Highway 99 tunnel Q&A — a look at where we are and where we're going

Share story

The state gained political momentum Thursday toward its goal of digging a tunnel under downtown Seattle to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. But many months and a number of milestones remain until construction can start.

Here’s a look at where we are and where we’re going.

Q: Is the state done with the tunnel vs. surface option vs. viaduct debate?

A: Yes. Highway officials are willing to discuss the finer details, but the state shows no interest in second-guessing the overall project.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

“The debate about whether or not we’re going to do a tunnel is over,” Ron Judd, project outreach director, said last week. Gov. Chris Gregoire said Thursday: “We are moving forward. We are going to get this project done.”

The DOT gets its authority from state lawmakers’ 2009 approval of a tunnel, followed by endorsement by the Seattle City Council. A contract with the winning construction team is to be signed in January.

But the actual work would not begin until the federal government signs off on the environmental-impact statement in mid-2011. (A public comment period for the environmental statement ends Monday.) The state has not sold any bonds that require tunnel construction.

Opponents would like to continue the debate, but at this point there has not been a groundswell among elected officials to slow the project’s momentum.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn continues to raise objections — that tolls will divert too much traffic into city streets, and that there’s too little financial cushion against overruns — but he hasn’t halted the city’s cooperation outright.

Another line of attack would be to sue next year, saying DOT hasn’t truly explored nontunnel options — or how to deal with 40,000 daily motorists that might take other routes to avoid a toll — in the environmental-impact statement.

Q: Can the initiative process be a monkey wrench, or is the project too far along?

A: Anti-tunnel initiatives seem like a longshot.

On the other hand, this saga has gone through many twists since the Nisqually earthquake weakened the old Alaskan Way Viaduct in 2001.

Initiative 101, which seeks to ban the use of city right of way for a tunnel, has gathered 16,000 signatures, said campaign chairwoman Elizabeth Campbell. Backers need 20,629 valid signatures to reach the May ballot. Campbell favors an elevated highway with more exits and capacity than the four-lane tunnel.

A second anti-tunnel initiative was filed Thursday morning by a coalition of the Sierra Club, the Real Change newspaper and the United African Public Affairs Committee. It would require the City Council and McGinn to appoint a cost-control advisory board and is aimed at the November ballot, to bring more pressure against pro-tunnel council members in their re-election campaigns.

Either initiative would come long after the state signed its contract. A veto-proof City Council majority proposes to sign utility-relocation and street-use agreements with DOT.

Sierra Club activist Drew Paxton urges the City Council not to sign the agreements unless state lawmakers guarantee that city taxpayers will be immune from cost overruns.

Despite its late start, the Sierra Club does have a track record as a political force, said James Kelly, Urban League local president and member of the pro-tunnel group “Enough.” The club led a 2007 campaign that helped defeat a regional roads and transit measure.

Q: Is the project’s contingency fund already tapped out?

A: Bottom line: There is $100 million left for unknown risks.

The state began this year with $415 million for risk and contingency, out of a $2 billion tunnel budget.

But after talks with construction companies, DOT offered allowances of $110 million for inflation, and $100 million to cover bidders’ bonding and insurance costs. In addition, DOT would pay up to $105 million for issues such as repairing damaged buildings; emergency repairs to the drilling machine deep underground; leases for equipment storage on the waterfront; and incentives to finish the job early.

McGinn has said the shrinkage of the fund is a bad omen, and there’s not nearly enough cushion left. Tunnel program administrator Ron Paananen replies the contingency is still 10 to 15 percent — since much of the budget for tunnel design and overhead is already spent, and other segments involve lower-risk ramps and surface lanes.

Q: Who would pay for cost overruns?

A: The public, one way or another.

Gregoire likes to say there won’t be overruns.

In reality, a financial crisis wouldn’t be known until deep into the actual tunneling work, maybe after pro-tunnel politicians have moved on to other careers.

DOT has a relatively solid track record managing contracts on budget, including the 2007 Tacoma Narrows Bridge. But tunneling is the riskiest type of highway job worldwide. Locally, costs rose midbore on both the Beacon Hill light-rail tunnel and the Brightwater sewage tunnel.

The Legislature’s tunnel bill says overruns would be paid by “Seattle-area property owners who benefit.” The city attorney and state attorney general have deemed the clause unenforceable, as there is no specific means to collect payment. Even more fundamentally, the state DOT, not the city, is entering a contract with the builders.

Individual lawmakers hold a variety of views about the possible effect of the language. McGinn construes it as a statement of intent, proving that lawmakers wish to charge Seattle.

In theory, lawmakers could retaliate by shortchanging future highway funds in the city, in the event a tunnel overrun forced DOT to siphon gas-tax dollars from projects across the state.

Future taxes also could pay tunnel overrun bills, as a last resort.

Sound Transit is applying a portion of its 2008 sales-tax measure to help complete rail projects that were promised in its 1996 plan but spiked in cost.

Seattle has no money to pay overruns. City leaders already agreed to spend a half-billion dollars for waterfront-utility relocations and a new sea wall.

Q: When would the tunnel be finished?

A: The state’s deadline was Nov. 1, 2016.

There are up to $25 million in incentives in the contract to finish sooner, and the winning bidder, Seattle Tunnel Partners, says it will be done by Dec. 31 of 2015.

Q: When would the digging start?

A: Cut-and-cover excavation at the south tunnel entrance would begin in late 2011, if the environmental statement is approved next summer. A deep-bore drilling machine could be launched from Sodo in early 2013, going under the old viaduct toward downtown.

Q: How will traffic move during construction?

A: Gregoire said a major reason she picked a tunnel concept was that it allows traffic to move during construction, without shutting down the waterfront.

However, drivers will face delays and an amazing assortment of detours in the Sodo area, where a surface interchange and south tunnel portal are to be built.

These begin in early 2011, when First Avenue South will be narrowed to one lane each way near the stadiums. King County Metro Transit will reroute some bus lines coming from West Seattle and south suburbs. By summer, Highway 99 will be narrowed to two lanes each way in Sodo.

A new south highway segment would be reconnected to the central viaduct in late 2013, allowing traffic to flow normally until the tunnel is finished and the elevated highway torn down.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.