By Brandon Macz
Washington Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson says even if the state Legislature approves a transportation package this session, there won’t be enough money to go around and a “Plan B” needs to be crafted to deal with the worst cases of maintenance and preservation needs to ensure public safety.
Peterson met with Bellevue Reporter staff Wednesday, Feb. 19, to discuss her reform package presented to the Legislature earlier this year, as well as the status and issues revolving around Puget Sound transportation projects and funding for failing systems statewide.
Acknowledging a design error that has caused cost overruns of more than $170 million for the SR 520 bridge replacement project, Peterson said one reform she’s pushing the Legislature to fund this year would address WSDOT’s methodology for contracting for construction projects.
“We have a lot of control but that means if there is a design error, such as 520 pontoons, then that error comes back to us,” said Peterson. “That originally had been, it was supposed to be design-build and it ended up being design-bid-build.”
Peterson also wants funding to create a quality assurance manager position. While all projects are staffed for quality assurance, she said a manager would oversee all of them and report directly to her. She is also exploring options for including contractors in the design process.
The transportation secretary defended her decision not to sanction Seattle Tunnel Partners — charged with drilling the downtown Seattle tunnel project — based on the results of a Federal Highway Administration investigation that determined the contractor committed a civil rights violation by not subcontracting a portion of work under the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program. The first step would have been withholding payment, she said, which would only further hurt subcontractors attached to the project. Ensuring compliance with the DBE program would also be a responsibility of a proposed quality assurance manager position.
After 10 years of research data collection, Peterson also said WSDOT can go leaner in its project design goals. Projects are currently over-designed by 20 percent to ensure adequate safety measures, but now there is a better understanding of simpler and cheaper ways to enhance transportation goals, she said, referring to an increased focus on roundabouts rather than traffic signals at intersections.
If the Legislature can’t reach an agreement on a transportation package, WSDOT expects a 52-percent budget decrease over the next four years. Even if a transportation package passes, most of the revenue is already bonded for capital projects and won’t cover the cost for maintaining and preserving Washington’s deteriorating infrastructure.
A 10-cent increase per gallon to the gas tax also won’t fully fund all capital improvements for transportation, said Peterson, as only 8 cents per gallon captured from the tax currently goes back for state operations, which also relies heavily on federal funding. The Road User Fee Task Force is still looking at long-discussed vehicle miles traveled tax, she said, and requires a pilot project for further study.
The Senate proposed Feb. 13 a $12.3 billion transportation revenue package with an 11 1/2-cent gas tax increase, but currently does not have enough votes within its own caucus to move forward this session.
The Senate proposal could fund completion of the SR 520 bridge, said Peterson, however, tolling the I-90 bridge is still being looked at as the most likely solution to a more than $1 billion funding gap. Without a revenue package, the SR 520 design office is slated to close in June, she said. If the Legislature fails to approve a package, it likely wouldn’t convene again unless the governor called a special session. Peterson said she doesn’t think that’s likely to happen.
Maintaining the system
Peterson said her department will need to prioritize what projects get addressed through its maintenance and preservation budget, including finding funding to repair or replace 180 culverts on recreational land by 2017 as ordered under the “culvert case.”
The federal ruling was made more than a decade after Washington tribes sought an injunction, claiming the poorly constructed culverts were blocking migrating salmon. The state must repair or replace 817 culverts by 2030. Peterson said 140 of those culverts exist in King County alone. She said about 140 need to be fixed by 2017. The total cost is estimated at $2.5 billion. The case is currently being appealed, and Peterson said there is the potential for the cost to have a significant impact on the rest of WSDOT’s maintenance and preservation budget.
“It’s the McCleary (case) of transportation,” said Peterson, referencing a Washington education funding mandate.
Washington will also continue dealing with aging bridges, Peterson said, and those projects will also be prioritized based on how closely some spans are coming to failing. The Legislature failed to approve a package last summer to cover its share of the Columbia River Crossing, a $2.8 billion bridge and freeway project, which has raised the ire of southwest Washington lawmakers and some Oregon legislators.
A study commissioned by Oregon lawmakers states the bridge is sturdy enough to last several more years, however, Peterson said the I-5 bridge connecting Portland to Vancouver has received dismal safety rating on both northbound and southbound.
“It’s not just a safety issue,” she said. “If it gets to the point where we need to load-limit it, that’s two ports without access.”
Washington taxpayers are off the hook for costs associated with the breakdown of Bertha, the tunnel digging machine meant to be boring a road replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct, said Peterson. Bertha has been stalled since striking a pipe on Dec. 3. WSDOT claims contractor Seattle Tunnel Partners was made aware of the pipe and should have removed it beforehand. The pipe caused overheating issues for Bertha that damaged several seals. Hitachi-Zosen, Bertha’s Japanese builder, still owns the machine, said Peterson, meaning costs for repairs will fall on the manufacturer. A plan for repairs is expected to be presented by the end of the month.
Peterson said she is not considering scrapping the project, adding the contractors involved have their reputations riding on its successful completion, which makes her confident STP will finish tunneling by late 2015. The contract with STP lists Nov. 16, 2016, as the completion date, but Peterson said there are added incentives should the contractor meet its 2015 promise.