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Originally published Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 10:00 PM

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Corrected version

Tunnel figure says he didn't mean to put city on hook if costs soar

A now-famous amendment in the bill authorizing a Highway 99 replacement tunnel blew up into a major controversy because Seattle Mayor Mike...

Seattle Times transportation reporter

Highway 99 tunnel

Is Seattle liable for overruns?

"The state's contribution shall not exceed two billion four hundred million dollars. If costs exceed two billion four hundred million dollars, no more than four hundred million of the additional costs shall be financed with toll revenue. Any costs in excess of two billion eight hundred million dollars shall be borne by property owners in the Seattle area who benefit from replacement of the existing viaduct with the deep bore tunnel."

Source: Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 5768


A now-famous amendment in the bill authorizing a Highway 99 replacement tunnel blew up into a major controversy because Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and others say it shows "legislative intent" to soak the city's taxpayers if project costs soar.

But amid the fight over who would pay, Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee, who suggested the amendment language, says the law had nothing to do with the state shirking its responsibility to fund the world's widest deep-bore tunnel.

The intent, Armstrong says, was to keep Seattle political and business groups from showing up in Olympia and asking the state to pick up the tab for parks, bike lanes, park-and-ride lots or roads to areas beyond the immediate work zone.

He says he doesn't expect the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to exceed its $2 billion estimate for the tunneled portion of the $3.1 billion highway, which includes $300 million from the Port of Seattle.

"My amendment was not a legal means to get the city to pay for any cost overruns, if there are any," he said Tuesday in a phone interview. "My intent was to send them notice that this project was not going to become a Christmas tree that they can hang everything and anything on, that the state was going to pay for."

Whatever its intent, the 2009 amendment has caused political paranoia and become a sticking point. Gov. Chris Gregoire, along with other state leaders and the Seattle City Council majority, say the amendment isn't legally enforceable. McGinn, who opposes the tunnel, says it shows intent by the state to make Seattle's citizens pay for a project likely to soar over budget.

The City Council is on the verge of signing agreements with the state DOT dealing with street access, utilities, and scheduling issues to allow the 56-foot diameter, 1.7-mile tunnel to be finished by 2016.

McGinn has urged the council to add language saying those agreements are void until the state repeals the amendment, which says costs above $2.8 billion would be paid by Seattle-area property owners. A veto-proof majority of the City Council has refused to go that far, arguing it would cause expensive delays.

The City Council's proposed agreement changed Monday to add some apparent protection: "The State shall provide necessary funding for all Project costs as referenced in this Agreement without reimbursement from the City of Seattle ... "

McGinn replied the language was too weak, and wants the council to demand that the Legislature commit to paying for overruns.

Anti-tunnel community activists are considering a referendum against the tunnel unless the City Council takes a harder line with the state. Such a public vote might cause a delay.

As for legislative intent, House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said that if overruns occur, money must be found in the statewide transportation budget, or in a future statewide package of taxes and projects.

Gregoire has said it would take a second bill to force Seattle taxpayers to pay cost overruns.

"I would not let the bill go to the floor that would put the taxpayers [of Seattle] in jeopardy," Clibborn said.

The $2.8 billion cap was designed to avoid "project creep," a lesson learned from Boston's Big Dig, where massive add-ons raised the cost, said Clibborn, backing Armstrong's assertion.

In addition, she said, House Speaker Frank Chopp argued that downtown landowners shouldn't reap a "windfall" from reduced noise and better Elliott Bay views, and then ask the state for more improvements.

At least one lawmaker, though, takes a similar view to McGinn about the intent of the amendment.

Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, said in a Times op-ed last fall that Seattle should commit to paying any construction overruns, because the city backed the choice that poses the most cost risk.

Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who co-sponsored the original tunnel bill, considers the amendment a problem and isn't sure how it'll be solved.

"I think we have a Democratic mayor, a Democratic council, a Democratic Legislature and a Democratic governor. I think we should solve this problem. We're all Democrats; we have to govern."

Legislators do not foresee a special session this year about the tunnel language, and Chopp said Tuesday he had no prediction about how any construction overruns would be covered. The immediate need is stability, Clibborn said, to show tunnel-construction bidders they will not be sidetracked by political delays.

Even if the tunnel construction goes perfectly, McGinn and predecessor Greg Nickels committed Seattle to pay for utility relocations, sea-wall replacement, Mercer Street reconstructions and waterfront parks, worth roughly $800 million.

Armstrong, the representative from Wenatchee, says it's fair that Seattle should have "skin in the game" in exchange for the state's role in beautifying the waterfront, by moving Highway 99 underground. To him, $800 million seems about right.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or

Information in this article, originally published on July 20, 2010, was corrected on July 22, 2010. A previous version of this story stated that state Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee, sponsored the amendment requiring that any project costs exceeding $2

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