Billions to restore city creeks? Seattle initiative backers fault estimate

By Bob Young
Seattle Times staff reporter


Seattle, WA - The City Council got its first glimpse of the projected cost of the Seattle creek-restoration initiative yesterday, and the estimates were staggering ranging from $569 million to $26 billion, depending on how the initiative is interpreted.

Initiative proponents countered that the city's calculations were flawed and intended to drum up opposition to Initiative 80, which seeks to restore salmon habitat in city streams.

"We don't think the costs are even in the ballpark of what they are talking about," said Knoll Lowney, spokesman for I-80. The city's estimates distort the financial picture, Lowney added, because they emphasize aggregate costs but do not stress that I-80's costs to taxpayers are capped at $5 per household per year.

"This is the start of an attempt to mislead the public about what the initiative says," he said.

The public is sure to hear more about the creek initiative in coming months. Proponents gathered about 8,000 signatures more than the 17,729 required to put I-80 on the ballot. The council has until Jan. 9 to decide whether it wants to adopt the initiative as law, propose an alternative or let the initiative appear on the ballot next year.

Based on the council's reaction to the fiscal report received from the mayor's office and Seattle Public Utilities, it seems unlikely the initiative will be adopted as law. Because council members want to appear friendly to the environmental movement, it's more likely they would choose a ballot alternative.

That's where Mayor Greg Nickels is headed. "The mayor has directed Seattle Public Utilities to look at putting together an alternative because we fully support the goals of creek restoration," said Nickels' spokeswoman Marianne Bichsel.

The initiative proposes to restore creeks and streams where salmon swim or could swim. It seeks to "daylight" creeks that have been buried in pipes, remove fish-passage barriers, establish 50-foot buffer zones and plant native vegetation.

According to the city's legal analysis, I-80 would also prohibit future development near creeks and would require the city to compensate private property owners in cases where initiative requirements amount to an "unconstitutional taking" of property.

Restoration efforts would apply to about 16 percent of the land in Seattle. The minimum costs, according to the city, are $569 million, which would take 95 years to finance under the initiative's formula of spending $5 per year for each of the city's 258,499 households.

Lowney said the city overstated I-80's cost because it ignored the fact that some creeks may be exempt from its requirements. It also used cost estimates for daylighting a buried creek to also calculate the bill for less-expensive restoration and protection.

"We're comfortable with the estimates," responded Ray Hoffman, director of strategic policy for Seattle Public Utilities. "Daylighting is more expensive, but restoration is not cheap."

"The gap is so large, something is askew," said Councilman Nick Licata. "Either your expectations are too draconian or theirs has a large reality gap."

Lowney claimed that yesterday's presentation to the council was suspect because proponents did not get a preview. "If the movie doesn't allow a pre-screening, you know it's a bad sign," he said.

Bichsel downplayed his concern. "I think there will be collaboration with the proponents. We're early in the process here."

Copyright © 2002 The Seattle Times Company


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