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Originally published May 14, 2010 at 10:02 PM | Page modified May 14, 2010 at 10:18 PM

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McGinn asks: Is tunnel worth doing 'even at all costs?'

Mike McGinn was the anti-tunnel candidate. Until he wasn't.

Seattle Times staff reporter

What's next

The Seattle City Council could vote in the next couple of months to allow the state to seek contracts on tunnel work. Mayor Mike McGinn has said he will issue a veto if the cost-overrun issue is not addressed. The council appears to have enough votes to override a veto.

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Mike McGinn was the anti-tunnel candidate. Until he wasn't.

In October, McGinn said he'd go along with the planned waterfront tunnel, in response to a City Council vote to move ahead with the project.

Now, after four months as Seattle mayor, McGinn has threatened to veto another piece of council legislation authorizing the state to seek contractors to build the $2 billion tunnel.

McGinn says this is the last chance to make sure Seattle doesn't get stuck paying for any cost overruns. When state legislators funded the tunnel, they stipulated that overruns would be paid by Seattle-area property owners who benefit from the tunnel.

We asked the mayor to clarify his position — past and present — about the tunnel. His responses, edited for space:

Q: Why did you make opposition to the tunnel such a focus of your campaign?

A: It's a huge expenditure of dollars by the city, and the cost overrun issue was alive then, as well.... Transportation matters to people in this city; the public cares about transportation. I thought then, and I still do, that it's not a good investment.

Q: The council voted Oct. 19 to work with the state toward building the tunnel. After the vote, you said: "If I'm elected mayor, though I disagree with this decision, it will be my job to uphold and execute this agreement. It is not the mayor's job to withhold the cooperation of city government in executing this agreement."

Was that a flip-flop (from earlier in the campaign)?

A: You know, the City Council voted 9-0 to enter into an agreement with the state, and I think the statement I made then is accurate. I was bound by the agreement that we then entered into, as mayor, and actually I've taken that agreement very seriously.

I have sent down to the council a proposal to fund the sea wall (replacement). ... That agreement said that it was the city's responsibility, and we had to come forward with a financing plan for it.

Working diligently, I've sent down our thoughts to the council on how we're going to fund the other city responsibilities under that agreement ... I believe that that agreement did not address who is responsible for cost overruns. And at the time I made that statement, I also said that I would continue to ask the hard questions about its effect on our budget, about the effect of cost overruns on us.

And it should be clear, I think the first words were: "I don't like the tunnel, and I don't like the decision." And that remains true. I just don't have the flexibility as mayor to choose which laws are enforceable and which aren't.

Q: But if you veto the council's upcoming legislation now, wouldn't you be withholding the city's cooperation?

A: This is a different agreement. I did not withhold my cooperation from executing that (Oct. 19) agreement, which gave us responsibility for the projects I just mentioned, and which set us on a path forward to this agreement that we now face.

We have been in good faith negotiating all of the terms of that (Oct. 19) agreement, and we expect that we'll be able to reach agreement with the state on the remaining, you know, the remaining things that have to be worked out: utility relocations, ground settlement caused by the boring machines, the rules applying to street-use permits.

... but it's likely we're not going to agree on the issue of cost overruns. Whether they (the City Council) support the tunnel or don't support the tunnel, I don't think we should be supporting it at all costs, and that includes the cost of potentially hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars in cost overruns.

Q: The last line of that October statement was: "Seattle cannot live with paying the cost overruns on the tunnel." And now it seems like, by saying that, you might have been giving yourself an opening to try to block the project.

A: You know, I don't think we should pay cost overruns. And I would say to tunnel proponents, is it worth building a tunnel, even at all costs? Even at the risk of saddling our city with debt that will affect our ability to take care of our local streets, pay for public safety, keep libraries and parks and community centers open. ...

Regardless of whether you think the tunnel is a good project or not, people have to ask themselves, is it worth paying the cost overruns on the project?

Q: What is the goal of your promise to veto the council's legislation?

A: My point was, right now is the opportunity. If the City Council passes this final agreement, I don't know when they get another vote that affects the progress of the project. After that, the project is in WSDOT's ( (Washington State Department of Transportation) hands, so we'll essentially be giving the green light to WSDOT, to proceed, to award a bid, to start constructing it, and if it comes with cost overruns, we'll be liable for that under current state law. We're certainly at the risk of being liable for it. I think everyone would agree with that.

Q: Do you think the tunnel will be built?

A: I think there's a very good chance that the proponents of this tunnel, the supporters of this tunnel, will choose not to face the very real risk of cost overruns, and that they will start construction, exposing us to significant financial risk. ...

That's the situation we stand in right here, of will we, you know, kind of take the blinders off and look at the risk and figure out how to deal with the risk before it occurs, or will we let it proceed? And I guess the point I would make to the council is, you know, I recognize that some council members believe, and some proponents of the tunnel believe, that I simply want to stop the tunnel. ... But I'd ask them to put aside personality, and I'd ask them to put aside their suspicion, and just answer the merits of the question in front of them.

Q: So, if the cost-overrun issue were resolved to your satisfaction, you wouldn't take any action that might delay or stop the tunnel?

A: So my responsibility in this process is to represent the people of Seattle and stand up for the citizens of Seattle, and certainly the cost-overrun issue is one I've raised, but as just evidenced by the agreements we're entering into, there's a lot of issues in play. ... I'm going to represent Seattle. Some people want to say that I'm obstructing or delaying if I'm trying to represent Seattle's interests in this process. That's their choice.

Q: So that's a maybe. If something else comes up.

A: As I said, we know things will come up. ... There's a whole host of issues. What if those tunneling machines get underground and buildings start moving around in Pioneer Square? Or we have disrupted utility pipes? There's a whole host of issues. What if the (environmental study) tells us some important things that we need to stand up on behalf of Seattle for? So we're going to represent Seattle's interests. I'm going to represent Seattle's interests, throughout the process.

Q: Some Seattle officials say the language approved by the Legislature is unenforceable — that Seattle-area property owners can't be put on the hook for cost overruns on a state project. But you don't see it that way. Could you explain?

A: What the language says is that the state's contribution to the project shall not exceed $2.4 billion, and I don't think anybody has suggested that that language is not enforceable. And the other issue is that ultimately, it's not the legality of the language that's at issue, it's that the state Legislature has clearly indicated its intent that Seattle shall pay all cost overruns, and that the Legislature itself does not want to.

So if overruns occur, and we have a tunnel boring machine stuck underground, you can be sure that tunnel proponents and the state Legislature will work to make sure that Seattle pays all cost overruns. Whether that's through the mechanism of the language they have now, or some other mechanism, they probably have the power to make us do it, if that's what they want to do, politically. So we have to stand up collectively as a city and say, "That's not our desired outcome. That's not what we want to happen," and get a better deal.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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