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Road projects pushed aside
[January 19, 2009]

Road projects pushed aside

(News Tribune, The (Tacoma, WA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jan. 16--The big-ticket tunnel and bridge projects in Seattle would stay on track, but dozens of other projects across the state -- including freeway car-pool lanes in Tacoma -- would be delayed to death in Gov. Chris Gregoire's transportation budget proposal.

"The projects that were pushed out had nothing to do with merit," Robin Rettew, one of the governor's transportation budget and policy advisers, said this week. "It had to do with cash flow. We didn't drop any projects. We just delayed them."

However, Rettew conceded that any project that's now scheduled for construction in 2015 or later probably won't get built without a new source of money. That could be new state taxes, tolls or a windfall from the federal government.

Among those post-2015 projects are construction of car-pool lanes on Interstate 5 from the Tacoma Mall to Fife, purchase of property to extend Highway 167 from the Port of Tacoma to Puyallup, building a highway bypass in Yelm, and widening Highway 522 in Snohomish County and Interstate 5 in Lewis County.

Gregoire also cut money for construction of state ferry vessels and terminals from $1.1 billion to $700 million, pushing $400 million in spending beyond 2015.

The governor remains committed to replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct on downtown Seattle's waterfront and replacing the Highway 520 bridge across Lake Washington. Each of those will cost more than $4 billion.

"The governor wanted to keep all the mega projects on the list," Rettew said.

In fact, Gregoire announced Tuesday that she, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, King County Executive Ron Sims and Port of Seattle officials had agreed to replace the earthquake-damaged viaduct with a two-mile tunnel. Cost of the project is now pegged at $4.24 billion. Gregoire committed the state to pay as much as $2.81 billion in state funds.

The Legislature, so far, has budgeted only $2.4 billion.

"Where's she going to come up with that money?" asked Rep. Dan Roach of Bonney Lake, top Republican on the House Transportation Committee. "Is she going to be dropping more of our projects off the list?"

State Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane, vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, also wanted to know the source of the additional $400 million on Monday when Rettew briefed committee members on the governor's budget proposal.

"We'll have to work collaboratively on where that money is going to come from," Rettew replied. "It will add to the problem."

Rising project cost estimates and lower gas tax collections have combined to produce a $5 billion shortfall for the 421 projects that were supposed to be built with money from a 5-cent gas tax hike the Legislature approved in 2003 and a 9.5-cent increase passed in 2005.The project list is now down to 391, partly because some projects have been consolidated, Rettew said.

Lawmakers and the governor's advisers are beginning to acknowledge that they're running out of money, even though as recently as last year they had a 16-year timetable for building all the projects.

Rettew said the governor now has a balanced budget for six years, but to achieve that she had to increase the amount of money the state is borrowing. After 2015, there's a huge shortfall, she said.

And the state has mortgaged its future.

By 2016, nearly 80 cents of every $1 the state collects from gas taxes will have to be used to make payments on previous loans, leaving little money left for new projects.

Roach and Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, said it's particularly frustrating to see Pierce County projects underfunded because those projects were promised to get their votes for the 2005 gas tax.

"I will be fighting to make sure that's not what comes out in the Senate," Kastama said of the governor's proposal. He also said the Alaskan Way and 520 projects need to be pared down to simple replacements and both should be tolled.

"We need to work on 520, but let's not make it so elaborate," he said.

He said he's also hoping for some stimulus money from the federal government.

Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, told The News Tribune last week that she was going to propose an increase in the gas tax and a new state motor vehicle excise tax to raise more money to pay for all the projects the public was promised. But when the economy went into the tank, she tabled that proposal.

Clibborn also noted that it's now up to the Legislature to decide which projects get funded.

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