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State lawmakers disagree about whether Seattle is stuck with Bertha bill

State lawmakers are disagreeing about whether Seattle taxpayers should be on the hook for any cost overruns associated with the troubled waterfront tunnel project.

At a legislative forum Thursday in Olympia, Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, argued the legislature included a provision in the funding bill for the viaduct replacement requiring Seattle pay for any cost overruns.

“It would be very hard to convince a legislator from Vancouver or Yakima or Spokane to change hundreds of millions of dollars in spending to cover that action, so right now I think the law is the law.”

Legal experts have said enforcing that requirement would be difficult, noting that the language of the amendment was vague. Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said “Seattle is not on the hook … we will deal with this as a state.”

Senator Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, agreed.

“When you take a look at what’s happened with Bertha, there is a pipe in front of it. That is not a pipe that Seattle put in the ground.”

It might be a moot point. According to Governor Inslee, the contractor hired to build the tunnel could be liable. But he said Thursday it’s too soon to play the blame game.

“Let’s drill Bertha, let’s get this job done, let’s focus as a team to get the job done and we’ll worry about some of these cost issues at the appropriate moment,” Inslee said.

The Washington Department of Transportation said earlier this week it still doesn’t know how long the tunnel project would be delayed or potential cost of the delays and damage to the drilling machine known as Bertha. It has been stopped since hitting a steel pipe in early December.

Former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn was a frequent critic of the tunnel and demanded legislation in 2010 specifically exempting Seattle from liability for cost overruns. Lawmakers and then-Governor Christine Gregoire refused, insisting it wasn’t necessary.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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