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The Next Big Dig?

There's a reason big public projects almost always overshoot their budgets.

11:00 PM, Mar 21, 2006 • By JAMES THAYER
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IT'S THE UGLIEST THING north of Los Angeles and south of Juneau. Dirty, noisy, homely from every angle, and so massive it is visible from space. For 50 years it has ruined the downtown waterfront. Seattleites now have an excuse to be rid of the cursed thing, and many are desperate to do so.

It is the Alaskan Way viaduct, an elevated portion of State Route 99, and it handles 110,000 vehicles a day, the second busiest north-south corridor in the city. Northbound traffic is on the top level, southbound is on the middle tier, and at ground level are parking spaces, perpetual shadow, and puddles. The viaduct blocks the water view of scores of downtown buildings, and is a physical and psychological barrier separating downtown from the Elliott Bay shoreline.

In 2001 the viaduct was damaged by the Nisqually Earthquake, which registered 6.8 on the Richter Scale, and which was centered 50 miles south of Seattle. Repairs cost $3.5 million. No one claims the Alaskan Way viaduct will survive the Big One, which is forecast for sometime between tomorrow and the year 3,000. More precisely, engineers say that in the next 10 years there is a 1 in 20 chance that an earthquake will cause the viaduct to fail.

Seattleites are well aware of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that pancaked Interstate 880's Cypress Street viaduct in Oakland, causing severe traffic disruption for the next decade. Something must be done. The Seattle mayor, the construction industry and unions, and Washington State transportation bureaucrats favor the most expensive remedy: tearing down the viaduct and building a tunnel along the waterfront. The Department of Transportation's website--helpfully available in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Tagalog--says the tunnel "takes advantage of a 100-year opportunity to open up Seattle's waterfront."

They say the tunnel will cost between $3.8 and $4.1 billion.

HISTORY SUGGESTS that these estimates are a deception designed to gain early support for a project that will turn out to be much more expensive.

Completed in 1869, the Suez Canal cost 20 times more than early projections, and three times more than estimates compiled the year construction began. Figures for the Panama Canal are murky but the project, completed in 1914, cost somewhere between 70 percent and 200 percent more than pre-construction estimates. The Sydney Opera House was first estimated at $7 million. When it was finished in 1973 the Aussies were looking at a $102 million tab.

Boston's notorious Big Dig, which put some of Interstate 93 beneath the city, took 20 years to complete and cost about $14.6 billion, the most expensive road project in U.S. history. The original estimate: $2.6 billion. A money sinkhole, the project ruined careers, sprung intractable leaks, and has now roused federal prosecutors.

The San Francisco Bay Area has its own ongoing financial calamity, caused in part by low initial estimates. The bridge connecting San Francisco and Oakland was built in the early 1930s and today carries 280,000 vehicles a day. The Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the bridge, and most experts agreed it needed to be replaced before another substantial earthquake rattles the region. In 1997 legislation was passed funding the new span, which was expected to open by 2004 and cost $1.7 billion. Construction on a replacement for the bridge's cantilever portion began in January 2002. Oakland residents--many of whom have long thought that their city got stuck with the butt end of the original bridge--wanted a signature look, so a lovely suspension bridge was settled on. As of today, a mile of the bridge juts out into the bay, and stops. By the time it is completed in 2012, it will have cost $6.3 billion. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom summed it up: "It's a fiasco."

At the Mixing Bowl in Springfield, Virginia, 400,000 vehicles a day come together on Interstates 95 and 395 and the Capital Beltway. During public hearings in January 1994 the price tag for the Mixing Bowl--a jumble of ramps, bridges and cloverleaves--was put at $220 million. Today $676 million is the latest guess at a final cost. The project might be finished next year.

Time and again promoters of big public projects use low-ball estimates to seduce a gullible public into supporting a project. How does this happen? An important study has concluded that the best explanation is "strategic misrepresentation, that is, lying."