Over at SunBreak, Michael van Baker has a great post replaying a bit of the cost history of Seattle’s viaduct replacement. In 2001, after the Nisqually Earthquake damaged the structure, it was believed that the problem could be fixed for a relatively modest sum. As the Seattle Times reported then:

The UW study concluded that retrofitting would cost $340 million, tearing it down about $120 million and replacing it $530 million.

It seems such a long time ago. More than 8 years have elapsed, the viaduct is still operational, and most elected officials seem to have settled on a vastly more expensive replacement option: a deep-bore tunnel with an estimated price tag of $1.9 billion. (And that’s not even counting all the related stuff, like the waterfront seawall rebuild, that bring the grand total up to $4.2 billion.)

Without quarterbacking all the twists and turns along the way, this is a good reminder of how it is that project costs can escalate so dramatically. We start off with our best guess for a simple fix, but by the time a project nears actual legislative approval it may have morphed into a dramatically different creature.(In fact, that’s exactly what happened with King County’s Brightwater sewage treatment project.) In the Viaduct case, it’s transformed into one that’s about 4 times as expensive as initial guesses.

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  • (For blow-by-blow of the viaduct replacement’s saga, see Cary Moon’s excellent piece at Crosscut.)

    What’s especially interesting about the Viaduct replacement is that we don’t actually know how to pay for it. There’s good reason to worry that the costs will exceed the $1.9 billion estimate, which is really a very preliminary number, but there’s no agreement on who will pick up the tab if there’s a cost overrun.

    The authorizing legislation sticks Seattle’s taxpayers with the bill, but a number of folks—including, oddly enough, the bill’s sponsors — have argued that the provision they wrote into law is illegal and unenforceable. Weird. But today we learn that other legislators—lawmakers whose votes were key to passing the bill — disagree: they still think Seattle is on the hook.

    On that score, Chris Grygiel’s short article at the Seattle P-I is required reading:

    House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, said Wednesday, “I’ve heard that a vote that I took to say that Seattle would pick up all the cost overruns, that we didn’t mean that. I was stunned…”


    The stick-it-to-Seattle provision was added to the viaduct bill at the insistence of House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, late in the 2009 legislative session. It is believed to be the only time a municipality has been required to pay for cost overruns on a state transportation project.

    Yes, you read that correctly: a Seattle legislator wrote into law an unheard-of provision putting his own constituents first in line to pay for cost overruns. (Remember though, he thinks the provision is illegal, so one might presume that it was only a ploy to con non-Seattle legislators into supporting the bill.)

    The whole thing is just bizarre. But it gets weirder when you look at the actual language of the bill. Cost overruns are to be borne by “property owners in the Seattle area who benefit from replacement of the existing viaduct with the deep bore tunnel.” Huh?

    Who’s that? You might make a case that it refers only to downtown property owners, who could benefit most directly from a tunnel replacement. Or you could argue that it refers to all property owners in the “Seattle area”—everybody from Everett to Tacoma and from Bellevue to Bremerton, according to the Census Bureau’s definition of the “Seattle area”—because they all live near a newly built section of state highway. Or maybe it’s somewhere in the middle: all property owners in the city of Seattle.

    But who really knows?

    Given what’s at stake here—a $1.9 billion project that faces a significant chance of going over-budget—It’s imperative to get clarity about who, exactly, is paying for what.

    This is basic stuff. And it’s appalling that it hasn’t happened already.


    Update 1/7/10:

    Governor Gregoire today on the deep-bore tunnel:

    “There is no indication that we are going to be over budget. Now is the time to move forward. Now there are bids, bids better than we’ve ever seen…. Any delay, for anything, is going to do nothing but cost us money.”

    Wait a second.  If the state is so confident that the project will stay on budget, then why isn’t the state willing to pay for cost overruns? After all, in the governor’s view, there won’t be any.

    So why won’t Governor Gregoire just say plainly that the state will pick up the tab? Saying so won’t cause a delay—it won’t take more than a minute.

    Just say that the state will pay for cost overruns. It’s easy.