City Council’s Conlin: "State Could Compel Seattle to Pay for Tunnel Cost Overruns"

(h/t Publicola) City Council President Richard Conlin needs to work harder on believing impossible things. The Queen in Alice and Wonderland can do six before breakfast, and he gets stuck on just one: believing the state would really make Seattle pay for deep-bore tunnel cost overruns. 

In his post “Time to tell the truth about costs and the viaduct tunnel project,” he says the risk of cost overruns is an “exaggeration and serves solely to instill fear and doubt” and calls upon Mayor McGinn to “publicly announce that he will do everything in his power to keep the project moving.” Since the legislative intent was to shift all responsibility for cost overruns to “Seattle property owners” (with no upper limit), I’m not sure how Conlin is defining “risk” and “exaggeration.” 

McGinn’s made a public announcement, but it’s not quite what Conlin was hoping: “I think it is time that Richard and I air these issues and talk them through in a public forum.  A debate like this between us will give the public a chance to decide for themselves whether or not we should worry about cost overruns.”

Conlin spends a whole paragraph on what he characterizes as the unenforceable state legislature provision that targets Seattle property owners who benefit from the tunnel:

First, the legislation limiting the state’s responsibility says nothing about the City, but instead makes a legally meaningless reference to property owners. In addition to being vague, the statement that names ‘Seattle area property owners’ as responsible for cost overruns has no legal teeth to compel the City to assume cost overruns for a project that the state is managing.

But in the paragraph immediately succeeding that one, he writes: “Yes, the state could take future legislative action to force the city to pay for overruns,” appending to that admission the disclaimer, “but this scenario would set a terrible precedent for all Washington cities and an honest political assessment suggests that such a move would never be approved.” Just for the record, the first part is a fact. The second part is an assumption.

Conlin is not an idiot–he surely knows that the argument he claims to be having with Mayor McGinn is in reality neither his nor McGinn’s to decide. The cost overrun provision reflects a division within the state legislature. The Senate Transportation Committee had to be coaxed and cajoled into allocating $2.8 billion on a single Seattle transportation project, and the price of that legislation’s passage was a “not one penny more” guarantee.

It’s hard to square Conlin’s description of the wording as “meaningless” with the knowledge that the funding would not be available without it. It’s $2.8 billion worth of meaninglessness, from that perspective.

The long and short of it is, it doesn’t matter what Conlin or McGinn thinks the language says (Conlin thinks “vague” works in Seattle’s favor, I’d argue the reverse could well be true). It matters what the legislature thinks it says. If they decide not to pay in excess of $2.8 billion, then Seattle had better start hoping someone stuffed a few hundred million into its wallet, along with the over $900 million it’s already committed to paying.

This flawed-from-the-outset funding model, I think, is what McGinn is rightly standing in opposition against. Tunnel boosters keep trying to make this all about McGinn’s resistance to the tunnel in general, which is a bit like saying McGinn is anti-car because he won’t buy your Pinto. 

A kind of magical thinking has infected City Council chambers (and the Seattle Times) that links Seattle’s future economic prosperity so tightly to the tunnel that we can’t even negotiate its funding. Advocates are placed in the ridiculous position of arguing that cost overruns will never happen (Conlin, comically: WSDOT has an “excellent track record on recent projects”), and even if they do, we shouldn’t worry about who will pay for them ahead of time. 

Conlin says the Council has “done our due diligence.” This only confirms, of course, many people’s worst fears regarding the Council and its estimation of what due diligence entails.