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Viaduct Plan Is Long On Ideas, Short On Money

Original Article

While the debate over a new Alaskan Way Viaduct is focused on whether a replacement will be either above or below ground, the real hurdle is finding the billions to pay for the project — a politically charged prospect that could last years and likely require voter-approved taxes.

The cost of building a new viaduct and adjacent seawall along downtown Seattle’s waterfront could exceed $4 billion. But local and state leaders are likely to pick a preferred alternative later this year with only about 5 percent of the funds either committed or spent so far, including about $177 million from a special nickel-a-gallon state gas tax.

To be sure, hundreds of millions of dollars more will be forthcoming to replace the earthquake-damaged viaduct. But local, state and federal leaders say they will have to tap into a host of sources, everything from a massive federal “mega projects” fund to a special regional sales tax on gasoline and new vehicles to an assessment on waterfront property owners.

The biggest honey pot likely will be the federal government. State and local leaders are banking on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers covering a big chunk of the estimated $800 million needed to replace the seawall. Project planners also are hoping to get up to $100 million of the state’s share of federal transportation money.

Leaders also are keen to having the viaduct included on a federal list of mega projects that could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars. Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and state Department of Transportation Secretary Douglas MacDonald have lobbied U.S. Rep. Don Young, the Alaskan Republican and chairman of the powerful House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and Rep. Tom Petri, who chairs the House subcommittee overseeing highways.

Petri, a Wisconsin Republican, has become well versed on the viaduct project, thanks in part to a Harvard classmate, Bruce Chapman, who is president of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank.

Meanwhile, the state Legislature has committed $177 million from the 5-cent gas tax passed in 2003, and has added $40 million more for preconstruction engineering and environmental impact studies. The state may need to contribute more money.

But state Sen. Jim Horn, a Mercer Island Republican who chairs the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee, said major funding for big transportation projects in Seattle and Tacoma may be a tough sell in the Legislature.

In 2002 the Legislature granted the county councils of Snohomish, King and Pierce counties the authority to form a Regional Transportation Investment District to tap a variety of revenue sources, including sales and gas taxes, motor vehicle excise tax and vehicle license fee, as well as tolls on the Highway 520 floating bridge. If approved by the voters, the tax package could raise $12 billion and cost the average household $270 to $290 a year, excluding tolls.

The regional transportation district board has approved a funding package that includes raising $2.7 billion for Interstate 405 and $1 billion for the viaduct and seawall project. But the district board has sputtered at getting a transportation package on the ballot.

Pierce County Councilman Shawn Bunney said after business leaders warned that voters would not support the package, the regional board concluded that this fall was not the right time to go to polls. Bunney said if voters support Initiative 884, which proposes a state sales tax hike for education, it may signal willingness to also support increased sales taxes for transportation projects.
In King County, an advisory measure was added to the Nov. 2 ballot that will test the waters to see if the public wants to vote on a large, locally funded transportation package next year to pay for road improvements, including the viaduct.

City of Seattle leaders know they, too, are obligated to pony up money, because the city owns the seawall. A “back of the envelope estimate” has the city chipping in about $200 million, said Patrice Gillespie Smith, staff director for the city’s Department of Transportation.
That could include the cost of moving utilities, and it also could include a special assessment on land owners along the waterfront. That so-called local improvement district assessment could raise up to $200 million.

Contact: glamm@bizjournals.com • 206-447-8505×158