The price tag on the Crosstown Expressway seems to go up every other week: once a hundred million dollars or so, it’s now closer to five hundred million, and insiders suggest that when all is said and done, this little strip of freeway is going to run somewhere around $1 billion.
Which is nothing compared to what Seattle is planning to do to itself:
On a Monday between now and the middle of August, the Seattle City Council is likely to approve a contract that gives the State of Washington permission to dig a 54-foot-wide tunnel under downtown Seattle. It will be the widest deep-bore tunnel attempted anywhere, ever.
It will cost an estimated $4.2 billion to replace the dilapidated Alaskan Way Viaduct on Seattle’s waterfront, making this underground highway the most expensive megaproject in state history. The state has committed up to $2.8 billion, the city has pledged $937 million, and the Port of Seattle is supposed to pay $300 million. The single most expensive element, the tunnel portion itself, will cost about $1.9 billion.
Geez. You could buy a whole bunch of NBA teams for that kind of money.
But this is where it gets scary:
A state law passed in 2009 says Seattle property owners must bear the expense of any cost overruns on the state’s project. This is unprecedented. “The cost overruns on a state highway should not be borne by the citizens of Seattle,” says state senator Ed Murray, whose district includes Capitol Hill and parts of downtown. “We have never done that to any other jurisdiction in the state.” The law also says, unequivocally, that the state won’t pay more than $2.8 billion. We simply have no plan for who will pay cost overruns. Under the current rules, if something goes wrong, Seattle taxpayers are on the hook for cost overruns.
And what are the chances that everything will come in on budget? Right.
The Viaduct, moreover, is junk: it was already outdated when it was damaged in the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, and the alternatives aren’t that much less expensive. Still, I remember a Barney Frank quip regarding Boston’s Big Dig, the model (and not necessarily in a good way) for all such projects: “Wouldn’t it be cheaper to raise the city than depress the artery?”