Pay for Highway 99 tunnel overruns or lose state aid, a Republican lawmaker from Kalama tells Seattle in a longshot bill filed this week.
The state Legislature might someday order Seattle to charge a city sales or property tax to pay off Highway 99 tunnel cost overruns, if Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, can get his latest bill passed.
Orcutt, who has fumed for years about runaway megaproject budgets, hopes to put some teeth into a vague and unenforceable clause in the 2009 legislation that approved the tunnel to replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct.
The clause says costs beyond the state’s $2.8 billion share from gas taxes, federal aid and tolls “shall be borne by property owners who benefit from replacement of the existing viaduct with the deep bore tunnel.”
In 2010, then-Attorney General Rob McKenna wrote that the clause carries no force, because there exists no mechanism to collect money from Seattle, unless lawmakers pass some other bill. Beyond that, the $1.44 billion construction contract with Seattle Tunnel Partners, and other major contracts, are signed by the Washington State Department of Transportation, not the city.
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“Well, here’s your mechanism,” Orcutt said Friday.
His bill would compel the city to levy either a sales tax of 1 cent per $10 purchase, or a property tax of $25 per $100,000 assessed value to reimburse the Washington State Department of Transportation, in the event WSDOT winds up paying cost overruns — which may take years of court fights to resolve.
Otherwise, the state would hold back revenue sharing for city street, transit and walk-bike uses; withhold the city’s share of liquor and marijuana taxes devoted to health programs; and withhold money for municipal courts, it says.
Of course, the argument would be moot if WSDOT wins all its legal struggles and avoids both the $480 million in contractor claims, and its own $149 million projected cost for extra administration and engineering due to project delays.
Tunnel-boring machine Bertha is expected to complete its 9,270-foot dig next week, some 29 months late, with a grand opening for traffic due by late 2018 or early 2019.
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Orcutt’s bill is a longshot.
He’s in the minority at the House Transportation Committee, which is led by Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island. The bill is so late in the session that the committee already approved its version of the 2017-19 transportation budget.
“He’s making a statement,” Clibborn said Friday. The project isn’t done, and court rulings or settlements could be years away, so a bill is premature, she said.
“I wouldn’t bring it to a vote, and he knows that.”
Perhaps he is setting the table for a stronger push next year. However, Orcutt said his proposal is directly related to the state budget, and therefore may still be considered under legislative rules.
Orcutt calls his bill a result of Transportation Secretary Roger Millar asking this session for a Highway 99 budget increase of $60 million, providing cash flow to cover state overhead for the next two years.
Beyond that, the proposed WSDOT budget offers a $15 million extension of its “construction mitigation” payments, which have funded increased Highway 99 bus service, a program Orcutt previously tried to eliminate.
Just these immediate costs are comparable to 2 cents per gallon in gas taxes over the coming biennium, Orcutt said, leading to more debt or unbuilt projects down the road.
He said the potential tunnel overruns represent real money in his blue-collar district along the lower Columbia River that depends on timber and industries. Unemployment is currently 7.3 percent and workers often drive long distances to jobs.
“A promise was made to the taxpayers of this state,” he said. “We should keep that promise.”