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Originally published August 23, 2013 at 9:27 PM | Page modified August 24, 2013 at 12:10 PM

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Design errors may put 520 bridge $128M deeper in hole

Construction delays and pontoon redesign could consume the Highway 520 bridge’s cash reserves and put the project another $128 million deeper in the red, the state disclosed Friday.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

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Construction delays and upcoming change orders are threatening not only to wipe out the Highway 520 bridge’s remaining $100 million cash reserve, but also send the project another $128 million in the red, the state disclosed Friday.

Most of the costs are related to design errors by the state Department of Transportation (DOT) that caused cracks in the first four giant pontoons. These required repairs, while others have been redesigned.

The original goal for completing the floating section by late 2014 has been dropped. The estimate is now April 2016, about 490 days late, according to the latest internal report.

So, a crossing that was already short of money will become even more broke.

If all the expected extra expenses materialize, the $4.13 billion price will surpass $4.25 billion. And a known shortfall of $1.4 billion — the Seattle landings aren’t currently funded by existing gas taxes, federal grants and toll-backed bonds — would surpass $1.5 billion.

The state doesn’t have any strategy right now that would dredge up money beyond the existing reserves.

One option that’s not on the table is to bleed the next phase of construction, the new westbound lanes from the floating pontoons to Foster Island and Montlake. The budget for that work is already set, said DOT spokesman Lars Erickson.

Friday’s revelations come just a month after new Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson and 520 program administrator Julie Meredith held a news conference on Harbor Island, during which they reassured the public that even after several repair costs this year, a $100 million reserve remains from the starting reserve of $250 million. The week they spoke, the project team already was predicting that upcoming change orders with contractors would exceed the reserve fund.

Erickson said he’d “push back” against anybody thinking DOT leaders were less than transparent.

“One, we don’t know if they’re real. They’re just planning estimates,” he said of the $228 million of potential new costs. “Two, we have to negotiate them.” And Peterson did caution in July that more change orders were ahead.

An Aug. 16 letter from Peterson instructs the 520 team to look for cost savings, negotiate aggressively and work with the state treasurer’s office on financing options. No specifics yet.

Erickson said $228 million is the upper end, and DOT will try to negotiate downward from there with contractors, including Kiewit, the primary partner for the floating section. The estimates vary by up to $36 million, showing how uncertain they are, he said.

He said DOT doesn’t know how it will pay for the job if money runs out — but the agency has funding to proceed through mid-2014 while it negotiates and devises a plan.

State lawmakers failed to pass a new 10-year highway package, and the latest news makes that a tougher sell for DOT, said state Rep. Ed Orcutt of Kalama, the ranking Republican on the House Transportation Committee.

“If they want a gas tax, to build more projects, they’ve got to get things right. They’ve lost a lot of trust,” he said.

Orcutt said he doesn’t know how to react if the 520 fund “goes negative.” Conceivably, if some other project is done under budget, money could be shifted around, he said. House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, tried to allocate at least $100 million more for 520 in the failed package in the spring, and could be expected to try again.

The DOT said it released memos and weekly reports on its website Friday in response to a public-records request by KOMO News. On Feb. 7, KOMO won a judge’s ruling prying loose a series of 2012 reports that contained bleak, preliminary cost estimates.

Last winter, then-Secretary Paula Hammond acknowledged in interviews with The Seattle Times the pontoon-repair cost could exceed $100 million. But in reports released later, project staffers were using a new reporting format to avoid listing the dollar figures. Those have been restored recently.

This summer, two pontoons have been repaired in dry dock, one at Harbor Island and one in Portland. The pontoon in Portland was floated out of dry dock Thursday headed toward Lake Washington, while the Harbor Island work will be finished in a few weeks, a spokeswoman said. Cracks were patched with epoxy, and the pontoons were compressed from either side using high-tension steel.

A total 32 of the project’s 77 pontoons have been cast and are supposed to last 75 years.

On the land east of the bridge, new lanes are to open in June 2014, six months late.

State legislators and consultants are studying ideas, backed mainly by Republicans, that might reduce costs of state projects — though there isn’t a targeted plan for the 520 bridge.

Highway 520 from Redmond to Seattle contains the world’s longest floating bridge, at 7,578 feet. The new bridge will provide two general-purpose lanes and a carpool lane in each direction, and a bike trail, to replace the four-lane bridge built in 1963.

Last fall, Hammond announced that an initial $4.65 billion figure could be revised to $4.13 billion due to low bids, federal help and good progress on construction.

The bottom line is creeping back up.

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

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