$60 million isn’t chump change, but it didn’t get much notice last month when the state released new cost estimates for Seattle’s deep-bore tunnel. According to the revised numbers, the deep-bore tunnel cost projections have already risen by $60 million—which works out to 3.2 percent. And that’s before builders have broken ground.

What was sold to the public—and approved by the legislature — as a $1.9 billion tunneling project is now projected to cost $1.96 billion. If that increase seems miniscule, it’s only because the scale of the project is so huge. Consider:

  • $60 million is more than the entire budget shortfall for the city of Seattle.
  • If Seattle residents picked up the tab directly, it would work out to roughly $400 for a family of four.

And remember, these figures are not for the cost of the entire deep-bore tunnel project, but just for the latest, seemingly tiny, cost increase of about 3 percent. And it’s troubling, especially in light of the somewhat perplexing attitude that state leaders have taken so far.

“I don’t think we’re going to have overruns.”—State House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn quoted in the Seattle Times on April 24, 2009.

“There won’t be any cost overruns.” — State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond quoted in the Seattle Times on April 29, 2009.

“We don’t envision any cost overruns on this project.”—Pearse Edwards, spokesman for Gov. Chris Gregoire quoted in the Seattle Times on April 22, 2009.

So now that there is a $60 million cost increase, will state leaders renew their pledges that costs will not rise further?

  • It’s a question that should be on the minds of Seattle taxpayers. That’s because, with the release of the new numbers, the state DOT reminded us:

    As outlined in ESSB 5768, the state’s contribution to the replacement program is capped at $2.8 billion.

    In other words, as ESSB 5768 says, the cost overruns fall on Seattle. And while it’s true that there’s been a heap of debate about whether the “Seattle pays” provision is enforceable, it’s clear that the state believes that it is a genuine legal commitment.

    So what’s caused the projected cost increase? According to the new report, it’s primarily because the tunnel is being lengthened by 640 feet. (That’s an increase of about 7 percent in the total length.) However, the lengthening of the tunnel also results in a straighter alignment that engineers believe will be less risky. So while projected construction costs for the tunnel have risen by 15 percent, state officials have reduced the “risk and inflation” fund by 27 percent.

    Here’s the full breakdown:

    2010 tunnel costs

    Okay, okay, before everyone freaks out, there’s a caveat: the costs here are for the deep-bore tunnel alone. They don’t include the entire Alaska Way Viaduct replacement, of which the tunnel is just one component (albeit the largest component by far). Because of projected savings in other areas—particularly the design of an interchange south of King Street—the state is claiming that the total cost projections have actually decreased by about $12 million, or 0.4 percent. In other words: the tunnel looks to be more expensive, but other projects could be less expensive.

    Nothing further for now, except to remind folks that the history of tunnel costs in the Seattle area is worrisome.