Afternoon Jolt

The anti-Seattle, anti-tunnel fangs came out yesterday in the state senate Transportation Committee.

As state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond and WSDOT tunnel project director Linea Laird were giving the committee a briefing on the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project, several senators—Republicans and Democrats alike—jumped in with "moral outrage" and "grave concern" to "dump on" the "Seattle-centric" tunnel.

First up, Republican committee co-chair Sen. Curtis King (R-14, Yakima) rhetorically demanded to know who was on the tolling advisory committee that evaluated tolling revenue estimates.

You'll remember—as Erica reported—that the state department of transportation (WSDOT) downgraded tolling revenues from $400 million to $200 million, with the state pledging to get federal money to make up the $200 million difference. We'll see.

"If [Seattle] wants the tolls so low that it only generates $165 million, then they can help us replace the additional monies that we're losing."—Sen. Curtis King

Subsequently, a 15-member committee charged with updating tolling revenue estimates concluded that every toll scenario the state was considering would either create unacceptable traffic diversion onto downtown streets or fail to generate enough revenue to pay for the tunnel. Yesterday, Laird said the committee's February update would show tolling revenues of $165 million—putting the gap at $235 million. Hammond said yesterday that the state had come up with $35 million from the feds, biring the gap back to  $200 million. 

Overall, in other words, WSDOT, through the feds, is supposedly getting $235 million in non-tolling dollars to get to the original $400 million estimate.

Sen. King's point about committee membership, and their warning to not expect much from tolling, was this: "This is Seattle-centric." The 15-member advisory committe is dominated by Seattleites such as King County Executive Dow Constantine staffer Sung Yang, Trasnportation Choices Coalition Direct Rob Johnson, Seattle Chamber of Commerce leader Maud Daudon, and Vulcan's Phil Fujii.

King continued: "That's why they don't want to see the tolls, and so that's why we 're taking $235 million to replace the tolls that were originally there. That $235 million could be used anywhere around the state. I'm just saying. We were told $400 million. Now it's $165 million, and you have an advisory committee that is all from Seattle. What else are they are going to tell us?"

Hammond acknowledged that the tolling study was a "wakeup call" that tolling estimates weren't as high as they expected because of the tricky task of finding "the sweet spot" between setting tolls high enough to raise sufficient revenues, but low enough that they don't push drivers out of the tunnel, lowering revenues and creating traffic congestion. 

That pissed King off even more: "I'll make one more comment, and then I'll shut up. So, the city of Seattle is concerned about diversion because they're the ones that are going to be affected. [But] we should be concentrating on the cost of our portion of this project [the state promised $2.6 billion for the tunnel as a whole]. And if they want the tolls so low that it only generates $165 million, then they can help us replace the additional monies that we're losing because we don't have the toll revenues that we had origianlly projected."

(Editor's note: The panel didn't actually attempt to keep tolls low. In fact, they looked at high tolls—up to $3.25, one way—as well as low tolls, as little as 75 cents. While the high scenario showed revenues between $170 million and $200 million, the study found that it would result in more than 35,000 additional cars on downtown streets—an unacceptable level of diversion.)

Nonetheless, King's commentary—"they can help us replace the additional monies"—seemed to fulfill Mayor Mike McGinn's longstanding fear that the state would ultimately refuse to be on the hook for unanticipated tunnel costs. 

Others chimed in: Sen. Nathan Schlicher (D-26, Gig Harbor) said he "felt obligated to continue the moral outrage" and wanted to know why the tolling advisory committe in his district, which evaluated tolls on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, didn't have the power to lower tolling to offset diversion while Seattle advisory committee "got to raise $235 million functionally." 

Sen. John Smith (R-7, Colville) piled on, complaining that the 395 bypass tolling facility in Spokane was unfinished—and saying he would gladly have $235 million to move forward with a tolling project rather than spend it in Seattle to help Seattle avoid tolling.

Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-23, Poulsbo) deferred her time to the ornery Republicans (and one Democrat), simply saying: "I wanted to appropriately dump too, but since that has already been accomplished, I will pass." 

According to the most recent data from the Office of Financial Management, of the 39 counties statewide, King County alone contributed nearly 42 percent of the state's tax revenues while receiving only 25 percent of the money back. Given that imbalance—Seattle loses .38 cents on every dollar it contributes to the state while places like Sen. King's Yakima County get $124 dollars back on every dollar they contribute—the anti-Seattle rhetoric from Sen. King was slightly obnoxious to listen to.

But it is the reality of Olympia. 

Watch the anti-Seattle smackdown here: