, 2011 at 9:03 am

Thank you for listing the very serious environmental impact issues that are being so ignored by the City Council. They have committed themselves, personally, to the construction of the DBT. They, equally, are committing themselves to the debts that city and county residents will be liable for with increased public utility bills, increased taxes to fund the Port of Seattle’s share of the costs, and the horrible mess that any failure in the tunnel construction process will cause.
We do need an alternative to the AWV. It must be SAFE, affordable, and it must be of greater value to the city than the burden of its costs. The City Council owes us all a FULL ACCOUNTING of what all that will be.

Comment from Gary
Time February 18, 2011 at 9:13 am

Seattle City Council is living in a sheltered cave, and only hears the people that say remove it put it underground so we see the view. its called selective hearing and for years Seattle has been sucking in areas like lake city and others to get selected voters to support there (City Council) projects. I tell you I have been around for years with open eyes and this mess started years ago and I have been saying for years Seattle will be for the walking rich someday ( sad but true ) I say get them out in the real world and out of there cave , NEVER has one of them came and knocked on my door…….Seattle needs and requires the Viaduct gets rebuilt as is only safer, we need this traffic flow ….fricken I-5 cant be expanded

Comment from Wells
Time February 18, 2011 at 11:19 am

I’m compelled to inform everyone that mayor Mcginn’s statement, “In March 2007, the Council asked voters to decide whether they wanted to rebuild the viaduct or build a ‘similar’ tunnel in that location,” is false. The cut-cover tunnel he refers to was NOT at all “similar” to the bored tunnel.

There were several cut-cover tunnel options on the table during that vote, none of which were “similar” to the bored tunnel. Some had longer construction schedules and were more disruptive to the waterfront. The voters were disgracefully, if not criminally misled to believe the worst about the cut-cover.

The current cut-cover tunnel, the ‘stacked’ six-lane option as depicted in the DEIS, can be constructed while leaving the AWV in place and operating. Its ‘stacked’ design should line up fine with SR99 rebuild south of town.

The cut-cover is “dissimilar” to the bored tunnel in too many ways to list here. It is about half the length, uses about 40% less concrete per foot and recycles more used concrete.

In terms of managing traffic, the cut-cover displaces the LEAST traffic onto surface streets (Alaskan Way, Mercer, Denny Way) and does a far better job of managing what traffic is displaced.

The cut-cover tunnel does not alter underground hydrology very much. The bored tunnel however seriously disrupts the hydrology thus posing severe long-term maintenance problems to the tunnel, to the structural integrity of downtown buildings, streets and sidewalks.

Mayor Mcginn is right to be wary of the dangerous risks with the bored tunnel engineering, moreso than any risk in paying for a project that cannot produce the best results at any price.

As for those who insist that the bored tunnel decision has been set in concrete, you’d better hope its leading proponents wake up and smell the coffee.

Comment from Freddie Brinster
Time February 18, 2011 at 3:58 pm

I don’t think most people appreciate the fact that we’ve been mislead as to the consequences of the tunnel plans. Two of them are particularly upsetting.

1. The notion that this will “open up the waterfront” is illusory. If people think the viaduct is a barrier to the waterfront, how are they going to feel about having to cross a six lane highway (‘boulevard’)?

2. The beneficiaries of the project are listed as “stakeholders (local property owners) , the business community, the unions”. But the group that would be most affected is never mentioned – the commuters. They will have to contend with the choice between a two lane road in a tunnel with a toll, or, if they want to go downtown, the stop-and-go street traffic. And they will be deprived of one of the city’s greatest assets – the magnificent view of the city, the sound and the mountains.

Isn’t this another example of the financially empowered elite profiting from a publicly financed project that will enrich them at the expense of the average citizens? Didn’t we learn anything from the stadium projects?

Comment from Ed Newbold Wildlife Artist
Time February 18, 2011 at 9:18 pm

Hi all,

Thanks Mike McGinn for an outstandingly well-written summation of this divisive issue–and thanks for the willingness to address fiscal prudence, a subject the state DoT may have never heard of.

Ed Newbold Wildlife Artist

Comment from From the ID in Seattle
Time February 22, 2011 at 7:57 am

Yes, yes and yes – we support you Mr. Mayor. Ask Boston about their Big Dig overruns, Milan about their polution and destruction of buildings and any city with a “bypass”. Excellent and we support your Veto.

Comment from Tamara Gonzalez
Time February 25, 2011 at 2:16 pm

We are going to be facing a traffic nightmare within a short timeline. Already, traffic on Bothell Way and/or Lakecity Way has seen a notable increase because of the bridge tolls that just started. I-5 traffic has increased, as a result. Take away 99, and these folks will be on !-5, too. And there is no end-date once this traffic jam is set up. We really don’t know how long this project will last; building on land fill is unpredictable, to say the very least.

My husband was in Boston during the “dig” and it was a nightmare, according to his observations. Cost overuns were exorbitant, and delays were continuous. We are going to regret this, make no mistake.

I have worked with homeless in downtown Seattle a number of years in my past, and I am aware of many encampments that will be displaced. Where do we expect these people will land? I can tell you – in our major shopping districts and tourism centers, like Pioneer Square. Free bus service draws them to our downtown area, and here they will stay.

Mayor Ginn is a brave soul for taking on this albatross. Thank you, Mayor, and here, here!! You have written a very sound argument against this travesty. I hope people will pull themselves out of their dulldrums and pay attention to this long enough to make a difference.

Comment from Glenn Roberts
Time February 25, 2011 at 4:29 pm

Build the tunnel. Make the water front beautiful and ride your bike to work (don’t forget to lock it). The traffic that doesn’t go into the city will be better off for it and the city will be better off for the traffic that doesn’t go there.

Comment from Roger Nowell
Time February 26, 2011 at 11:22 am

The mayor’s letter was excellent. Let’s put the question to a vote.

Comment from Kathleen McHugh
Time February 27, 2011 at 9:18 am

Yes! Let’s put the question to a vote.
How did ‘cost overruns’ ever become a normal term in discussing the cost of doing business? Are limitless change orders and work delays tacitly built into bids now? Although every model has its pitfalls, I think public procurement needs to look at alternative best value methods of awarding contracts. Building “cost overruns” into the bidding process itself has made the reality of “the lowest bid” obsolete. After the deep water drilling accident in the Gulf, I read an engineering article that cautioned about using leading edge engineering designs for commercial applications. Wouldn’t a version of that be happening here with this proposed tunnel? Aren’t ‘cost overruns’ another way of asking the public to assume the risks that the construction companies are unwilling to assume for such a project? Thank you Mayor McGinn for looking out for the current and future interests of the citizens you represent. I don’t really understand how this can be acceptable to anyone: “When those cost overruns occur, Seattle residents will likely end up paying to complete the project. Although Governor Christine Gregoire originally promised the state would cover cost overruns when the tunnel was announced in January 2009, the state legislature changed the deal and passed a law capping the state’s contribution at $2.4 billion, leaving Seattle taxpayers to carry the burden of paying for cost overruns.”

Comment from Alan
Time February 27, 2011 at 8:23 pm

Prior to the WPPSS embarrassment of the ’70’s cost overruns were virtually nonexistent. The system was very simple. All bids on all jobs were required to be accompanied by a performance bond. This gave the entity asking for bids the assurance that in the event the project could not be completed by the original contractor the bonding company would be required to step in. For all intensive purposes the infrastructure of this country was built using that format. By virtue of the cost overruns incurred by the bus tunnel project in downtown Seattle which were 56% it is ludicrous at best to think that this tunnel project would not have severe cost overruns. The fact that current city council members want to embark on such a financial death spiral that will be paid for decades to come by the citizens of Seattle is unconscionable. At the very least this project should be put to a public vote. The last thing the city of Seattle needs to be responsible for is the WPPSS of the 21st century.

Comment from Jay Terry
Time February 28, 2011 at 5:24 am

The viaduct looks like a rusty guard rail that is holding back the city. This tunnel would give Seattle the opportunity to reclaim the waterfront. This will benefit the city in so many ways. Enough already! Stop stalling and make it happen.

Comment from Mary Paterson
Time March 4, 2011 at 11:49 am

Although Councilmember Harrell has said that the Mayor’s veto letter lacks “vision,” when I read the letter for myself I see that it is a very clearly written, well-argued explanation for his veto. I wonder if any of the councilmembers who continue to vote as if the tunnel is a done-deal that must go forward, have written as clear a statement truly explaining why they believe they must keep voting as if the tunnel is inevitable. As for a vision, here is mine: global climate change due to human activity is already upon us and will not be mitigated if we continue to build new roads for cars. Taking gas tax money and using it for public transit instead of new roads must be done at the state level now, not later, and it must be done for environmental reasons. Take down the viaduct, make sure freight can be moved from our ports to the interstates. But instead of a tunnel or a replacement viaduct, enhance our Sound Commuter train service, make our bus system more affordable and more efficient, give us passenger ferries and water taxis going up and down the Sound and across Lake Washington to link with light rail. We want green alternatives, and we need them now.