Senate Unveils Bipartisan Road Construction Budget

Thu April 19, 2007 - West Edition
David Ammons - AP POLITICAL WRITER



OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) Senate transportation leaders have thrown their bipartisan support behind a new $8.1 billion highway budget plan for Washington that would get hundreds of road projects back on schedule and cover hefty cost overruns.

The two-year spending proposal earmarks nearly all of the billions needed to build a new State Highway 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington. The proposal also adopts a new $915 million plan for initial work on a replacement for Seattle’s waterfront Alaskan Way Viaduct. Both are considered at risk of failing in a big earthquake.

Those two “mega-projects” in the congested Puget Sound region are atop a list of 432 road and bridge projects that would get a big boost from the new budget, released March 27.

The proposal, higher than the $7.4 billion version that cleared the state House a day earlier, accelerates some major road projects and pledges to eventually build all of the road and bridge projects that were promised when lawmakers approved gas-tax hikes.

The Legislature boosted the tax by a nickel four years ago and, with the voters’ approval, adopted a four-step, 9.5-cent increase two years ago.

The state tax is now at 34 cents a gallons and rises 2 cents in July and another 1.5 cents one year later.

Besides “mega-projects” like the viaduct and floating bridge, the proposal includes freeway improvements, new connector roads, safety improvements on many highways, four new ferry boats, freight rail and road projects, car pool lanes, and passenger rail and other non-highway approaches to moving goods and people.

Many of the projects, such as improvements on Interstate 90 over Snoqualmie Pass, are racking up big cost overruns, mostly because of the soaring cost of materials as China and others beef up their own infrastructure.

Senate Transportation Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, noted that her budget includes no new projects and that many expensive and necessary proposals eventually will need money. She said new taxes will be required, including state, regional, and federal money as well as tolls. She didn’t have a timeline or further specifics.

“We’d love to have done more, but money goes only so far,” Haugen said. “As it is, we’re feeling pretty good about the ways we found to keep our major projects on schedule.”

Sen. Dan Swecker of Rochester, the ranking Republican on the transportation panel, was at Haugen’s side during a news conference and embraced the proposal. He said it is taking a Herculean effort to keep all the highway projects alive and on schedule despite the skyrocketing cost of materials.

The Senate’s version is expected to pass the upper chamber. House-Senate negotiators then will be assigned to work on a compromise during the final three weeks of the session.

A look at highlights:

• VIADUCT. Seattle, King County and the state plan a fresh attempt to find an acceptable replacement for the quake-damaged structure, which handles more than 110,000 vehicles a day. Both houses agree to $915 million to get started on work needed regardless of the design that is chosen.

• 520 BRIDGE. The plan identifies as much as $4.1 billion for a project that could cost $4.3 billion. This would include $560 million in state money, federal dollars, $1.1 billion from regional taxes, $1.2 billion in expected tolls, and heavy use of a $1 billion pool of money that is set aside exclusively for the viaduct and bridge.

• COST OVERRUNS. The Senate budget accommodates nearly $2 billion in escalating costs. Examples: I-90 improvements at Snoqualmie Pass were originally budgeted at $388 million, but now are at $525 million. Highway 16 and I-5 car pool lanes originally costing $930 million are now expected to be $1.4 billion. The Highway 395 North Spokane corridor has risen from $374 million to $473 million.

• BACK ON SCHEDULE. Gov. Chris Gregoire had proposed sliding the schedule for some projects, but the Senate budget keeps them on track and even accelerates 17 projects that are ready to go. The latter include stretches of I-5, I-90, I-405, and Highways 9, 20, 539, 395, and 167. The $470 million replacement of the eastern half of the Hood Canal Bridge also would be accelerated.

• FERRY SYSTEM. The Senate plan would allow a scheduled 2.5 percent ferry fare increase to proceed in May. The House wants a one-year fare freeze. Fares rose 6 percent last year. Both houses would freeze eight terminal projects for two years while a study of ferry usage and terminal needs is conducted.

• FREIGHT & RAIL. The plan includes $76 million for 40 freight mobility rail projects and money for freight projects across the state. The budget would provide $229 million for rail, including a fifth daily roundtrip for the Amtrak Cascades from Seattle to Portland.