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Originally published September 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 18, 2008 at 1:00 PM

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Rossi's transportation plan could hit major money snag

The GOP gubernatorial candidate's $15 billion proposal comes with a plan to shift state money from Sound Transit and the general fund. That and other elements could set off a political battle.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

Dino Rossi'swish list

Some of the projects:

EXPANDABLE HIGHWAY 520 BRIDGE

$3.3 billion

REPLACE ALASKAN WAY VIADUCT WITH TUNNEL

$2.8 billion

WIDEN I-405, RENTON TO BELLEVUE

$927 million

LINK HIGHWAY 509 TO INTERSTATE 5

$818 million

HIGHWAY 2 IMPROVEMENTS

$600 million

HIGHWAY 9 IMPROVEMENTS

$312 million

Note: These are cost estimates

OLYMPIA — Republican Dino Rossi says his $15 billion blueprint to expand highways statewide will help solve a traffic-congestion problem that Gov. Christine Gregoire hasn't addressed.

If elected governor, Rossi wants to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel, build an eight-lane bridge over Lake Washington, and widen Interstate 405, among other high-cost projects.

And he says he'll do it without raising taxes.

"It's the most comprehensive plan a candidate for governor has ever put out," Rossi said.

It also would face some big obstacles.

• Rossi's idea to replace the existing four-lane Highway 520 bridge with one that could accommodate eight lanes may not fly with residents on the west side of Lake Washington, who have opposed similar plans. And previous proposals to replace the viaduct with a tunnel have been controversial.

• The cost estimates in Rossi's plan may not be accurate. State Department of Transportation officials say the numbers don't take into account the recent rapid inflation in construction costs.

• Two-thirds of the money for his plan would come from sales taxes that currently go into the state general fund, which pays for education, health care and other services. He'd likely face stiff opposition trying to use that money for road projects.

• His idea to shift $690 million from Sound Transit to pay for car-pool lanes also is controversial. Sound Transit officials said moving the money would require voter approval.

Gregoire, for her part, has worked through several transportation plans since she was elected in 2004. She now promises to deliver solutions for the viaduct, the Highway 520 floating bridge and other projects after the election.

Rossi largely dismisses the concerns about his transportation plan. He promised that "we're going to find moderate Democrat senators and representatives who are going to see this as a viable way to make sure our economy keeps growing and thriving."

Yet even Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt, of Walla Walla, isn't sure Rossi could persuade enough lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled Legislature to go along next year.

"If Dino gets elected, everything he proposes is going to have an uphill battle," Hewitt said.

10 major projects

Rossi's plan provides money for 10 major projects across the state, including $2.1 billion for a new freeway from Interstate 90 to U.S. Highway 395 in Spokane, and $600 million for new passing lanes and other safety improvements along Highway 2 in Snohomish County.

The road projects he identifies largely come from Proposition 1, a regional ballot issue that would have raised car-tab and sales taxes to fund highways and extend light rail. That proposal — endorsed somewhat reluctantly by Gregoire — was rejected by voters last fall.

Rossi's plan, however, doesn't include public transit. He says that's a local issue and should stay that way.

Most of the money would go toward completing central Puget Sound-area projects generally aimed at increasing highway capacity.

For example, he calls for spending about $3.3 billion to replace the four-lane Highway 520 floating bridge with a structure capable of holding eight lanes of traffic.

Rossi says he'd generate $721 million for the bridge by charging a flat $1.54 toll for a one-way trip. There would be no tolls on the Interstate 90 bridge.

The state has looked at tolls ranging from 75 cents to $3.80 for a one-way trip, depending on the day, time of travel and tolling scenario to help pay for a new bridge. The options would raise $835 million to $2.5 billion, depending on when the tolls are put in place and whether I-90 also is tolled.

Rossi said he wants the bridge to open with eight lanes, but it may have to start out with six depending on cost. He said he's open to using some lanes in the future for high-capacity transit.

State Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, who represents neighborhoods on the west side of Lake Washington, said people there oppose any plan making it easier to build an eight-lane bridge, and that such an effort would likely trigger a lawsuit.

Gregoire agreed. "You'll just be in a courtroom forever," she said. "I'm willing to bet you that in that area of the west side [of the 520 bridge] there are more lawyers per block than probably almost anyplace else."

Gregoire and Democrats in the Legislature, after extensive negotiations with leaders on both sides of Lake Washington, are pushing ahead with plans for a six-lane bridge. But they leave open the option for attaching more pontoons later to handle high-capacity transit.

Rossi says a six-lane bridge "doesn't cut it."

"Normally you try to build roads that will be functional a decade or two ahead," he said. "This will be obsolete the day she [Gregoire] opens it."

As to neighborhood opposition to a bigger bridge, Rossi said, "We'll have to work with folks there and show them this will work."

Vision for viaduct

Rossi says the same thing about his proposal for the Alaskan Way Viaduct. He wants to replace the elevated structure along the waterfront with either a deep-bore or cut-and-cover tunnel.

A bored tunnel is essentially drilled beneath the surface. A cut-and-cover tunnel involves digging a giant trench and then covering it. Seattle voters rejected the cut-and-cover option in an advisory vote last year, and Gregoire raised questions about the cost.

The state is reviewing eight options for the viaduct: three surface-boulevard proposals, two elevated structures and three tunnel options. None has a cost estimate yet.

A decision is supposed to be announced in December.

Rossi said a tunnel would return the greatest benefits. "My vision is to try to give back Seattle its waterfront," he said.

"Working with the city and with the right zoning, we've got the most expensive strip of land in the state of Washington. What do we do with that? You could have parks, but you could also lease out the land for shops and boutiques and restaurants and condos," Rossi said.

Revenue from those leases, he said, could be used to help pay off bonds issued to finance the tunnel.

Rossi estimates that the tunnel, and extensive work already moving forward on the north and south ends of the viaduct, can be done for about $2.8 billion.

Formidable obstacles

But are his cost estimates accurate?

Rossi's campaign said most of their estimates were pulled from Proposition 1. They increased the costs by 2.5 percent to adjust for inflation and put the figures in 2007 dollars.

Dan McDonald, an engineer and former Republican state senator, said he did extensive cost analysis and felt Rossi's projections were conservative.

But David Dye, chief operating officer for the state Department of Transportation, couldn't vouch for Rossi's estimates because construction costs have increased more rapidly than expected in recent years. The cost of structural concrete, for example, has jumped 25 percent since 2006.

In addition, Rossi's financing plan would be difficult to get through the state Legislature.

He would take 40 percent of the existing sales-tax revenue from new and used vehicles for 30 years, and exempt highway-construction projects from the state sales tax. That money now goes into the state general fund.

The state Department of Revenue projects that Rossi's proposal, which also includes a sales-tax exemption for hybrid vehicles, would take about $900 million from the general fund in 2010 and 2011 alone.

The current two-year general fund budget is $33.6 billion

Transportation projects are largely financed by state and federal gasoline taxes, and any effort to use the general fund for such work would meet heavy political opposition.

Gregoire said there's no way the Legislature would ever agree to Rossi's proposal to take money out of the state general fund to pay for highway projects.

But she also wouldn't say how she plans to deal with a growing gap in transportation funding, other than looking at tolling proposals and possibly postponing some work.

Rossi, for his part, won't say what programs he'd cut in the general fund to pay for roads. He also won't discuss what cuts he'd make to deal with a projected $2.7 billion hole in the state general fund next year — a hole that would grow if he diverted sales-tax revenue.

"It's not a fair question," he said, blaming Gregoire for creating the deficit in the first place. "It takes thousands of decisions."

Rossi said that when he was chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee in 2003, he worked with former Democratic Gov. Gary Locke to make the cuts needed to close a big shortfall in the state budget. "I've done it before and I can do it again," he said.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or agarber@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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