The Legislature’s “stick it to Seattle” clause is resurfacing on the Highway 99 tunnel project, as a reason to possibly cut off state transit aid before the late job gets finished.
With the Highway 99 tunnel project two years behind schedule, a top Republican lawmaker says he’ll resist a proposal to pay another $17 million, to keep transit buses moving through the construction zone.
That’s a cost overrun Seattle should eat, as far as Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, is concerned.
“The project is taking longer than it should have. Should that cost be borne on the state taxpayers’ dime?” he said. “Or should it be borne by the city of Seattle or by the contractors?”
2009 overruns language
“The state’s contribution shall not exceed two billion four hundred million dollars. If costs exceed two billion four hundred million dollars, no more than four hundred million of the additional costs shall be financed with toll revenue. Any costs in excess of two billion eight hundred million dollars shall be borne by property owners in the Seattle area who benefit from replacement of the existing viaduct with the deep bore tunnel.”
Source: Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 5768
If the money is cut off, service could be at risk for 150 bus runs a day through the western side of the city, especially for some of the 20,000 weekday riders whose buses travel on the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Or if the city and county fully fund those trips, they’d have less cash for other parts of the bus network.
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At peak times, more people ride on buses than in cars on the viaduct’s mid-downtown ramps at Seneca and Columbia streets — and transit has become especially critical as tunnel construction squeezes traffic into fewer lanes.
The tiff over bus aid revives discussion of a much-debated clause, inserted into the Highway 99 tunnel legislation six years ago, asserting that any excess project costs would be borne by “property owners in the Seattle area who benefit.”
The phrase is a reminder that razing the old viaduct will boost property values, and downtown interests in 2009 lobbied for the tunnel instead of a cheaper elevated highway. A transit debate would re-stir certain lawmakers’ resentments toward what they see as Washington’s haughty city.
Five years, ago, pro-tunnel Gov. Chris Gregoire famously sparred about the overruns clause with anti-tunnel Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, whose questions she dismissed as “hypotheticals.”
McGinn said the language put Seattle on the hook. But Gregoire, then-Attorney General Rob McKenna and Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said the stick-it-to-Seattle language — included to placate some tunnel opponents from outside the city — would not be enforceable. One reason is that the tunnel construction contract is between the state and private contractors, and is not city-funded.
However, bus money is outside the contract and subject to legislative tinkering.
Orcutt, the senior minority-party member on the House Transportation Committee, says he’ll offer an amendment in committee Monday, or later on the House floor, to block more transit money.
The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) made the request within its routine operating budget — which is separate from a potential $15 billion transportation package that would require an 11.7-cent gas tax boost and more fees.
Since 2010, state aid has enabled King County Metro Transit to add 150 runs per weekday for lines including Route 120 from White Center and Delridge, the C Line through Alaska Junction and Avalon Way, and some commute-only routes.
“We promised we would do transit mitigation, as long as the project was under way,” said House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island.
So far, the state has forwarded $36.5 million toward extra Seattle buses, Metro said Friday.
State Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson extended funding last year when it would have run out, but Metro says the money lasts only until July 1 of this year. Clibborn supports an additional $17 million, to last through mid-2017.
“It’s something I felt we have committed to, so I didn’t feel it was a cost overrun,” Clibborn said.
Metro says total ridership has grown from 77,000 people per weekday to 114,000 since 2010, on bus routes that got at least a small amount of state aid — including trips on the viaduct, Aurora Avenue North and 15th Avenue West.
If lawmakers halt transit aid, where would the money come from?
Seattle voters in November passed a $60 car-tab fee and a 0.1 percent sales tax, worth a combined $45 million a year, to add bus operating hours citywide.
Orcutt said he wasn’t aware of the city’s ballot measure, and he only cares that the state doesn’t eat future bus costs.
A fraction of the city’s 223,000 new bus hours — funded by the Seattle vote — will cover three extra morning trips to relieve crowded runs on Route 120, plus 12,000 hours for the C Line in West Seattle and its linked D Line to Ballard, so buses arrive every seven to eight minutes during peaks.
The $17 million appears in budget drafts by both the Democrat-controlled House and Republican-controlled Senate, which Metro spokeswoman Rochelle Ogershok calls a sign of bipartisan support.
“The state has an obligation to fund the service and City’s expectation is that they will do so,” said Rick Sheridan, city transportation spokesman, in an email.
If the $17 million is approved, it would be drawn from the state’s “multimodal fund” using car-tab fees, not gas taxes that constitutionally can pay only for roads.
Clibborn said she resisted the temptation to further tap the $2.8 billion Highway 99 budget, because that would deplete the project’s contingency fund. That reserve stands at $140 million, but contractors are asking the state to pay more than $200 million in change orders, setting the stage for tough negotiations or lawsuits.
Meanwhile, tunnel-boring machine Bertha’s front end sits on the surface near Pioneer Square, to be repaired and strengthened to at last continue its trek to South Lake Union.
The machine and the money still have a ways to go.
A Metro rider newsletter says the county wants state aid to stretch even longer — until the viaduct is down and waterfront streets rebuilt in 2019 or beyond.