Conlin makes pitch for tunnel to replace viaduct
In an interview, City Council President Richard Conlin maintains that Seattle is a partner in Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, and we must proceed smartly to avoid cost overruns.
Seattle Times staff reporter
It's a little ironic that Seattle City Council President Richard Conlin has become the chief advocate for the deep-bore tunnel that will replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Conlin, after all, was an early backer of a surface-street option — the same solution Mayor Mike McGinn supports.
But Conlin now believes the tunnel is the best option, and he and the majority of the City Council say the project should go forward.
McGinn campaigned on his opposition to the tunnel and now seeks to stop it, at least until the state agrees to release Seattle from any responsibility for cost overruns. The dispute has made the tunnel one of the year's biggest political fights and has pitted the two bike-commuting, environmentalist city leaders against each other.
McGinn even challenged Conlin to publicly debate the issue. Conlin declined.
Last month, we interviewed McGinn about his position on the tunnel. Here is an interview with Conlin:
Q: Cost overruns aside, you and the mayor have a fundamental disagreement over the tunnel project. Why is it a good project for Seattle?
A: What I've become convinced of is that the tunnel accomplishes a number of different things with fewer risks than the other alternatives. And also that, you know, sometimes you don't get exactly what you want, and sometimes that turns out to be OK.
But the fact is that we are not the sole decision-makers, and ultimately you have to work with the region and the state to make things happen.
So it's those two factors, really. One is that the state has made a decision, and the second is that that decision, based on my knowledge right now, really is one that works out very well for Seattle.
Let me give a couple of quick points as to why I think it does work very well for Seattle. It creates for us the great waterfront park that we're looking for, while at the same time, being able to provide security and reliability in the transportation system.
So those are the two things that we're able to accomplish. We get rid of the unsafe viaduct. We get rid of the blight on our waterfront. We create the park, and we create a new and safe corridor.
Q: Who should pay cost overruns on the project?
A: Well, first of all, the goal is to avoid having cost overruns entirely. ... The fact is that we are going to have to work together. We're going to work together with the state, we're going to minimize the risks and maximize the opportunity to ensure that the project comes in on time and on budget, and that should be our goal.
If cost overruns take place, then we'll have to figure it out.
Q: The state Legislature approved a provision that said property owners in the Seattle area who benefit from the project should pay cost overruns. The same provision capped the state's contribution at $2.8 billion. Do you believe Seattle taxpayers are at risk to pay overruns?
A: I would say it's pretty minimal. The fact is that any project has a budget, so when we talk about capping the project costs, that's the budget that was set for the project. If the project comes in with a different cost, then we have to reevaluate and figure out what it is that needs to happen. So that's what the Legislature will have to do. ... It's what you would do with any project. It's a budget.
Q: What can the city do to try to prevent the state from allowing the project to go over budget? A: We're going to have a series of technical committees and experts that are going to be working with us to try and make sure that the partnership with the state works very well. We're doing that evaluation of the contracts and the RFPs (request for proposals) right now. We're going to continue to have oversight through both these technical panels, as well as with the City Council's work in the future, so we will work very closely in partnership with the state.
Q: If the tunnel goes over budget and the state spends its $2.8 billion, what happens next?
A: The Legislature will have to take a look at it and say, "So how do we deal with this?" And I assume that we're going to know that well before we've actually reached the expenditure point. In fact, my guess is we will probably know that pretty well by the end of this year, when the responses to the RFP come in.
And so if, at the end of the year, it looks like, yes, the costs are going to be higher than projected, then the project will have to be re-evaluated by the state Legislature. They'll have to make a decision.
Q: And what would the city's role be in that situation?
A: To provide whatever input and assistance we can give in making a good decision both for the region, for the state and fiscally.
Q: So would you lobby the state to pay cost overruns itself, or somehow divide them with the city?
A: That depends very much on the situation that we're faced with. You know, if you come in and it looks like oh, it's going to be $50 million more than we expected, I would hope that the state would say, "Oh, that's reasonable, let's take care of that." If you have something come in and it's going to be a billion dollars more than we expected, then we're going to have to say, "Maybe we need to reevaluate the whole project."
So, you know, it's a situational issue that we need to deal with. You try to work to budget, you create a budget, and then you try to stick to that budget. If you have a problem, then you evaluate it, but the goal would be to try to evaluate it in partnership.
Q: Do you think the mayor is raising questions about potential cost overruns to try to stop the tunnel?
A: You know, I hesitate to speculate on other people's motivations. It kind of felt that way when he responded to Councilmember (Tom) Rasmussen at the (Program Oversight Committee) meeting the other day. When Councilmember Rasmussen asked him directly, "So, if the cost-overrun issue was handled, you would drop your opposition to the tunnel?" And (the mayor) said, "No."
Q: Once the city issues the final permits for street vacations and utility work, is there anything else the mayor can do to stop the tunnel?
A: I don't think so. In fact, ultimately the mayor really doesn't have the ability to stop it anyway, as the Legislature demonstrated when they created that bill that would have declared an emergency on transportation projects and overridden local regulations. That was a clear statement from the Legislature.
It was not passed and we were very happy that it was not passed because we think it would be a very bad precedent, but I think ultimately, the state would have the ability to override any city regulations if they chose to. I don't think there's any question about that. So, basically, I don't think the mayor has the ability to stop the project under really any circumstances.
Q: Do you think the tunnel will be built?
Q: We're talking a lot about what might go wrong, but despite the risks, what benefits do you see Seattle getting from the project? A: There's going to be terrific benefits for everybody, from creating this great downtown-waterfront park and even more than that, it's going to be a great benefit to us in our growth-management strategy. Part of our growth-management strategy to protect the forests and the farms and the wild areas is to make our urban centers places where people want to live and people want to have jobs. We expect this is going to create a lot of interest and attention for people who want to develop new housing downtown, people who want to develop new jobs downtown, and that's going to be a benefit for everybody.
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or email@example.com
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.