Richard Conlin, Part 2: “I’ve been wrong before.”

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[Editor’s note: Increasingly puzzled by Seattle City Council President Richard Conlin’s support for the $4.2 billion Deep-Bore Tunnel project — given his sterling environmentalist credentials — we asked him to explain the apparent contradiction. In Part 2 of our interview (conducted last week), Richard underlines the political pragmatism of his position while noting that “others disagree” and concluding even if he’s wrong, things could work out for the best. In which case, we hope he’s right.]

Q. In a perfect world, Richard, what would you support?

A. I still think the Surface Transit would work, which I originally supported. But I recognize there are risks to it. And I think that train has left the station.

Q. Is there still any wiggling going on re this issue — the mayor’s latest request [for the City Council to reject the tunnel]?

A. No. I don’t think so. I don’t think we heard anything new from him. We’ve been following our own course, and we have concerns. We recognize there are risks we have to deal with. We expect that the contract we wind up with will be stronger than the one negotiated by the mayor [previous Mayor Greg Nickels].

Q. Are the tunnel estimates realistic? The Big Dig will wind up costing $22B with interest and won’t be paid for till 2038.

A. Yeah but that was 23 miles of totally reshaping a whole stretch of area with all kinds of diversions and parks.

Q. Costs were related more to what they did not foresee. The cost overruns dwarfed the initial estimates of the entire cost of the project and were the majority of the final tab, all because there was too much winging it and acting on faith. It’s a little like what we’ve run into with BP, the government giving them free rein because BP said they could handle any leak.

A. I would rather analogize it to the things we’ve done here. We bored a tunnel through Mt. Baker ridge, that came in under budget. We have a tunnel we’re digging from downtown to University for Sound Transit, that came in 20 percent below the engineering estimate for the bid. It’s actually much more complicated than the one through downtown, it’s twice as long because it goes under the ship canal, Vancouver did a six-mile tunnel for their light rail system that came in on budget and it’s ahead of schedule, in [King County’s] Brightwater three of the tunnels are finished now, they’re actually 1 percent above the cost, but they were bid at a very expensive time, the other one is stalled but it’s not clear if that’s going to incur any costs for King County because the insurance will probably cover it. The Beacon Hill tunnel, the tunneling actually came through pretty much on budget, but the station had a lot of problems and was more expensive. But this one won’t have any of those kinds of issues.

So the costs that we know about for bored tunnels are not bad. This is very known terrain for Seattle, we’ve already got a bored tunnel through for the Burlington Northern, we’ve got a bored tunnel for the drainage system, we’ve got a lot of stuff under downtown.

Q. At the end of the day, you’re comfortable?

A. I don’t know if I’m comfortable, but we’re not in Big Dig territory. Certainly there are issues that could happen, but they don’t feel to me like they’re going to be big kind of risks.

Q. Doesn’t the fact they’re sticking Seattle with cost overruns indicate that the Legislature is more worried about them than you seem to be?

A. It passed the Senate by a vote of 41 to 8 [note: 43 to 6] or something like that, then it came to the House and Frank Chopp was messing around. Chopp of course supported replacing the viaduct. He introduced this cute language and his goal was to force Seattle legislators to vote against this language and whip up the anti-Seattle spirit around the state so he’d be able to defeat the legislation. What happened was enough Seattle legislators realized the game he was playing, looked at the text he had, and realized this was not a meaningful statement and might cause the whole thing to go down. So that’s why we wound up getting it passed. And the House vote was actually only 49 to 47. It was just a game being played on the last day of the legislative session, and you know what happens on the last day of the legislative session, everybody tries to wiggle something in in the hopes they can slide away with it because everybody wants to go home.

Q. And will it hold up legally?

A. Pete Holmes [Seattle city attorney] is very clear it will not. And the risk of reopening it is if you really had a mad Legislature, especially one with more Republicans which we’re likely to get, you open it up and who knows what happens? They might actually decide to write something enforceable.

It’s such an odd set of political parameters, and the bottom line is we’re better off dealing with what we know and what we’ve got than putting ourselves back off into the unknown. There might be something better we could possibly get, but the odds of that are so low. I don’t think it’s worth it.

Q. Some City Hall watchers say you’re trying to be the anti-McGinn. Any truth to that?

A. I met with Mike after the election. I said this is so great, we’re environmentalists, we can work together, you can be Barack Obama and I’ll be Nancy Pelosi, we can work together and really get things done. I don’t know what it is with Mike. I’m really unhappy and very sad about what’s happened. I really wanted him to succeed. I don’t know what’s gone wrong.

Q. Does this go beyond communication issues?

A. It feels to me like he’s approaching it as a lawyer and advocate rather than someone who is actually running the show and needs to figure out how to make it happen. And I don’t know if he can get out of that role.

Q. Do you agree with McGinn on some things? What about Walk Bike Ride?

A. I’m all for that, I’m interested in getting light rail to West Seattle. The family education stuff he’s doing, we have no conflicts on that. I just wish we could get past these two transportation projects [tunnel and 520 Interchange], I don’t see why we can’t agree on more things. I’m really unhappy about this. 520 is pretty much done but he screwed that one up for awhile too.

Q. On the tunnel equation, for all our skepticism, we hope you’re right.

A. Well, I’ve been wrong before. Sometimes when I’ve been wrong I’ve been really glad that I lost. But you never know.

For further reading:

Cary Moon (People’s Waterfront Coalition): “Why I continue to oppose the deep-bore tunnel.”

City Councilman Mike O’Brien’s opposition to the tunnel: “The $4.2 billion estimate is at best a hopeful guess.”

The unfathomable nightmare of the Big Dig.

Seattle Times: “McGinn hires own consultant on viaduct.”

Seattle Times: “Conlin makes pitch for tunnel.”

Publicola: “Parsing Conlin’s Tunnel Pitch.”

Richard Conlin’s sustainability-packed biography.

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1 thought on “Richard Conlin, Part 2: “I’ve been wrong before.””

  1. The waterfront tunnel is still a stupid idea even if Conlin wants it.

    It doesn’t help move the freight,
    It’s a huge bond issue that could be spent on moving people, not cars, ie light rail to West Seattle and Ballard
    It’s not likely to survive the next big earth quake.

    For a fraction of the cost we could make Seattle a great place to get around via bicycle. While that also doesn’t move freight, the tunnel doesn’t either.

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