Seattle City Council members took digs at each other Monday as they confronted problems with the state’s Highway 99 tunnel project.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant pointed a finger at her colleagues and Mayor Ed Murray as Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) officials briefed the council about soil that has been sinking near the project and the fragile Alaskan Way Viaduct, which is supposed to come down when the tunnel is complete.
“The public should not just be asking questions to WSDOT but also to their elected officials, both at the city and the state level,” Sawant said. “Let’s recall that, other than Councilmember (Mike) O’Brien, everybody was a tunnel advocate.”
In February 2011, O’Brien was the lone dissenter as the council voted 8-1 to override then-Mayor Mike McGinn’s veto and go forward with agreements for a new tunnel.
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In December 2013, the world’s largest tunnel machine stalled after boring only 1,000 feet. During work on a repair-access pit, the supporters have held their breath and played a quiet game of wait-and-see.
But the complications with the pit are now pushing the politics of the tunnel back to the forefront, though it’s not yet clear whether the sinking has been caused by the project. Supporters insist the tunnel is necessary and will be completed.
During a subsequent presentation by Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) officials about the city’s contingency plan for an emergency closure of the viaduct, Sawant again spoke up about the multi-billion-dollar tunnel.
“All the eggs have been put into the tunnel basket and I really think the people of Seattle who didn’t have a direct say in this … should be reminded,” she said.
“Let’s not forget where this whole boondoggle started in the first place. I mean, look at the information that was available to us from the beginning,” Sawant added.
That’s when Council President Tim Burgess, a staunch supporter of the project, interrupted, asking Sawant to ask a question or move on.
“The people of Seattle voted specifically for this project, so it’s not accurate to say that the people did not weigh in on this project. But I don’t think we’re here today to debate that issue,” Burgess said.
Sawant, who joined the council in January, continued nonetheless, “The politicians that were involved in this project … insisted that the project would never run over-budget, that it would never be delayed and so on, and the mayor was in Olympia at that time and he was the primary sponsor of a 2009 law to build the tunnel,” she added, referring to Murray, then a state senator.
Minutes later, Councilmember Tom Rasmussen shot back.
“I would like to say that Councilmember Sawant misrepresents the history of the decision to choose the tunnel as a preferred option,” he said.
There was indeed a public referendum, in August 2011, and voters backed the tunnel. But the measure was billed by proponents as somewhat perfunctory. Contracts had been awarded and a groundbreaking had been scheduled for the following month.
O’Brien, who took the lead Monday in grilling WSDOT officials, was less focused on blame than Sawant.
“There’s a long history of disagreement on this project and I was at the time the one of nine council members that didn’t feel like this project was the direction we should go,” he said after the briefing. “At this point, those aren’t emergency questions we need to resolve … As far as where we go next and why we’re in this spot, I’m going to leave to others to answer and figure out.”
O’Brien did, however, criticize the assertion Monday by state Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson that the tunnel project overall is 70 percent complete.
“I was frankly disappointed in that line,” he said. “It implies somehow that we’re mostly through this and we just have to wrap a few things up and it’s done. We’ve gone 1,000 feet out of a 2-mile tunnel digging project and the machine is stuck and we haven’t figured out what’s actually wrong with it and how to repair it.”
Burgess defended the project as “essential to our regional transportation system.”
“We knew from the beginning that this project was very complicated,” he said.
“The tunnel project is 70 percent completed, according to WSDOT, so there’s no turning back at this point,” he added. “It is city government policy that this project be completed. The governor agrees. The mayor agrees. We must move forward.”
Daniel Beekman: 206-464-2164 or email@example.com