SEATTLE -- There’s been 15 years worth of planning and spending on the project to replace the 520 bridge over Lake Washington, which is the longest floating bridge in the world.
Transportation experts say the bridge and western approach to it in Seattle need to be replaced because the structures could fail in high winds or an earthquake.
Over the years the public has been a partner in the planning process. WSDOT has sponsored hundreds of public meetings to gather input from impacted communities and to disseminate information about the design process and progress.
One state consultant, EnviroIssues, based in Seattle, is the state's top communicator about 520.
The firm strategizes messages for WSDOT, writes press releases, produces web content, plans special events, and prepares fact sheets, legislative briefings, and technical reports about the project.
EnviroIssues has also facilitated hundreds of community meetings over the years. KING 5 attended a community outreach event at Children’s Hospital on June 9. Four state-paid employees staffed the event, which was poorly attended. The EnviroIssues consultant said the TV camera scared people away.
In March, KING 5 reported that a long list of well-paid consultants, including EnviroIssues, have worked for years on the mega-project. The state has spent $400 million so far on planning, purchasing a handful of properites to make way for the construction, and a small amount of construction.
As part of that story, KING also reported that EnviroIssues has been paid $7.7 million to gather public opinion and get the word out about 520.
Now the KING 5 Investigators have learned that isn’t right. Since then the reporters have obtained additional public records that show the state has paid EnviroIssues double that: $15 million so far.
The March report was based on public records detailing what WSDOT has paid prime contractors, such as EnviroIssues.
Last month additional public records were released showing what subcontractors on the project have collectd. EnviroIssues is listed as a subcontractor for two prime contractors.
Those additional payments bring the total to $15 million, not $7.7 million.
KING 5 has also obtained EnviroIssues' billing rates. They’re paid between $62 and $218 per hour for work on state projects.
"That's shocking, that's a huge number," said Colleen McAleer, a leader of the Coalition for a Sustainable SR 520 group. The coalition is critical of the 520 replacement design chosen by the state.
McAleer has attended 30 community meetings about the project. She says the state, represented by EnviroIssues employees, listened to input from the surrounding neighborhoods, but didn't include much of it in the final design.
"[There was] beautiful production, websites, fliers, brochures, all of the above, but the bottom line if you're chasing something that's not a good transportation solution all you're doing is cash burning and burning and burning to justify something that's not going to work as a transportation system at taxpayer expense," said McAleer.
No one from the 520 WSDOT team or EnviroIssues would do an on-camera interview for this story. But in March the Deputy Secretary of WSDOT, Dave Dye, talked to us about the consultant.
"They're doing a lot more than writing press releases," said Dye.
Dye said it's critical that members of the public understand complex issues surrounding the 520 mega project and that EnviroIssues is the best in the business for the job.
"[They help] write documents so people can actually understand them when they look at our environmental documents. So there's a wide variety of services that that particular firm has provided and we've gotten great value for that," said Dye.
WSDOT’s plan has been to open the new bridge to traffic in December of 2014. But on May 6th, EnviroIssues helped to write a press release alerting the public that the bridge may not be open to traffic until July of 2015.
The tolling of 520 is also delayed by at least three months. WSDOT says the vendor hired to install and operate the tolling program, Texas-based ETCC, has been unable to get the technology to work properly. The delay means a loss of $1 million per week in uncollected tolls. WSDOT tells KING 5 that ETCC has committed to adding extra resources to ensure success in Washington, including adding a quality control manager, a new financial accountant and some other positions.
EnviroIssues is a subcontractor for ETCC on the tolling of 520.