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Originally published August 3, 2010 at 10:00 PM | Page modified August 4, 2010 at 10:55 AM

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520 bridge shortfall: more tolls, taxes ahead

It's becoming apparent that a new Highway 520 floating bridge won't solve traffic jams without a tax increase, expansion of tolls to nearby I-90, or both.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

Where the money is

This scenario shows that approved funding sources can cover $2.4 billion in construction through 2017, enough to pay for the floating section and Eastside approaches, assuming bonds are sold.

State gas tax: $553 million

Federal funding (bonds): $658 million

Federal funding (cash): $214 million

Bridge tolls (bonds): $859 million.

Bridge tolls (cash): $82 million

Source: SR 520 Corridor Account — Draft Financial Plan worksheet obtained by Fran Conley

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It's becoming apparent that a new Highway 520 floating bridge won't solve traffic jams without a tax increase, expansion of tolls to nearby Interstate 90, or both.

More than three years ago, the state Department of Transportation (DOT) acknowledged a $2 billion shortfall for the $4.65 billion crossing from Bellevue to Seattle. It's a problem that has yet to be fixed.

Pontoons to support the new bridge are about to be built in Grays Harbor, but only about two-thirds of the new six-lane crossing can be completed with money approved so far. The state can build the floating section but cannot yet afford to complete the Seattle landings from Foster Island to Interstate 5, the most politically and economically tricky segment.

The money already allocated for replacing the 1963 bridge will come from a variety of sources including federal grants, 520 tolls and gas taxes.

However, "it'll take some kind of legislative decision to fully fund the $4.6 billion project," said Amy Arnis, DOT's chief financial officer.

That means more taxes and tolls, and it means that while the floating segment of the bridge can be done by 2014, the now-clunky west-side approaches won't be. Finishing the project would likely take a couple more years in ideal political conditions.

Project critic Fran Conley, whose Roanoke Park home overlooks the Portage Bay segment of Highway 520, fears westbound drivers could have to squeeze from three bridge lanes into two on the west side for far longer — in effect moving today's Medina bottleneck west until the 2020s, when money might be found and the project finished.

One reason is a statewide highway-fund shortfall. There soon will be no money from gas taxes approved in the 2000s that isn't already spoken for by other projects or bond debt. The forecasts errantly assumed growth in gasoline use, which instead has gone nearly flat. As a result, long-term projects that leaders promised — such as Stevens Pass safety rebuilds and the redecking of worn I-5 through Seattle — are now underfunded.

Another cause of the problem: The scope of the project has expanded over the years, making it more expensive, says former state Treasurer Mike Murphy.

Rep. Deb Eddy, D-Kirkland, a bridge supporter, acknowledges "you could fairly say we haven't filled in that blank" with a funding plan.

While nobody can absolutely guarantee the state will deliver money on time, Eddy said several options already have been studied, so she's confident lawmakers will figure it out.

Most likely, she said, there needs to be some kind of statewide funding — decided by legislators, not a public ballot, she hopes — that encompasses roads, transit and freight projects. Some form of I-90 tolling also will happen, she and other legislative leaders have said.

"I realize there are unknowns and risks out there. But I don't see anything out there that gives me heartburn right now," Eddy said.

Conley, former CEO of Cutter & Buck, replies that if the bridge were only a couple hundred million in the red, optimism might be OK, but not at a couple billion.

"People have a tactic of using happy talk, and I think that where it gets us is a partially funded bridge."

Piling up debt

Conley recently has spotted details in state documents that dramatize the funding gap:

• Even after variable tolls on the new bridge that reach $3.50 or so each way at peak times, the state will end up with debt financing for about three-fourths of the total, putting a squeeze on any tax flow for future projects.

Part of the funding plan calls for the state to sell bonds based on anticipated federal bridge grants, a tactic Murphy questions because federal funding is given on only a six-year cycle, and it's risky to assume what future U.S. governments will do.

• A 2010 gas-tax bond prospectus mentions an "initial component" worth $2.6 billion, and a July diagram shows a "Floating Bridge and Landings Project" portion that halts short of Seattle.

Conley calls that the partial-bridge plan.

The floating stretch is what Gov. Chris Gregoire refers to in speeches when she promises a new bridge will be ready by 2014.

"The schedule for constructing the other segments of the corridor is pending additional funding," DOT's project website says.

For the record, state leaders have never endorsed an incomplete bridge.

What Gregoire has said is that time is of the essence to replace the floating part, which DOT says is at risk of sinking in a severe windstorm. Only this year, after 13 years of debate, have the state and city governments agreed on design concepts for the Seattle side.

Ted Lane, a fellow member of Conley's group, Coalition for a Sustainable SR 520, suggests strengthening the bridge and observing for five years the effect tolls have on traffic. "Right now, a lot of this is flying blind," he says of the toll and finance plans.

• The state transportation budget shows only $2.6 billion in revenue from now through about 2019, confirming there's not a long-term source of revenue to finish the west side of the bridge.

Gas taxes

Conley has written a report and discussed it with a number of leaders, including Murphy and current Treasurer Jim McIntire, and House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle.

Eddy compares Conley's maneuvers to those made by Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn regarding the Highway 99 tunnel.

"She is going to continue to look for every opportunity to throw a monkey wrench in the works. She will not be happy unless the bridge is not built," Eddy says of Conley.

State Sen. Ed Murray, whose district includes the Seattle bridge landing, said Tuesday that Conley's report "confirms the point that I've made, that we don't have a solid financial plan for 520." Murray has long supported I-90 tolls.

He also expects that any new taxes, such as on gasoline, will need his district's voters to withstand any initiative challenge. Therefore, DOT must improve the 520 plan's transit connections, limit congestion and reduce noise, he said.

Aubrey Davis, the 92-year-old former Transportation Commission chairman, said another increase in the state gas tax, which rose 14 & 1/2 cents a gallon in the 2000s, would indeed be one answer. Gas taxes seem relatively popular because they penalize the "bad behavior" of carbon use, he said. Lawmakers don't want to raise them, but they will do it if the alternative is canceling projects, he predicted.

What won't happen is that the state leaves an unfinished bridge on Lake Washington, he thinks.

The Legislature will probably avoid the issue in 2011 while it focuses on the broader budget crisis in state services, he said. Lawmakers will grapple with highway spending in 2012 — the last year they could do so without wrecking the 520 work schedule, Davis says.

"No one can call that a strategy," he said. "It's a consequence."

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

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