Tolls on Highway 99 tunnel now expected to fall $200M short
The toll-income projection for the Highway 99 tunnel has been slashed in half, and the state will come up with about $200 million from other sources.
Seattle Times transportation reporter
Highway 99 tunnel plan2012: Continue to build elevated lanes in Sodo; begin surface excavation of south tunnel entry.
Mid-2013 to late 2014: Drill under downtown with tunnel-boring machine.
2014-15: Install road decks, electrical and mechanical systems.
Late 2015: Tunnel to open for traffic between Sodo and South Lake Union.
Source: Seattle Tunnel Partners
Tolls on the future Highway 99 tunnel now are expected to cover $200 million of its construction cost — half the $400 million that state leaders required when the project was approved three years ago.
The lower figure appears deep inside a House Transportation Committee budget released this month.
"The $200 million is our best estimate at this point, but there's a lot of work to do," David Dye, deputy transportation secretary, said Monday.
The new number is not entirely a surprise, considering some rosy assumptions in the original plan and the recent efforts by drivers to avoid tolls on the Highway 520 floating bridge.
The shortfall will be made up by steering more of the state's share of federal gas-tax dollars into Highway 99. The state Department of Transportation (DOT) has been able to build some of its other federally funded road projects under budget and receive surplus federal aid that other states were unable to use on schedule, Dye said.
Construction is under way in Sodo for the $3.1 billion replacement for the old Alaskan Way Viaduct. Tunnel work is to start near Pioneer Square this spring, and the giant boring machine is to drill beneath downtown starting in mid-2013.
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn bucked the political establishment during the 2009 campaign by insisting the DOT's original toll scenario was unsustainable, and the latest findings tend to support him.
"We're pleased that WashDOT is being realistic about the amount of toll revenue that could be collected for the project," said Aaron Pickus, spokesman for the mayor.
Traffic on Highway 520 has dropped around 40 percent since variable tolls of up to $3.50 per peak trip began Dec. 29, Dye said.
The state still can fund the Eastside and floating sections of Highway 520 because bids were below budget. But DOT remains at least $2 billion short of building fixed segments at Montlake and Portage Bay, unless new taxes or Interstate 90 tolls are imposed.
In the case of the Seattle tunnel, DOT has realized for several months that a potential toll of about $4 at peak times would push drivers out of the tunnel and clog downtown streets. So the state has been studying lower rates.
Dye blamed the recession, rather than over-optimism by tunnel backers, for flaws in the earlier forecasts. Drivers value the time savings of a toll bridge less than a study predicted in early 2010.
"In times like today when we're pinching pennies, trying to make ends meet, people are making other choices," Dye said. "People will divert."
DOT also was advised by Treasurer Jim McIntire to avoid toll schemes that rely on steep increases, said Chris McGann, spokesman for the treasurer. New forecasts for highways 520 and 99 are to reflect increases at or below inflation, Dye said.
An original toll strategy for the 2007 Tacoma Narrows Bridge assumed early increases of up to $1 each year, but that didn't materialize, Dye said.
Its budget now is caught between lower-than-expected traffic and political pressure to keep tolls down. Current rates are a flat $2.75 for pass holders.
Dye said work is under way in Seattle to improve traffic models — even so far as to learn how pedestrians in a crosswalk affect left and right turns.
A fresh toll-income study for Highway 99 will be published midyear, and as many as five oversight committees eventually will review it.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631
On Twitter @mikelindblom