The Trouble With Gribbles: How a Water Termite is Shaping the Great Tunnel Debate

Will this little guy force McGinn's hand on the tunnel?
Mayoral candidate Mike McGinn has spent much of his campaign saying he'll save Seattle taxpayers from a $930 million tax increase to pay for its part of the tunnel project. Over at the Seattle Times, Mike Lindblom takes a long look at the impact McGinn's proposal to tear down the viaduct and simply enhance the surface street along Alaska Way. Basically, he finds that it will slow traffic through downtown immensely. But the one thing that Lindblom doesn't explore is that $930 million, specifically whether or not Seattle could actually get out of paying it even if McGinn manages to stop the tunnel.

And that's where the gribbles come in. Gibbles are millimeter-long crustaceans that eat through wood on docks, boats, and in Seattle, the sea wall keeping Elliott Bay from flooding Pioneer Square, built in 1935. Without a campaign to run since he was knocked out of the race for city council last month, Jordan Royer is volunteering his time on behalf of a coalition of waterfront business owners and other groups who want to see the tunnel plan come to fruition. Royer is a lobbyist for the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, which also back the tunnel. He calls McGinn's assertion that Seattle can get out of paying the $930 million for fixing the seawall and doing surface street improvements even if the tunnel plan is killed "disingenuous."

Seattle doesn't have any role in the tunnel part of the tunnel project. The state approved spending $2.4 billion to build it and is doing the contracting for that part of the project. (There is a dispute over who will be saddled with cost overruns on the project. The legislature passed an amendment in the bill authorizing the tunnel that puts Seattle on the hook for any overruns, but still-Mayor Greg Nickels has said it's not legally enforceable.) So far, the state has been proceeding as planned, today putting out a call for qualifications from companies interested in designing and building the tunnel.

The city, instead, is supposed to be replacing the sea wall, moving the electrical lines that currently run along the viaduct, and making improvements to Alaska Way and First Avenue after the tunnel is built. According to Royer, the sea wall aspect has to happen soon because of the gribbles. Royer points to a 2004 National Geographic article explaining that the little shellfish burrow into wood to make it more attractive as a living space for the even tinier organisms they eat. When the gribbles come back to eat out of the holes they drilled, they also expand the holes until the wood itself starts breaking down. According to National Geographic, the same thing happened on the wreckage of the Titanic and when Robert Ballard discovered it in 1985, all the exposed wood was gone.

So Seattle has to replace the sea wall lest it suffer the fate of the Titanic. And that's where Royer and his coalition supporting the tunnel say McGinn is errs in claiming that Seattle won't be stuck with a $930 million bill. McGinn argues that the state has to contribute the $2.4 billion to the overall viaduct replacement project regardless, saying voters approved a gas tax in part on the state's pledge that it would replace the structure. "What they're saying is, Seattle has to put in $930 million, even though the city voted against [the tunnel], but the state wouldn't have to put its money in, even though they voted for [the tax]," McGinn said in an interview last month defending his position.

But according to Royer other cities were also promised money from the gas tax increase. Tacoma, for instance, is seeking Highway 167 improvements. Lindblom's story references state Senate Transportation Committee Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, as saying other legislators will be after the $2.4 billion if the tunnel deal falls apart. And last July SW quoted state Senator Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who says that if McGinn kills the tunnel deal, he "risks having the legislature just pull the money out."

Meanwhile, those gribbles just keep feasting.

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