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Originally published February 11, 2009 at 4:31 PM | Page modified February 13, 2009 at 3:40 PM


Guest columnist

Paying and paying again for an Alaskan Way tunnel

The dire state of Washington's economy on its own should sink the luxury solution — a deep-bored tunnel — to replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct, argues state Rep. Geoff Simpson, D-Covington. He argues that Seattle and King County residents will be paying in many ways for an expensive plan when less expensive and effective solutions exist.

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CATACLYSMIC economic meltdown. Tens of thousands of newly unemployed people every day. Funding cuts for schools, nursing homes and children's health care. A disintegrating safety net for our most vulnerable members of society. Hundreds of critical transportation projects and no way to pay for them. Considering the reality of what we are facing in these economic times, why would we want to write a check to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with the most expensive, most risky, least studied and slowest-to-construct option?

Maybe $4.24 billion dollars isn't a lot to some people, but to me, that's a lot of cash.

When so many of our neighbors at Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks and other companies are losing their jobs every day, all I can think of is how these families are struggling to pay for housing, food, health care and college.

Now, more than ever, is not the time to be extravagant with taxpayer's money.

We don't need a tunnel because there is another option that is faster, cheaper and less risky. Replacing the viaduct with the surface/transit proposal is the best available option because it is financially responsible, better for the environment and leaves our options open for the future. It removes the dangerous viaduct earlier and we could still build a tunnel or another elevated roadway. And it will carry enough traffic to get by for several years.

In 2007, voters were asked if they wanted a tunnel and they soundly rejected the idea. I'm not talking about a handful of citizens or a hand-picked group of big shots in the Chamber of Commerce that have a lot more access to politicians than ordinary citizens do. Every Seattle citizen was asked and their answer was, "No!" They weren't wishy-washy about it either. It was a resounding rejection, with 70 percent of people voting against it.

The scariest part of this scheme is that $4.24 billion may be a lowball amount for this luxury option because we do not have enough facts. Washington state Department of Transportation's own project-estimating manual says that at this level of design, it's typical to have the project ultimately cost as much as 200 percent more than current estimates. That would put the total cost at $12.72 billion.

As a member of the House Transportation Committee, I think it's reckless to put taxpayers on the hook for more than $4 billion dollars when we have only 1 percent of the answers we need to make a responsible decision.

The other problem with the tunnel scheme is who would have to pay for it. And pay for it. And pay for it again.

Residents of King County would pay the state gas tax each time they fill up their tank and about $200 or more for car tabs each year. Then, the taxpayers in the Port of Seattle's district — which again is everyone in King County — will be on the hook for another $300 million from property taxes. Through the shell game of tax-increment financing and other city taxes, Seattle's citizens alone will shoulder nearly a billion dollars. And finally, if the state Senate transportation chair has her way, we'd each have to pay a toll to drive in the new tunnel.

Over in Eastern Washington and other parts of the state, the state actually pays for state highways. What confuses me is why local taxpayers should be taxed time after time to pay for infrastructure that is vital to the entire state's economy. State highway projects anywhere else in the state would be paid for with state funds, not local taxes.

We've all seen this movie before too many times. In the beginning, all the politicians and experts tell you the tunnel will be great, it won't cost more than $4.24 billion, tops, and it'll get finished on time. No problem.

By the time the lights come back on and the credits roll, your wallet is lighter by three or four times the original amount, the tunnel is finished a couple years late and it leaks.

It's time for doses of reality and common sense.

It's time King County citizens to say no and make sure politicians listen this time.

Rep. Geoff Simpson, D-Covington, is a professional firefighter, member of the House Transportation Committee and chairman of the Local Government and Housing Committee.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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