Still Digging for Money

The mayor claims to have funding and support necessary to build a waterfront tunnel. But he doesn't.

Mayor Greg Nickels has begun a public-relations campaign to promote replacement of the seismically precarious, nearly 53-year-old Alaskan Way Viaduct with a $3 billion–$3.6 billion tunnel along Seattle's central waterfront. In his zeal to promote this grand vision, however, the mayor is overstating the financial and political progress that he's made.

In a widely distributed letter in advance of a viaduct-replacement open house on Thursday, March 2, Nickels writes, "Today, with $3.2 billion already committed to the project, we have the resources needed to start building the tunnel." According to the mayor, $3.2 billion is enough to begin the "core tunnel project," which postpones two expensive aspects of the plan: lowering Aurora Avenue just north of the Battery Street Tunnel and replacement of the waterfront's seawall north of the Seattle Aquarium. The mayor says utility relocation can start in 2008, with major construction in 2010. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) estimates the tunnel will take between seven and 10 years to complete.

It is simply not true, however, that $3.2 billion has been committed to the project. Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis readily admits that the firm commitments are closer to $2.4 billion. The state is putting up around $2.2 billion, the federal government is contributing a paltry $239 million, and the city has already spent nearly $16 million, according to Ceis. The mayor is counting on $200 million from the Port of Seattle. Seattle Port Commissioner Alec Fisken points out that the commission has yet to approve any money for the viaduct, and two new commissioners have joined the five-member body since the matter was even discussed. The mayor is also counting on $500 million from city funds, but City Council members say they have not approved such an amount—or even seen a plan for how that money would be raised.

The shakiness of the tunnel's finances becomes even more apparent after talking to Ron Paananen, the state Department of Transportation's viaduct project director. Paananen says WSDOT would like $3.6 billion in secure funding before committing to the tunnel. "We'd like to budget $3.6 billion because of where we are in design," says Paananen. He stresses that the design is in a very preliminary stage, somewhere between 2 percent and 10 percent complete.

The lack of financial certainty for the project also means that Nickels has yet to convince his most important skeptic: Gov. Christine Gregoire. Since the viaduct is part of state Highway 99, the governor has the ultimate authority over replacement. Meetings between the mayor, the governor, and their transportation chiefs are ongoing, according to Paananen. "The governor is not completely there yet," says Paananen. Ceis says Gregoire "wants to see the certainty of the finances and the certainty of the cost estimating."

When the guv is happy with the numbers, the tunnel can get the go-ahead. Until then, the tunnel and the official alternative—an above-ground rebuild of the viaduct—are both very much alive.

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