Gov. Jay Inslee wants to use a half-billion dollars in federal pandemic relief money to keep up with rapid cost increases on the Highway 520 bridge replacement, and widenings for the Eastside’s combined Interstate 405/Highway 167 program.
That spending, which has to be approved by the Legislature, is supposed to protect both megaprojects, already delayed, from losing more time. Federal cash also helps elected officials avoid even considering a gasoline tax increase, sparing both parties the risk of angering voters in an election year.
That’s a change from 2021, when lawmakers almost raised the gas tax by 9.8 cents per gallon, and did enact a carbon-pricing system that starts in 2023. Rather than boost taxes now, Senate Democrats filed a 2022 transportation budget bill that reflects a big federal infusion.
The newly disclosed cost spikes illustrate how highways face the same strains as transit: rising labor and materials prices; a shortage of big-time contractors that generates higher bids; and lost engineering time early in the COVID-19 outbreak. Also, Inslee suspended some road projects temporarily after Tim Eyman’s Initiative 976 passed in 2019 to reduce car-tab taxes, only to be shot down by the Supreme Court for a misleading ballot title.
Highway inflation isn’t as well-known as Sound Transit’s current $6.5 billion funding shortfall in three counties, blamed largely on land prices and estimating errors. They’re related, because Sound Transit’s Stride bus rapid transit on I-405, which voters approved to begin in 2024, is already delayed until 2027 or 2028, and would slip further if the state loses more time on I-405 roadbuilding that provides bus-entrance lanes, and new toll lanes where buses could move fast along the freeway.
The governor’s plan fits a purpose of federal relief money, which is replacing lost state revenues, said Erik Hansen, senior analyst for the state Office of Financial Management. WSDOT also lost toll income when traffic plunged in 2020-21.
“It will let us stay on top of critical projects on major highways, like the 520, 405 and 167 corridors that we do not want to see halted,” Inslee said when announcing his proposed budget last month.
On the other hand, those are dollars states may apply to other infrastructure such as water and sewer projects, or even human services.
The state received a total $4.4 billion in American Rescue Plan Act money, and entered 2022 with $1.3 billion unspent, of which the two big highway projects would get $500 million. Federal pandemic aid of all kinds to Washington state totaled around $11 billion, the vast majority going to households, medical needs and schools.
House Transportation Committee Chair Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, said the governor’s plan isn’t a done deal. He proposes eliminating sales tax on Highway 520 construction and supplies, thus conserving $200 million for that project, then reserve ARPA money for other programs.
However, Fey defends using federal funds for roads, noting the general fund enjoys a surplus while recent transportation revenues dipped in the pandemic.
“You have to have a functioning transportation system, for the state to be successful,” he said.
WSDOT began planning in 1997 and broke ground in 2011 to replace the Highway 520 segment between I-405 and I-5, to be completed in the early 2030s. The original floating and fixed bridge spans opened in 1963, and drivers still travel over concrete columns that could shatter in an earthquake.
Transportation Secretary Roger Millar described the rescue act transfer as preservation funds, saying Wednesday it sustains a needed replacement of the seismically weak Highway 520 structures, improving “lifeline” access after any future disaster.
The Highway 520 program requires $406 million in new money, to reach a total $5.1 billion, the Legislature’s budget records show. Of that, $200 million would be federal relief dollars under Inslee’s proposal, with the remainder from state transportation accounts and a bond sale next decade.
The connection in Seattle will be completed in 2031-33, about five years after the former 2027 goal, said Dawn Yankauskas, deputy 520 administrator for WSDOT. A new Montlake Interchange is now being built, followed by a concrete girder Portage Bay Bridge, a scenic north Capitol Hill lid, and a busway from 520 into the I-5 Express Lanes.
WSDOT added features after talks with the community, Yankauskas said. A bike lane will be added to the Portage Bay bridge, along with bike-trail connections around Capitol Hill, she said. The lid will have better viewpoints toward the bay and Lake Washington.
Geotechnical studies for the bus interchange found unstable soils on Capitol Hill. Those require a stronger retaining wall and deep foundations for the lid and Portage Bay segment too, she said.
Sloppy soils have been known about for six decades, when a landslide interfered with construction of the original Highway 520. But Yankauskas said that in recent engineering, “We started to understand we were dealing with something much greater than anticipated.”
Fey, the Tacoma lawmaker, said, “I was shocked by the amount of the increase for 520.” He expects more shortfalls as WSDOT designs the Puget Sound Gateway, the planned extensions of Highways 167 and 509 that will connect to the Port of Tacoma and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. “I expect it will be a regular thing, which is very disconcerting,” he said.
Similarly, the long-awaited I-405/Highway 167 program is $450 million short, of which $300 million would be covered by federal grants, and the rest through road funds and by waiving sales tax on construction. The $4 billion plan adds toll lanes between Bellevue and Renton, several exit lanes, and new capacity near the tight Sammamish Slough crossing in Bothell.
In a Senate committee hearing, Bellevue City Councilmember Jennifer Robertson told senators her city anticipates 25,000 new jobs by 2025, “but with that excitement also comes immense pressure to improve access for future growth, and to also fix our existing mobility problems.”
Lawmakers last year spent $600 million of ARPA aid for roads and $400 million for culvert replacements that improve flow for fish streams.
The 405/167 program wasn’t included, Robertson testified. “Now it’s time to deliver on that promise, this session.”
In yet another bit of fortune, Inslee proposed directing $329 million from the Biden administration’s new Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, for transportation preservation through 2025. That could address a crisis lawmakers and governors created in the 2000s and 2010s, by borrowing so heavily for megaprojects WSDOT couldn’t keep up with maintenance on crumbling roads and bridges.