Starting April 29, Seattle is going to hold its collective breath as its most troubled public works project ever, a vehicular tunnel along the Puget Sound waterfront, starts burrowing under the elevated Alaskan Way Viaduct it is designed to replace. The $1.4 billion venture has been so cursed–the Bertha tunneling machine, the world’s biggest, was stalled deep underground at one point for more than a year–that authorities are closing the Viaduct for two weeks as a precaution in case there’s another sinkhole, or something far worse.
Since the Viaduct carries one of isthmus Seattle’s two north-south limited-access routes–the other is Interstate 5–traffic around town is expected to be slower than a butterfly without wings. Authorities actually have told the public to work from home. That’s reasonable advice, maybe, for a computer programmer or a writer like me, but not much help for a teacher or maintenance worker.
The result is that many Seattleites are awaiting the continuation of our version of Boston’s equally cursed Big Dig with the kind of macabre anticipation I haven’t seen since the days when Dan Rather anchored the evening news on CBS. Would this be the night he stormed off the set, went bonkers while interviewing a Vice President or mysteriously ended the broadcast with the word, “Courage”?
If something really bad happens with the Viaduct, that could be the precipitating event that turns the Seattle bubble into a bust. So there are lots of reasons for the suspense in Seattle.
In the event of calamity, the public is going to have trouble finding someone politically accountable to punish. Seattle voters approved the project just after I became New To Seattle in 2011, and, of course, they can’t blame themselves. The Republicans who control the State Senate in effect fired Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson, whose department oversaw the project, simply by refusing to confirm her earlier this year even though she had been in the post three years by the Democratic governor, Jay Inslee.
Former Governor Christine Gregoire, who championed the tunnel and dismissed critics who warned about the technical difficulties of burrowing within a few feet of Puget Sound, is no longer in office. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray carried water for the project when he was a state senator, but hasn’t had much to say since.
That would leave as the fall guy Inslee, who is gearing up for a reelection campaign this year. It was on his watch that the tunneling machine got stuck when it ran into an underground pipe that the state itself had installed for another project. At the time, he solemnly intoned at a press conference, “The contractor is going to be financially responsible to the citizens of this state for every single penny of cost overruns that that contractor could eventually be responsible for.” Parse that closely, and you realize he really promised nothing.
Meanwhile, we’ll all be watching. The real show begins on Friday.