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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.
- HOLD THE VOTE ON MONDAY FOR THE MERCER PROJECT
- MERCER PROJECT FINANCES
- BRIDGING THE GAP LEVY AND PROGRAM
- COMMERCIAL PARKING TAX/EMPLOYEE TAX
- LEGISLATION BEFORE COUNCIL
- COMMITMENT OF FUTURE RESOURCES
Today I announced that I will move to hold the Mercer Street Project at Monday’s Full Council meeting on May 12th. The Council has not had adequate time to review this project. New information has just been released. In addition, the cost of the project has spiraled out of control to $193 million.
In this UP I will explain how information has been withheld from the Council and how that has shut the door on a public discussion on the usefulness of this project.
At this past week’s Transportation Committee Meeting I criticized the Mercer Project and was told by the Director of our Transportation Department that their analysis showed a positive result. When I pressed her as to where this information came from, the Director said that her Department had already distributed it to our staff. As it turns out they had given our staff 3 pages of a 100 page document: the Mercer Corridor Improvements Project Environmental Assessment, Transportation Discipline Report by CH2MHILL.
The Director also said that the material was being given to us as it was completed. After I insisted that they provide the full report to us, our staff noted that the report had been completed in August of 2006. How did they expect the Council to vote on one of the largest public works projects this city has ever seen without reading the most important supporting document analyzing it?
Click here to go to the May 6, 2008, Transportation Committee meeting page. I begin speaking at 58:48; my presentation on Mercer begins at 59:40.
Legislation before the Council on Monday, May 12 would provide $14 million for the Mercer Project; my amendment to remove this funding failed by a 6-1 vote at the May 6 Transportation Committee meeting.
Mercer Project cost estimates have increased from $100 million in the 2005 Capital Improvement Program (CIP) to $115 million in the 2007 CIP, to the current estimate of $193 million. Meanwhile the current secured level of funding for the project is only $8.4 million. That is less than 4 percent of the project’s total cost. Proceeding with this project is not only premature; it is also exposes the City to unacceptable financial risk and does not follow the Auditor’s guidelines.
To make up for the cost increase and the failure of the 2007 regional roads and transit ballot measure, the Mayor proposed revised finance plans for the Mercer and Spokane projects. A key element calls for issuing an extra $40 million in bonds beyond the original plan of $80 million in the Bridging the Gap Program, to be financed from extra revenues from the commercial property tax. In addition, $20 million from the delayed Lander Street Project would be shifted to these two projects. I support shifting the $20 million from Lander to Spokane. I do not support the extra $40 million for Mercer since those funds could be used to fund other more needed transportation projects throughout the city.
The Bridging the Gap Program provides $545 million for transportation improvements during 2007-15, in three parts: $361 million from the property tax levy passed by voters in 2006, and $184 million from the commercial parking and business transportation (employee) taxes passed by the Council. Phase 1 of the 20 year spending plan goes from 2007-15, Phase 2 from 2016-26. This funding is in addition to preexisting City transportation funding (it’s not legal to use levies for backfilling purposes).
Phase 1 was designed to eliminate 50% of the City’s transportation maintenance backlog.
The legislation adopting the parking and employee taxes list several possible uses: street maintenance, sidewalks, bridge maintenance and replacement, traffic management, bicycle, pedestrian and safety programs, the neighborhood street fund, and major projects, and other uses.
Although the legislation before the Council does not fully commit the City to the new Mercer funding plan it does allow for $10 million for land purchases and $4 million in design costs. But more importantly it keeps the project moving, builds momentum and undercuts any attempt to halt the project. While the Council has set some conditions that must be met before the Mayor can spend more money on the Mercer Project, they do not present a formidable challenge to the project proceeding.
Furthermore, the Council is expected to vote soon on a bond sale that would provide $43 million in bonds for the Mercer Project. Although the money cannot be spent until authorized by the Council in 2009, it will be sitting there just waiting to be spent after the conditions have been met. There is no reason to vote for the entire bond issue at this time and I will propose that at the upcoming Budget Committee Meeting on Thursday May 15th.
The key issue I see is setting priorities. It appears the City will be gaining additional parking tax revenue beyond the original Bridging The Gap funding plan. These funds must be used for transportation purposes. This legislation sends us down the path toward dedicating these additional $40 million in funds primarily to just one project: the Mercer Project. Rather these funds should be used to reduce the maintenance backlog. If we do not show a judicious use of the public’s levy funds, I believe a renewal of the property tax levy for additional transportation purposes may not pass.
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