Urban Politics #219: Public Vote on the Tunnel


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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.

CONTENTS:

  • PROPOSAL FOR A PUBLIC VOTE ON THE TUNNEL
  • UPDATE ON FINANCES
  • COST OVERRUNS
  • COUNCIL SCHEDULE FOR VIADUCT DECISION
  • TRANSPORTATION BALLOT MEASURE

PROPOSAL FOR A PUBLIC VOTE ON THE TUNNEL

On August 3, I announced my intent to introduce a resolution to the City Council calling for a public vote on a tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The proposal calls for a public vote on the following “Yes” or “No” question:

“Should Seattle construct a tunnel to replace the existing Alaskan Way Viaduct?”

I proposed this because we don’t have enough funding to pay for a tunnel. I believe we need to consult the public before moving ahead. A tunnel likely costs at least $1 billion more than a rebuild.

After studying this issue in depth, I believe it is likely that if the City pursues a tunnel, City residents will have to make up the $1 billion cost difference between a tunnel and a rebuild. In essence, the question is: do you want to pay the cost difference?

Other less expensive options could be explored if the public decides against a tunnel.

UPDATE ON FINANCES

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) estimates the tunnel to cost $3.7 to $4.5 billion. WSDOT estimates the reduced “core” tunnel at $3.0 to $3.6 billion. They estimate a $2.7 to $3.1 billion cost for an elevated structure (this is the name WSDOT now uses for a rebuild), $2.0 to $2.4 billion for the “core” elevated structure.

The project has $2.4 billion in committed funds, enough for the core elevated option.

Mayor Nickels released a funding plan in June. Nickels plan lists $2.6 billion in what he calls “anticipated and potential” revenue sources, as listed below:

$280 million – Federal (transportation funding sources extending through two federal funding cycles)
$200 million- U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Seawall)
$60 million – Federal Emergency Relief funds for the earthquake damage and risk to the current viaduct
$800 million – Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID)
$150 million – Tolls
$177 million – Sales tax rebate on RTID-funded projects
$400 to $500 million – Utility relocation
$250 million – Downtown area Local Improvement District (LID) for areas near the project
$20 million – City of Seattle transportation funds
$200 million – Port of Seattle

Three state representatives-Speaker Frank Chopp, House Appropriations Chair Helen Sommers, and Mary Lou Dickerson, said in a letter about the funding sources that “we do not believe that they constitute a ‘feasible and sufficient’ finance plan for a tunnel,” noting that several of these sources are speculative, and all depend on future actions.

For example, federal transportation dollars are granted in 6 year cycles, and the next one doesn’t come up until 2011. The RTID is a possible ballot measure for 2007. The WSDOT website states, “To date, studies have shown that a toll solely on SR 99 would raise few funds. The sales-tax rebate may be altered by the legislature. The Downtown LID needs 60% approval, and the proposed area extends to Spokane Street, far beyond the tunnel location.

The finance proposal lists $400 to $500 million for utility relocation. The City earlier estimated utility costs from $128 to $568 million. Is this truly a revenue source, or a likely cost increase?

COST OVERRUNS

Is it realistic to expect there will be no cost overruns on a project of this size? Even a 10% cost overrun-not bad for a project of this size-would run into hundreds of millions of dollars. If the City had to pick up this cost, it could have a calamitous effect on the City budget.

Can we expect the state and the federal government to cover cost overruns? I asked the City’s Transportation Director who would be responsible for paying for cost overruns. I received a reply in May that stated, “as is typical with major projects that are a partnership of multiple agencies, every project partner may be expected to share the burden of cost overruns.”

However, the letter from the three state legislators states, “The Legislature funded a rebuild not a tunnel and we do not expect the executive or legislative branches to agree to overruns driven by a City preference.”

COUNCIL SCHEDULE FOR VIADUCT DECISION

The Council is scheduled to consider whether to place a measure on the ballot in September, after the Expert Review Panel makes its recommendations to the Governor. September 22 is the deadline for the City Council to place a measure on the ballot for the November 7 General Election.

TRANSPORTATION BALLOT MEASURE

The Council today passed a transportation maintenance ballot measure. Included in the package was an amendment I proposed stating that “No Levy Proceeds shall be used to fund the major repair or replacement, including but not limited to replacement with a waterfront tunnel, of the Alaskan Way Viaduct or the seawall located to the west of Alaskan Way.” The Council passed similar language I proposed for the proposed parking and employee taxes.

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