The resurfacing of Bertha ends one set of anxieties for the Highway 99 tunnel. The next phase brings new ones, including tolling rates.
THE sight of Bertha’s six-story snout poking into the daylight certainly ends the anxiety about the 86-ton machine being stuck under Seattle like a fossilized dinosaur. Completion of the tunneling phase of the Highway 99 project crystallizes a long-held downtown vision: Seattle with a viaduct-free waterfront.
The coming phases of the mammoth project will be equally important, bringing new anxieties and questions for local and state lawmakers — and drivers.
• Traffic: Elected officials cheering Bertha’s emergence must address the traffic disruption the tunnel project will create in coming years. Because it will have fewer lanes than the viaduct, tolls and no midtown access, officials are trying to reconfigure downtown streets in response.
• Tolls: The 1.7-mile tunnel is expected to generate $200 million in toll revenue. In a perverse bit of logic, an overly aggressive toll rate would further divert budget-conscious drivers to surface streets, exacerbating Seattle’s already crushing rush-hour traffic.
The state is finishing a study for future tolling decisions. In 2014, peak rush-hour tolls of $1.25 were suggested, but state officials now say the price could be twice that. Toll pricing matters — a lot. And the kind of snafus with the Highway 520 toll vendor must not be repeated.
• Waterfront park: Seattle hopes to have the reclaimed waterfront, freed from the noisy viaduct, by 2023. Before then, the city plans to raise $200 million from a local improvement district on downtown property owners whose parcels benefit from the enhanced waterfront. How broadly that district is defined, and how the extra assessment is justified, will be critically important.
• Cost overruns: State Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, rekindled an old political fight over cost overruns. A 2009 amendment in the state Legislature put the onus on Seattle property owners, but the “stick it to Seattle” approach has been debunked because the amendment contained no method for billing the city.
The Legislature should, again, give this tired debate a rest. Highway 99 is a state project. Let the lawyers and courts parcel out responsibility for what went wrong, and who pays. Beyond what the contractor pays, any cost overruns would be a state responsibility.