It doesn’t seem to have gotten much attention, but this Seattle Times review of the politics of the proposed Deep Bore tunnel on the Seattle waterfront contains a startling admission from Washington House transportation chair Judy Clibborn:
The Legislature’s tunnel bill says “any costs in excess of two billion eight hundred million dollars shall be borne by property owners in the Seattle area who benefit from replacement of the existing viaduct with a deep bore tunnel.” …
“[That] amendment has no legal standing” because it’s too vague, says Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island.
Does this strike anyone else as weird? Clibborn supports the tunnel, and passed the tunnel funding bill out of her committee and then helped move it out of the House. And as I read the politics, the provision to put Seattle taxpayers on the hook for cost overruns was pretty important to getting the bill passed: some legislators simply would have rejected the tunnel plan unless they thought that Seattleites, and not their own constituents, were on the hook for the cost overruns.
But now Clibborn is saying, essentially, that those legislators made a mistake when they voted for it. By her read, the cost overrun agreement is unenforceable, and taxpayers from other parts of the state will foot the bill if the tunnel overshoots its budget.
So if the head of the House Transportation Committee now says—despite what the law clearly states– that Seattle taxpayers are NOT on the hook for the cost overruns for the Deep Bore Tunnel, then legislators from the rest of the state ought to be taking notice.
Now, last I checked, Clibborn isn’t a scholar of the state constitution, so I don’t know how much credence to lend to her statements. And, to my knowledge, neither is blogger Advokat from Publicola, who argues that, constitutionally, the state can’t force a local government to raise taxes. (By the way, I think Advokat may be wrong here: Advokat argues that the State can’t impose a local tax on property owners—which may be correct—but the actual legislation doesn’t impose any tax, but leaves it up to Seattle to figure out how to pay for the tunnel obligations. Fees, service cuts, sales of city property and the like are other financing options.)
To me, Clibborn’s statement simply adds to already massive uncertainty about who’s paying for the tunnel. We still don’t know how much it’s likely to cost. The last public cost estimate for the deep bore itself was completed when the engineering work was only 1% complete; and as we’ve said many times, big public infrastructure projects tend to go over budget. Most state legislators think that Seattle’s on the hook for cost overruns; the House transportation chair thinks the state might be on the hook.
All of which means that tunnel supporters get to tell people whatever answer they want to hear: to voters outside of Seattle, they can say that Seattle’s on the hook; but to Seattle voters, they can say that the state might pay. Luckily, there’s an easy fix: when the legislature reconvenes in January they can clarify who’s paying. By then, state transportation engineers should have developed somewhat better thought-out cost estimates, so we’ll have a little more information about potential costs.