Tunnel, bridge problems vex transportation tax talks

OLYMPIA — The problems facing two state transportation “megaprojects” will loom large over discussions in the Legislature this year to raise the gas tax to pay for roads, bridges and transit throughout Washington.

Leading lawmakers said at an Associated Press legislative forum Thursday that recent issues with the State Highway 520 bridge and Alaskan Way Viaduct replacements — including whether Seattle should have to pay for potential viaduct tunnel cost overruns — won’t make the already delicate talks any easier.

“It doesn’t help,” said Sen Curtis King, R-Yakima and co-chair of his chamber’s transportation committee.

Last month, Gov. Jay Inslee and legislative leaders said negotiations failed to produce a new tax package for transportation projects. Though they differed on the details, all sides were hoping for a roughly $10 billion deal that relied on increasing the state’s gas tax by at least 10 cents a gallon.

Inslee said Thursday that officials have the tendency to think they can kick the can down the road, but he said he would remain persistent in pushing for it to happen as soon as possible.

“This really is the year for action,” Inslee said.

In the fall, the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus held a series of public hearings across the state, soliciting input on transportation needs. Lawmakers were pressed about the need for more money for a variety of road projects from Spokane to Vancouver, and people in King County urged the Legislature to find a way to avoid large cuts to bus service.

On Wednesday, the state Department of Transportation said another $170 million is needed to complete the Highway 520 bridge replacement over Lake Washington. Officials said an agency error on pontoon design error is consuming most of the project’s reserve funds. Lawmakers had capped the project budget at $2.72 billion. And the machine digging a tunnel for Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement has been stuck for more than a month, raising concerns that more funds will be needed for that $1.4 billion project.

Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way and transportation committee co-chair, said addressing the state’s many transportation need was “vital to economic vitality.”

On the issue of the viaduct tunnel, a leading Senate Republican said Seattle taxpayers should foot the bill for any potential cost overruns on viaduct replacement. Sen. Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said it would be difficult to convince people in other areas of the state to help pay more for the tunnel. In 2009, the Legislature approved the tunnel replacement. However they included a provision in the law requiring Seattle to pay for any cost overruns.

“The law is the law,” Schoesler said.

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.”

Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson said at the forum that there was a $400 million risk reserve fund for the tunnel, including $40 million for “running into stuff.”

House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, said the state needed to reassess who is ultimately responsible for cost overruns for state “megaprojects” like the viaduct and the replacing the State Highway 520 bridge across Lake Washington.

“We as a state cannot continue to take on liability,” he said. “When’s the last time we didn’t have a cost overrun on a megaproject?”

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