McKenna plan: Invest in freeways, not light rail

By Eric Pryne
Seattle Times staff reporter

Friday, June 07, 2002 - 12:00 a.m. Pacific

Rob McKenna

Much more money for freeway "mega-projects" like the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Interstate 405.

No money for light rail.

Those are the key elements of a regional transportation-improvement package that Metropolitan King County Councilman Rob McKenna, R-Bellevue, is floating as an alternative to one unveiled last month by King County Executive Ron Sims.

McKenna, a key player in negotiations on a regional package that could be submitted to voters, characterized his proposal as a work in progress.

"This a bouquet of trial balloons I'm not trying to cast any of this in concrete," he said yesterday. "I'm trying to advance the discussion, to keep people from throwing up their hands."

Not surprisingly, his plan got a cool reception from Democrat Sims. "To pass, a regional package has to be balanced," he said. "This isn't balanced ... he spends more and he does less."

Councilman Dwight Pelz, D-Seattle, another key figure, also was skeptical. "Rob knows light rail is part of my bottom line," he said.

But McKenna, a longtime light-rail critic, said including Sound Transit light-rail extensions to Northgate and SeaTac in the package, as Sims proposed last month, would doom it at the polls.

McKenna's proposal would provide $6 billion in taxes for the four King County "mega-projects" the viaduct, Interstate 405, highways 520 and 509. That's more than $2 billion more than Sims and his counterparts from Snohomish and Pierce counties proposed last month.

Even the higher amount won't pay for the ambitious improvements many favor, McKenna acknowledged.

But he said his plan would provide enough money for partial fixes to address the worst safety and congestion problems.

The executives "didn't provide enough for anything," he charged.

When combined with other possible funding sources, McKenna said, his plan should pay for:

A replacement for the earthquake-damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct, including a tunnel along the waterfront between King and Stewart streets.

Two new lanes in each direction on I-405 between SeaTac and Bellevue, plus one new lane in each direction through Kirkland, one new lane in each direction on Highway 167 in Renton between I-405 and South 180th Street, and transit improvements along the I-405 corridor.

A new, eight-lane replacement for the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge.

The bulk of the regional money would come from a 0.5-cent increase in the sales tax, the same as Sims proposes. But the executive reserves 40 percent of that increase for transit, including light rail.

McKenna doesn't.

That's unacceptable, said John Healy of the anti-sprawl group 1000 Friends of Washington. "Using the sales tax for roads is a serious problem," Healy said. "You're selling out future transit expansion."

Altogether, about 80 percent of the $7.5 billion in taxes that would be raised over 10 years in King County under McKenna's plan would go for the mega-projects. Councilman David Irons, R-Sammamish, said that makes sense.

He said his constituents were telling him the executives' proposal spreads the money too thinly among too many projects. "I'm hearing, 'Don't peanut-butter it address the major projects and make some impacts,' " he said.

But Sims said McKenna's plan wouldn't provide enough for other important road projects, including traffic-signal synchronization and arterial improvements that are important to the Eastside.

Sims proposed nearly $1 billion in his package to extend light rail to the north and south. Sound Transit's proposed line now extends just 14 miles, from downtown Seattle to Tukwila.

Polls show that without light rail, the regional package won't pass, especially in Seattle, Sims said. McKenna disagreed. "Sound Transit is no more popular in Seattle than it is anywhere else," he said.

He also said the $1 billion Sims proposed isn't enough to push the line to Northgate and SeaTac.

The Legislature in March gave the councils of King, Snohomish and Pierce counties authority to craft a regional transportation-improvement package and to ask voters to raise taxes to pay for it. McKenna and Pelz are two of seven council members from the three counties involved in negotiations so far.

McKenna said his plan would be discussed at meetings of the Democratic and Republican caucuses of the County Council Monday. It also will be presented at a Tuesday meeting of the King County Transportation Coalition, a government-business group, he said.

Earlier this week, the state Department of Transportation (DOT) announced updated cost estimates for the four mega-projects. Doing everything everyone wants on each one could cost close to $30 billion, the agency said.

The department also unveiled cost estimates for partial fixes. Those estimates provided the foundation for McKenna's proposal.

But he said he hadn't developed detailed financing plans yet for the mega-projects. "These are literally back-of-the-envelope calculations," McKenna said.

Details on each project:

Alaskan Way Viaduct: The 49-year-old elevated road, built on soils that can liquefy when shaken, was damaged in last year's Nisqually earthquake. Engineers say it must be replaced.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels favors replacing the viaduct and the Battery Street tunnel it feeds with a new tunnel along the waterfront and under Broad Street. The DOT pegged that option's likely cost at $8.8 billion to $10.3 billion.

But it also said a tunnel along the waterfront only, linked by an aerial structure to the Battery Street tunnel, could be built for $3.6 billion to $4.3 billion. That's the option that should be pursued, McKenna said.

He proposes that the regional package provide $2 billion in tax money for it, to be coupled with $450 million in Referendum 51, a statewide transportation package already on the November ballot. The rest of the money would come from tolls, the federal government and other local sources, McKenna said, including the city, the Port of Seattle or property owners along the route who would benefit.

Interstate 405: The DOT said the alternative favored by Eastside officials, which includes two new lanes in each direction from SeaTac to Lynnwood, would cost between $9.1 billion and $10.9 billion.

McKenna's partial fix has a price tag of $5.2 billion to $6 billion. Referendum 51 would provide $1.77 billion, and McKenna proposes another $2.5 billion in the regional package.

The federal government should provide $500 million or more, he said, and tax money Sound Transit already has collected from the Eastside, but not yet spent, could provide another $1 billion for the transit components of the project.

That may be wishful thinking, Pelz said. He also said $2.5 billion in the regional package for I-405 is "a shockingly high number."

Tolls wouldn't raise enough revenue on I-405 to be worthwhile, McKenna said. That drew criticism from Sims, who included tolls for single-occupancy vehicles using car-pool lanes in his package.

"He's using the sales tax to pay for what tolls pay for in our package," Sims said of McKenna.

Highway 520: Improvements to the highway between Seattle and Redmond, including major interchange improvements at interstates 5 and 405, could cost up to $7.4 billion, the DOT estimated.

But it said a new, eight-lane bridge to replace the aging, four-lane Evergreen Point Floating Bridge between Medina and Seattle's Montlake neighborhood could be built for $1.5 billion to $1.8 billion.

That's the interim fix McKenna favors.

One of the two new lanes in each direction would be reserved for car pools and buses.

The second could be for general traffic, rail or some other form of "high-capacity" transit, or could be reserved for drive-alone commuters willing to pay a toll, McKenna said.

Referendum 51 provides $100 million for Highway 520. McKenna proposes another $1 billion in regional money, with the remainder to come from tolls or the federal government.

But Sims said an eight-lane bridge would create bottlenecks at either end, where traffic must squeeze into fewer lanes.

Highway 509: The freeway that leads south from Seattle now dead-ends in SeaTac at South 188th Street, several miles short of Interstate 5.

The DOT wants to complete that missing link and add lanes to I-5 from the new 509 interchange south to Federal Way. It estimates the cost at $920 million to more than $1 billion.

McKenna says the entire project is vital to South King County and should be built. Referendum 51 would provide $500 million; he proposes another $500 million in the regional package.

Seattle Times staff reporter Mike Lindblom contributed to this

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