Sometimes, moral outrage can prevail.

Leaders of the state House and Senate transportation committees say they intend to hold Highway 99 tunnel tollpayers responsible for covering $200 million in construction debts — instead of a reduced $165 million figure that was written into this year’s budget.

The $200 million reappears in a May 16 letter to the state Office of Financial Management from House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island; and Senate Transportation Committee co-chairs Curtis King, R-Yakima, and Tracy Eide, D-Federal Way.

The letter attributes the $165 million budget figure to a “drafting error.”

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In reality, the insistence on $200 million was a policy concession. Some senators have said they refuse to siphon another dollar from the rest of the state to cover Highway 99 cash shortages.

Clibborn said Friday that by sticking up for $200 million, the three lawmakers hope to send a signal to a Seattle-based toll advisory group because some of its members favor getting rid of tolls entirely.

Setting toll rates is trickier than just figuring out how much money the state needs to bring in. The higher the tolls, the more drivers would divert to other routes and choke the central city.

Forecasts range from 12 percent to 41 percent diversion. One of at least five options would charge $1.75 each direction at peak times, while another varies from $1.25 to $2.75 depending on time of day.

Four years ago, then-Gov. Chris Gregoire and the state Department of Transportation (DOT) assured lawmakers that tolling will support $400 million of the state’s $2.8 billion share to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel and interchanges.

But then last year, lawmakers passed a budget showing only $200 million, based on conservative rules from the state treasurer and national bond brokers. State DOT noticed the real-world diversion caused by new Highway 520 bridge tolls.

Fast forward to Feb. 6, when outgoing Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond proposed a more lenient target of $165 million. The missing $35 million can be recouped using federal stimulus money that’s left over from other highway jobs, she said.

That didn’t sit well with legislators in other areas of the state. And remember that the 2009 tunnel legislation contains a clause intending that any cost overruns “shall be borne by property owners in Seattle who benefit.”

Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, replied that the $235 million in erased toll proceeds would be helpful elsewhere, and he criticized a Seattle-centric advisory group.

“If they’re concerned that they don’t want any tolls, or they want the tolls so low that it only generates $165 million, then they can help replace the additional moneys that we’re losing,” said King.

Sen. Nathan Schlicher, D-Gig Harbor, said he shared the same “moral outrage” as King because his neighbors who drive the Tacoma Narrows bridges weren’t catching any price breaks.

Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Poulsbo, said she agreed. Sen. John Smith, R-Colville, said his district would love to have $235 million to build another phase of the North Spokane freeway.

The Highway 99 tunnel from Sodo to South Lake Union is scheduled to open by the start of 2016, placing four lanes of traffic underground, so Seattle can build a quieter, more parklike waterfront.

Maud Daudon, chairwoman of the toll panel, said members are still searching for a “sweet spot” that raises money without causing a traffic snarl.

“Until we get through with the committee work, I don’t think we know what the number is,” she said.

So why plug in a seemingly unreachable $200 million?

Besides sending a message, the letter also shows that legislators don’t want to argue about tunnel toll revenues until l 2014, so they can focus this year on a bigger deal to expand Highways 509, 167 and others, build fish-passage culverts, do some maintenance and stabilize the ferry fund,

using a 10-cent-per-gallon gas-tax increase and car fees.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or

On Twitter @mikelindblom