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Originally published December 18, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 18, 2006 at 7:56 AM

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$2 billion more needed to replace 520 bridge

Nobody knows how to pay for a new Highway 520 bridge. So far, as state lawmakers get ready to convene in Olympia next month, they're at...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Nobody knows how to pay for a new Highway 520 bridge.

So far, as state lawmakers get ready to convene in Olympia next month, they're at least $2 billion short.

"I wish I could say otherwise," said state Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, new chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee. "However, good people are working on it."

An estimated $4.4 billion, or perhaps as much as $5.3 billion, is needed to build a six-lane bridge to replace the four-lane span constructed in 1963. The world's longest floating highway is expected to wear out in 13 to 18 years, and engineers consider it to be as weak as the Alaskan Way Viaduct if an earthquake hits.

On Friday, Gov. Christine Gregoire endorsed a six-lane replacement. The announcement was overshadowed by her call for a Seattle-only public vote on whether to replace the viaduct with an elevated highway, or a tunnel.

Current proposals for 520 would generate only $2.1 billion — from $552 million in state gas taxes and some car-tab taxes; $700 million in expected tolls; and $800 million from a regional car-tab and sales-tax proposal likely to be on next fall's ballot.

For years, the issue of replacing the 520 has been a political hot potato. Geopolitically, the bridge sits in a netherworld between Seattle — where Mayor Greg Nickels unrelentingly advocates for an Alaskan Way tunnel — and the Eastside, where some officials devote their energy to expanding Interstate 405 east of Lake Washington.

After nine years of study, people still disagree about whether to build four, six, or eight lanes.

Gregoire thinks she solved the question over the bridge's width. But while the governor calls the 520 project her top transportation priority, she acknowledges there is no workable funding plan.

State officials are looking at funding ideas, yet to be released to the public. Dick Ford, chairman of the state Transportation Commission, says these scenarios would boost the total to $3 billion to $3.5 billion.

Still not enough.

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Where might money come from?

Taxes

In passing a pair of gas-tax increases this decade, worth $11.3 billion, lawmakers set aside only 5 percent of the total for a new bridge.

Gregoire has ruled out a third gas-tax increase, because Eastern Washington would surely resent it.

County council members are supposed to recommend other taxes to fill the gap for a 2007 regional ballot measure, but construction costs have risen since their talks started in 2002.

Clibborn accuses county officials of wanting to spread money too thinly across the region, instead of focusing more on the bridge.

Unless the ballot measure fully covers 520, it's doomed, Clibborn said.

"Everybody will say: 'Who are these people, we gave them all this money and stood behind them, why isn't it getting built?' We need to deliver."

Metropolitan King County Councilwoman Julia Patterson, D-SeaTac, said the state should contribute what it takes to replace the existing capacity of 115,000 vehicles a day on four lanes.

She says county officials are doing their job — their proposal for $1.5 billion in local tolls and regional taxes covers the additional cost of expanding the bridge to six lanes.

Tolls

There's wide agreement among lawmakers that tolls would be collected on the new bridge.

A fee could be collected electronically by using a sticker in the windshield of a moving car, as will be the case on the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

Prices could vary from 75 cents in the wee hours to $4.59 in the afternoon peak commute, when it opens in the next decade, according to a state study.

One question is whether tolls also should be imposed on Interstate 90 to raise more cash.

State Secretary of Transportation Doug MacDonald has predicted that someday so-called "system tolling" will be the norm on several highways. If so, the income probably would be divvied up beyond the lake — for instance, Interstate 5 needs $2 billion worth of reconstruction.

A big fear is that drivers will detour to I-90 if there are tolls on 520 alone, wreaking havoc with traffic flow, said Senate Transportation Committee chair Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island. However, the rush-hour traffic is so intense that few drivers can do so, the study says.

Public-private partnerships

If design and construction are both done by a private firm, as at the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, that might save time, and therefore, dollars.

Another model, common in Hong Kong, is for government to fund a project, then recoup money by selling or leasing the structure to private operators, who keep the tolls or fares in a 50-, 75- or 99-year deal. Or, the private contractors or operators could invest in a partial share of the project, reducing the state's initial taxpayer cost, said Joseph Giglio, a Northeastern University professor and expert on transportation finance.

Multi-generational financing

The state constitution puts a 30-year limit on bonds for construction. But officials wonder if they could raise more cash by spreading the payments over more decades.

The 30-year limit could be skirted by a private partnership that would issue its own debt lasting 40 or 50 years.

Such talk recalls the ill-fated Seattle Monorail Project, whose political support evaporated last year when it released a 50-year finance strategy that included junk bonds.

Ford replies that Highway 520 is a proven transportation link, crucial to the region's economy, even if it requires long-term debt.

State Treasurer Mike Murphy says the public would ultimately pay more in the long run than if the state issues its usual, low-interest bonds. "Is there anyone out there who can borrow money cheaper than we can? The answer is no. The rest is all fluff and smoke and mirrors. The bottom line is the consumer will pay for the cost of all roads, period."

Federal aid

MacDonald heaped praise upon Mary Peters, the new federal transportation secretary, when she visited Seattle on Nov. 27. MacDonald said later he meant every word, but he also hopes for some dollars down the road.

Peters toured the bridge, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., briefed her on the challenges of Highway 520 and other megaprojects.

Belt-tightening

King County Executive Ron Sims said it might be wise to replace the bridge but postpone the related on-shore road widenings until money could be found. The full project calls for widening Montlake Boulevard Northeast to six lanes, but John Milton, the state's 520 project manager, said that as a last resort, that part could be deferred as a second phase.

To really slash the price, some neighbors and environmentalists suggest a "Green Alternative," a four-lane bridge that Gregoire says would not allow for faster trips by buses and car pools.

Years of indecision over Highway 520 do have an upside.

In a region that espouses "reduce, reuse, recycle," drivers likely will wring every possible trip out of the cracking old bridge by the time it's replaced.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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