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March 4, 2011 at 2:36 PM

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Another layer of Highway 99 tunnel supervision?

Posted by Mike Lindblom

The Washington state Senate passed a bill Friday to convene a panel of megaproject experts to study the $2 billion Highway 99 tunnel project, and file a report in October, followed by annual updates.

Senate Bill 5785, introduced by tunnel supporter Ed Murray, D-Seattle, prevailed unanimously.

"We seem to be caught in a debate about cost overruns when there's no evidence that there actually are any," says Murray in a statement. "But if costs of the tunnel project do start to creep beyond its budget, a regular review by panel of experts will catch them before they become a problem."

In an apparent overture to public transit fans, Senate Democrats announced a similar strategy was "used successfully by Sound Transit in 1996 and 2008 matching regular review of a project's construction progress with the financial plans to pay for it."

In fact, an expert review panel didn't prevent Sound Transit's rail construction costs from doubling after votes passed the first plan passed in 1996 -- experts thought the numbers were good because they were higher than in other cities, but in fact the Seattle area's terrain and design features made rail here far more costly. The transit agency's 2006-07 expert panel performed valuable work, such as insisting that engineers test a prototype before building the world's first ever rail joints on a floating bridge. But we won't know for a decade whether the $18 billion plan that voters passed in 2008 will be finished on budget.

The DOT's expert review panel last gathered in 2006 to study estimates for both the Highway 520 bridge and Highway 99. They boosted the midrange estimate for a six lane, shallow Alaskan Way Tunnel by $1 billion to a total $4.6 billion -- effectively dooming that option. "There's no sugar-coating. This has been a fairly painful process," then-transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald said at the time. This is the panel that SB 5785 would resurrect.

Deputy DOT Secretary Dave Dye said the group's tasks would include a look at tolling, which is supposed to support $400 million in construction bonds. Government officials are nervous about the likelihood drivers will divert to side streets, and rates that might exceed $3.

The panel itself would cost around $300,000, says a fiscal summary of the bill. Nonetheless, Dye said he welcomes "another set of eyes" on the entire project.

The current proposal is for a four-lane tunnel that starts in weak Sodo fill soil and runs deep below downtown. The state DOT has signed a contract and hopes to break ground in late summer. Two ballot measures by opponents, one of which appears already to have enough signatures, seek to thwart the project.

The DOT tunnel team already has three former leaders in tunnel-industry groups working as paid advisors. John Newby, a tunnel expert hired by the City Council, has said the contract protects taxpayers. Thom Neff, a consultant hired by anti-tunnel Mayor Mike McGinn, has pointed out the 58-foot-diameter bore is "beyond precedent" as an engineering feat in difficult soils, and therefore the full costs can't be known.

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Jim Brunner
Covers politics.

Keith Ervin
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Andrew Garber
Covers politics and state government from Olympia.

Emily Heffter
Covers local government.

Mike Lindblom
Covers transportation.

Kyung Song
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Lynn Thompson
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Bob Young
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