Problems push 520 project over budget
The Highway 520 project needs $170 million more, to pay for pontoon cracks, delays and other problems, says the state transportation secretary.
Seattle Times transportation reporter
Cost increases on the new Highway 520 bridge not only will drain the megaproject’s entire contingency fund, but could require money to be shifted from other road work, Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson told lawmakers Wednesday.
The problem was caused mainly by repairs, redesigns and delay associated with cracks in the first four giant pontoons, built at Grays Harbor in 2012.
With the $250 million cash reserve depleted, Peterson asked the Joint Transportation Committee to boost the 520 program’s overall budget by $170 million.
The update represents the first time the state Department of Transportation (DOT) has publicly abandoned hope of corralling costs within the existing budget.
Bottom line: Instead of a $2.72 billion price cap, Peterson asked lawmakers to raise the total to $2.89 billion for the six-lane Lake Washington crossing and rebuilt freeway segment on the Eastside.
“The good news is, we can pay for these costs with existing funding sources and without looking for new revenue,” she told the committee in a brief update.
In other words, taxes don’t have to rise, nor will tolls beyond what is already approved, she said.
Car traffic and toll revenue on the current 520 bridge have, in fact, been stable, reaping just over $5 million a month before expenses, and providing what the state considers a solid base.
Talks are under way with the state Treasurer’s Office to sell additional toll-backed bonds to cover most of the new $170 million, Peterson said.
She told the Joint Transportation Committee that some money must also come from other highway programs, which would involve seeking “efficiencies,” rather than canceling specific roads.
Any proposal that curbs highway funding beyond Seattle might provoke resistance in the legislative session that begins Monday.
Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, said, “The money will be swept from other small projects around the state, and they won’t get done. That’s my prediction.”
Later, Peterson said the DOT would take a harder look at design — for example, whether 12-foot shoulders can be reduced to 6 feet on certain highway stretches, to conserve money.
She cited last summer’s rapid Skagit River Bridge repair as a sign she is changing the agency since taking the job almost a year ago.
In July, Peterson and 520 Administrator Julie Meredith said they would look to negotiate major savings with the Kiewit-General-Manson joint venture and other contractors.
Wednesday’s numbers are actually about $35 million less than a worst-case scenario disclosed in agency documents last summer, but the DOT couldn’t forge a cheap enough deal to stay on budget.
Besides $208 million in crack-related losses, a new DOT chart acknowledges $134 million in rising costs, including some construction on land east of the lake.
The $170 million proposal would not only pay off change orders, but enable the department to replenish $77 million of the lost $250 million reserves, as insurance against more glitches in 2014-16, as contractors build road decks and connect the bridge segments.
The DOT reported Wednesday it signed five change orders, mostly with the Kiewit partnership, mainly to deliver redesigned pontoons.
During casting of the first batch, cracks formed on endwalls and radiated to the undersides of four giant pontoons.
Experts blamed that weakness partly on the DOT’s failure to require each huge concrete box to be compressed from either side, using steel bands, in a method known as post-tensioning.
Project leaders pointed to progress, with more than half the 23 giant pontoons and 54 smaller supplemental ones completed at Grays Harbor, and others in Tacoma.
The lake portion of the crossing is scheduled to open in April 2016, said Meredith, more than a year beyond former Gov. Chris Gregoire’s goal of late 2014.
Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, said during the meeting that Peterson “inherited a mess” when Gov. Jay Inslee appointed her last February, and that lawmakers should provide the money.
Eide pointed out the project’s purpose: to replace a 1963 span vulnerable to windstorms and quakes.
“The No. 1 issue is safety, and we want to make darn sure, the first car that goes over the bridge, it has to stay up forever,” Eide said.
The $2.89 billion does not include about $1.4 billion to build through Montlake, and a new Portage Bay Bridge reaching Interstate 5.
Tolls on I-90, or future taxes, are being considered to fund that western link.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or email@example.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom