Highway projects' costs rise sharply
Cost estimates for regional highway projects are rising so fast that elected officials will need to trim lanes, delay some construction...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Cost estimates for regional highway projects are rising so fast that elected officials will need to trim lanes, delay some construction, or borrow money to produce a realistic plan for next fall's ballot.
Even a $7 billion tax proposition, suggested a year ago, is no longer enough to close the gap between existing state gasoline taxes and the cost of the roads Snohomish, King and Pierce counties want to build.
The three county councils may decide by spring how projects will be modified to fit the changing financial situation.
For instance, a three-mile extension of Highway 509 — to create a trucking corridor from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Interstate 5, plus more lanes on I-5 nearby — is now expected to cost $1.3 billion to $1.4 billion, up from an earlier estimate of $900 million, said Metropolitan King County Council member Julia Patterson, D-SeaTac. Patterson is vice-chairwoman of the Regional Transportation Investment District (RTID), a planning committee of county-council members.
State transportation leaders wouldn't comment on the new numbers.
Figures will be released in the next week or two, state Department of Transportation spokeswoman Joy Carpine said. "We're still working on the numbers," she said. However, some local officials got an early briefing this week.
Overall, prices are expected to rise 20 percent, said Jim Horn, a former state Senate Transportation Committee chairman who is monitoring the issue.
Projects in the plan include a widening of Highway 167 in the Green River Valley and Puyallup; new lanes on I-405 from Renton to Bellevue; a new Edmonds Station for trains, buses and ferries; and the expansion of two-lane Highway 9 to four lanes in east-central Snohomish County.
A new six-mile Cross-Base Highway in Pierce County had been expected to cost $257 million, but now it's likely to cost much more. That road would link I-5 to Highway 7 in Spanaway by going east-west between the Fort Lewis Military Reservation and McChord Air Force Base.
The big vote
A regional highway package, currently figured at $7 billion, could go to the ballot in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties in November 2007, if county officials can figure out how to deal with rising prices of road construction.
Material costs alone increased 8 percent a year from 2001 to 2005.
State transportation officials plan to reveal their latest cost estimates this month.
Elected officials have braced for an aftershock since September's news that costs of a proposed Alaskan Way Tunnel and a six-lane Highway 520 bridge had each risen by at least $1 billion, after the state Department of Transportation plugged in a more realistic inflation rate.
Like those epic projects, the suburban highways are affected by rising costs of concrete, steel and labor.
Highway planners are looking for ways to scale back certain projects or build them in phases.
King County Council member Reagan Dunn said he was pleased to learn that the Interstate 405 project south of Bellevue looks unscathed, except for losing new ramps at Coal Creek Parkway.
Two general-purpose lanes would still be added in each direction, he said. However, Highway 167 would lose some proposed lanes.
Another option for the highway package is borrowing money from future generations. The RTID group last winter envisioned a "pay as you go" approach to fund all projects within 20 years, but rising costs have created a temptation to sell bonds, spreading the payments over a longer time period.
Currently, the three-county highway proposal calls for a car-tab tax of $80 per $10,000 of value, plus a sales-tax boost of 10 cents per $100 purchase. The new taxes would total $107 a year for an average household.
The highway work will get billions from recent increases in the state gas tax. But regional sales and car-tab taxes were envisioned to cover the rest, including a share of the 520 bridge and Alaskan Way Tunnel. Rising tunnel costs have kept alive the idea of tearing down the old Alaskan Way Viaduct in favor of a surface boulevard plus more bus service.
Complicating matters, state law requires that both the $7 billion highway measure and an $11 billion Sound Transit package pass on the same ballot, or both fail. The RTID and Sound Transit governing boards include many of the same officials.
If the highway team can't solve its puzzle by spring, the Legislature ought to let Sound Transit reach the ballot alone, with a sales-tax request to pay for extensions of light rail into the suburbs, believes Rob Johnson, regional policy director for the Transportation Choices Coalition, which promotes alternatives to driving alone. He predicts the highway plan won't be ready until 2008.
Ric Ilgenfritz, executive director of Sound Transit policy and public affairs, said his agency isn't yearning to break away from the highway proposal. Both sides will ask the Legislature for a "one pull of the lever" amendment, so citizens will simply vote on one combined tax measure to tackle both roads and transit.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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