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A way to solve the 520 bridge financing mess
By Todd R. Woosley
The SR 520 Bridge project cost overruns not only endanger the completion of this critical highway project, but also the entire state transportation package. However, there is an obvious solution to address 520’s financial woes that doesn’t require taking money from other important state projects to fix this mess. Simply cut the project’s costs, and charge all the bridge’s current and future users. It’s only fair.
There is no doubt the SR 520 Bridge replacement needs to be completed, including the unfunded segment from I-5 to Lake Washington. The new highway bridge will:
• Increase the safety of the four existing general purpose lanes it will replace,
• Add significant transit capacity with two new diamond lanes, and
• Provide a bicycle/pedestrian lane that will be wider than any of the motorized vehicle lanes.
However, a series of political, management and engineering missteps has led to a project that is economically unsustainable. This financial predicament becomes even more apparent with the recent announcement that it will take another $170 million to do the job right. These new costs will push the total project to nearly $5 billion. Just eight years ago, the state was telling us the cost would only be about half this amount.
The latest cost overruns not only threaten the ability to complete the SR 520 project, and short-change other critical WSDOT projects, they could be the determining factor in the success or failure of the state government to pass a much needed transportation package. The consequences of a failure to fund transportation would be catastrophic to Washington.
Now is the time for the state to demonstrate it has the willingness and ability to take the steps necessary to get the project back on track, as well as show the voters it is serious about reforming how WSDOT operates. Quick corrective action on the SR 520 project would go a long way towards improving the public’s perception of the state’s qualifications to handle more hard-earned tax dollars.
Specifically, the state should reduce the cost of the project, particularly the remarkably expensive west segment. There must be some savings to be found in a state highway that will cost $1 billion per mile. In addition, the state should ensure that all users of the new facility would pay for it, before taking another penny from other projects or taxpayers.
This can be accomplished by tolling the unfunded section between I-5 and Montlake as soon as possible. This section carries about 25 percent of 520’s traffic, but its users are not currently contributing to its replacement cost like those that are already paying tolls to cross Lake Washington.
In addition, the Legislature should set a policy that all users of the new bridge will pay a toll. It is not enough that only car and truck drivers will be charged for the new bridge. HOVs, transit, bicyclists and pedestrians also must contribute to pay for the new capacity being built specifically for them. The state no longer can afford to give special interests groups a free ride. Users of all seven lanes should pay their way.
Taking leadership and implementing these cost saving and revenue-generating reforms would demonstrate to the gas tax and toll-paying public that the state of Washington is serious about its responsibility to effectively deal with its transportation issues.
Todd R. Woosley is a land use consultant focusing on increasing the capacity of our region’s urban transportation system to accommodate growth and reduce congestion. He lives in Bellevue