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The elusive tunnel-finance plan has been outed
Posted by Mike Lindblom
For the last couple weeks, opponents of the Highway 99 tunnel have played up a refusal by the Washington State Department of Transportation to hand over the project's preliminary finance plan that it filed with the federal government.
But the June 23 draft document has been available to anybody who types the right keywords into Google. This writer, having recently been turned down by DOT, tried Googling "WSDOT initial finance plan" shortly after SCAT's announcement, curious about whether any special derring-do caused the leak. Turns out, a cached version of the main 49-page document , from a state FTP site, is right here.
All the numbers in the plan are identical or nearly identical to what was already in the public domain, through news interviews, the environmental impact statement, DOT fliers, and especially the January 2010 tolling study. Part of the package is an application by DOT to gain permission to toll from the Federal Highway Administration, which is contributing to the project.
Based on a quick look, here are highlights:
* The state suggests it can finance the tunnel even in the event DOT cannot raise a planned $400 million in toll-backed bonds. The following passage addresses what DOT considers a low-probablility scenario where the Legislature balks at tolling the tunnel:
However, if the authority to sell bonds paid by toll revenue is not granted, WSDOT will work with the legislature to find alternative sources of funding. Options may include a mix of the following: reducing or deferring other WSDOT projects within the state, alternative financing with private parties, perhaps pursuing other federal programs like the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA), revising use of other funding from Port or local sources, or perhaps using the capacity within WSDOT's federal program.
* The state says that recent analysis is honing in on peak toll rates of $3.50 to $4 per trip, in 2015 dollars. These are somewhat cheaper than the top-end price in the environmental-impact statement, peaking at $4 to $5. High tolls are expected to cause serious diversion and congestion on city streets. The state acknowledges they need to be lower.
* More tolling studies are planned through 2012. Toll-backed bonds would be sold in 2014, and the tunnel open to traffic in early 2016.
* There is not a detailed cash-flow spreadsheet, to show the finance payments over 25-30 years. That level of "investment grade" study is due later.
The $2 billion tunnel is the most disputed piece of a $3.1 billion program to replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct. Seattle city voters are mailing their ballots on Referendum 1, widely seen as an advisory vote to approve or reject a tunnel. A construction contract is already signed. Pro-tunnel government officials have said the work will continue regardless of the vote count.
The opposition Protect Seattle Now campaign, led by the Sierra Club and Real Change, hopes a "rejected" outcome will sway leaders to consider a combination of surface street, transit, and I-5 improvements, to reduce automobile dependence. The SCAT camp tends to favor a new or fixed elevated highway.
Last week, Highway 99 administrator Ron Paananen told reporters there is not much new in the financial plan, a comment that turns out to be largely true. Nonetheless, DOT withheld the draft document, saying it was part of a deliberative process.
Randy Everett, a major projects oversight manager for FHWA, said Monday the plan "will have the information showing we have the finances to build the project," and that it currently "is in the final stages of review."
When the day began, Protect Seattle Now declared it "Day 13 of the State's Cover Up of the Finance Plan for the Tolled Tunnel," while the Tacoma News Tribune said "WSDOT's secrecy undercuts its own tunnel plans."
Elizabeth Campbell, leader of SCAT, said she noticed the plan while doing online research for a paper on Highway 99 funding at the University of Washington, where she is a graduate student. "Aren't we all looking stupid?" she joked.
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