Live: Mayor’s briefing on Highway 99 tunnel concerns

(FRIDAY NOTE: The embedded video now will take you to the archive of the Thursday briefing)

ORIGINAL 2:59 PM REPORT: As noted here this morning, Mayor McGinn is having a “strategic infrastructure expert” speak to the media at City Hall this afternoon to present information described as potential risks of the proposed Highway 99 tunnel. Seattle Channel plans to stream it live online and sent the code to embed it on other websites, so in case you’re interested in watching/listening live, here it is (just click the “play” arrow). We’ll add notes (and what we assume will be an eventual news release link) if you just want to come back and read about it later. It’s scheduled to start at 3 pm.

3:33 PM: The consultant’s statement was fairly short and he’s now taking questions. Click ahead for toplines:

First, the mayor reiterated that he is willing to finalize the tunnel contract with the state – as long as the state agrees to shoulder the burden of any and all cost overruns. Period.

Then, the consultant, Thom Neff, spoke. He says he’s been working on this a few weeks and his report isn’t yet complete. His main point: This is “beyond precedent” – the “largest bored soft-ground tunnel in the history of the world.” That alone, he says, is something of great risk. In Q/A, he noted that the Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico drilling project that has led to the oil-spill catastrophe also was “beyond precedent.”

He says he’s disturbed by the “adverse geologic conditions” – the soil types, the potential water pressure from parts of the tunnel route going under the water table. He brought up the county’s smaller Brightwater sewer-tunnel-boring project, in which two tunnel-boring machines have had trouble – one of which is still stuck. And he mentioned earthquake risk – while he acknowledged that this type of tunnel would be safer, after completion, in an earthquake situation, “if it happens during construction, that’s a completely different story.”

Should this tunnel not be built? asked a reporter. The consultant said, “I won’t make that statement.” But bottom line, “because of the uncertainties, it’s unlikely it’s going to play out the way they see it today.”

During Q/A, the mayor also chimed in. He says the recent timetable changes bother him, as well as the fact the city had not, he said, been informed when a team dropped out of the bidding. And he reiterated, “It’s no secret that I don’t think it’s a good project.” He also took exception to the contention that the Legislature-passed language about the city paying for cost overruns is not enforceable – and yet, he says he keeps hearing, would not be changed – he compared it to the “Hat Trick” video game played onscreen at Mariners’ games. “We never get a straight answer; we get an attack on the messenger.”

Speaking of which, a pro-tunnel group has issued a news release describing Neff as a “tunnel skeptic” and questioning the validity of his findings, for which they say the city has paid him $40,000, because, they say, he has spent three weeks studying what has been nine years in the making.

ADDED 5:36 PM: The state has weighed in on the cost-overrun questions. Here’s an opinion piece by Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond, published this afternoon by the Seattle Times (WSB partner).

16 Replies to "Live: Mayor's briefing on Highway 99 tunnel concerns"

  • quiz July 15, 2010 (4:08 pm)

    So transparent. Nothing but political spin. Makes me ill.

    I’m still bitter about the monorail.

  • Alex July 15, 2010 (4:11 pm)

    What??? McGinn is going to find a way to stop the tunnel project? I can’t believe that –it’s shocking! This is so out of the ordinary for Seattle… We are usually so good at following through and getting transportation projects done.


  • David Schraer July 15, 2010 (4:13 pm)

    Recall McGinn?

    Delay is the biggest cost risk for the viaduct replacement project. McGinn is Seattle’s number one risk. Not only does he risk losing over $2 billion in funding for the deep-bore tunnel and waterfront projects, he is willing to risk the return of a new viaduct and a ruined waterfront. McGinn’s rancorous relationship with politicians at all levels of government threatens funding and cooperation on many other projects. If there is a vote on the deep-bore tunnel, McGinn’s recall should be on the same ballot.

    More at

  • Michael July 15, 2010 (6:13 pm)

    Mayor Hires Consultant To Agree With Him.
    That’s your headline here.
    “largest bored soft-ground tunnel” – he could have added “that was thought of on a Sunday, by a left-handed man over 6 feet tall.”

    • WSB July 15, 2010 (6:30 pm)

      Michael, I haven’t looked, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that headline at one of the not-stodgy-like-us sites, Stranger or Publicola. Probably more likely Slog!

  • bridge to somewhere July 15, 2010 (8:26 pm)

    What a surprising finding. Can we have a redo on our last mayoral election?

  • austin July 15, 2010 (9:20 pm)

    If you had a redo on the mayoral election it would turn out the same way because it’s already happened. Time doesn’t work that way. Yet.

  • Donn July 15, 2010 (10:48 pm)

    $42,000 for the consultant work. I wonder which job at the City had to take an axe for that.

  • sarelly July 16, 2010 (12:21 am)

    Never thought much of the tunnel idea myself. It’s an earthquake zone, will cost a fortune, is about as absurd as running the monorail for five blocks, will be disruptive, they don’t know what they’re going to find down there, likely to be fraught with peril, etc. Just a bad idea. Take down the viaduct, run the highway at ground level, put up some pedestrian overpasses, and make the waterfront an accessible pedestrian-friendly park space. Then how about making Metro buses run where people actually live? Just sayin’.

  • MAS July 16, 2010 (7:26 am)

    Well, based on the Transportation Secretary’s comments, they need to get their messaging straight. While the cost overrun language implies that Seattle landowners should pay cost overruns because only we really benefit from the tunnel, according to Paula Hammond “This is an ambitious and necessary effort to maintain a corridor that is vital for our economic stability…” and we have to assume that she’s speaking for the State when she says “we.”

    In this case, the state needs to put their money where their mouth is. You can’t say “we’re going to do such a great job of estimating and cost containment that you shouldn’t worry so much about overruns” and at the same time insist that the risk is so great that the state (who’s responsible for managing the risk) cannot be responsible for the actual costs.

  • Jack July 16, 2010 (10:41 am)

    All you tunnel cheerleaders so quick to shoot the messenger should listen to his message first.

    Once you understand the risks and probable failures of this tunneling project you’ll likely be against it.

  • Alex July 16, 2010 (1:44 pm)

    Jack, if we cancelled every project we started as soon as we realized it would be hard or expensive, we’d never get anything done. Oh wait, that’s exactly how Seattle already works.

    I say just freaking do it, and stop being so indecisive. The time to argue over tunnel vs other options is LONG past.

  • bridge to somewhere July 16, 2010 (3:12 pm)

    As a “tunnel cheerleader” let me say to Jack (and other anti-tunnel folks) simply that I trust that the Washington State Department of Transportation has qualified civil engineers on staff, staff who have no doubt consulted geophysical and mechanical engineers on this project in order to advocate for this design. I further expect they had some pretty qualified project managers and engineers work-out the cost estimates associated with the project. With all due respect, what precisely makes you more qualified to speak on the engineering or financial risks with this project than the people we pay to do this work for us and who have devoted their lives to studying the discipline of infrastructure design?

  • PSPS July 17, 2010 (8:03 am)

    Both the tunnel and the surface street options are bad choices for different reasons. The tunnel is too expensive and too small with its reduced capacity. The surface street option might be attractive to the city’s treasurer, what with its dozens of traffic lights, but it would mean the city gets cut in two permanently. The retrofit option, strangely rejected likely because it won’t further enrich the moneyed elite in the community, is still the only viable option because of its comparatively minuscule cost and minimal traffic disruption.

  • (required) July 17, 2010 (12:09 pm)

    You know, none of this is surprising.

    McGinn, a lawyer, simply retained an “expert witness” to say what he wanted to say. That’s what lawyers do in cases — they find “experts” and pay them and then have them speak if what they have to say is what the lawyer wanted them to say in the first place. And that’s what McGinn is doing.

    McGinn is playing lawyer now, not mayor. And he’s hiring experts to advocate his personal views and to try to accomplish a personal agenda that he had even disavowed back when he was a cadidate. Remember? Let me refresh your memory a bit.

    Remember when candidate McGinn softened his stance on the tunnel just to try to garner votes? Remember when he did that, back last year? Back when the race was tight with Joe Mallahan? Read here:

    in a nutshell, in late 2009, just after the city council voted unanimously — that means, after every single elected city council member voted in favor of the tunnel — that was when McGinn suddenly changed his tune. He’d previously long sworn he would kill the tunnel if elected mayor. But after that vote, he knew he had to, ummmmm, lie to us. And so, that’s what he did, sort of. So he changed his tune from ‘kill the tunnel’ to ‘if elected mayor, it wouldn’t be my place to withhold the city’s cooperation in moving forward with the tunnel.’

    Candidate Mallahan knew better. He knew McGinn was a flip-flopping liar, and Mallahan said as much: “My opponent has spent the last eight months campaigning on one issue — stopping the tunnel and our economy from moving forward,” he said in a statement. “Now he’s changing his position because he’s seen the poll numbers and is fighting for his political life. His flip-flopping clearly demonstrates that voters have a choice between a political opportunist or a principled leader and effective manager, like myself, to lead this city and our economy forward.”

    So, you may ask, what is McGinn truly up to by hiring this “expert”? Is McGinn just trying to help us all have all the right and best facts to allow us all to know the truth?

    Ha. Yeah, right. And if you belieeve that, then I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you, too, bub.

    It turns out that then-candidate McGinn chose his lawyerly words in such a way as to allow him to do this “expert” dog-and-pony fiasco that we are now suffering through. McGinn pretended he’d go along with the city council’s unanimous vote — back when he was a candidate. He did that so he could get your votes. And, it worked.

    And now, he’s REALLY doing what he wants. He’s now trying to pretend that this “expert” is some new information that requires us all to do just as we did with the monorial: citizen vote it to death.

    you see, McGinn knows, the surest way to get nothing done is to just keep placing an issue up for public vote. Even though we electe officials to make decisions on our behalf about things like knocking down dangerous, unsightly and poorly thought out viaducts adn replacing them with smart, safe, and effective tunnels, McGinn wants to do a Tim Eyeman-esque end run and kill it.

    One day we will have a bigger discussion about why the state Constitution’s initiative and referendum amendments need to be repealed outright, or at leas be amended wisely, but until then, we see liars like candidate McGinn use this citizen vote concept — good in theory, way awful in practice — as a tool.

    McGinn, not the “expert,” is truly the biggest turd in the tunnel project punchbowl. And he tossed himself in. And now, we’re stuck with that punch.

    Just like with the forty-year monorail debacle, McGinn is counting on his “expert” to spur a citizen vote that will surely get his dream come true: throw the tunnel project in jeopardy.

    The sad part is, the harm from McGinn’s term as our mayor has only just begun. He has so much more waste and bad things to accomplish before he next election. And trust me, he’s intent to do it.

  • (required) July 17, 2010 (12:15 pm)

    Hey ‘Jack’: not even the “expert” said the tunnel shouldn’t be built. The “expert” simply gave vague answers and suggested things wouldn’t likely turn out the way everyone thinks they will (whatever the hell THAT means.)

Sorry, comment time is over.