SEATTLE -- For any construction project, planning is key. And to replace the 520 bridge across Lake Washington for safety reasons, the State of Washington has planned, and planned, and planned some more -- 14 years of it.
Jonathan Dubman, a Montlake resident, is a die-hard 520 community activist who's attended hundreds of planning meetings. He's been there from the beginning leading citizen input.
"This has been an incredibly frustrating process," Dubman said. "This project had a reputation for being divisive and for inaction about a decade ago. And I never thought that we would still be here in 2011 having these conversations without having really started construction on the project."
The State of Washington is still having the conversation and spending. The KING 5 Investigators have obtained billing records going back to 1997 when work to replace the bridge first began. The reporters found while nothing significant has been built, plenty has been spent.
So far, taxpayers have paid more than $377 million on studies, planning, buying properties and a small amount of construction. Roughly $20 million has been spent on preparing for tolling. Citizens of Seattle chipped in more. Seattle spent another $1 million for additional studying. All of it totals to $398 million tax dollars spent so far.
"It's extraordinary!" said Mike Ennis, Washington Policy Center's Transportation Expert. "The original bridge cost $34 million to build in 1963. Adjusting for inflation, in 2011 dollars, the existing bridge had a total cost of $245 million. They've already spent more in just planning and design than the cost of the original bridge structure. You have to ask yourself as a taxpayer, what are they doing to increase these costs?"
The majority of the money has gone to a long list of consultants for engineering, project management and community relations. Consultants are not cheap. The state has paid nearly $7.7 million to one community relations firm, EnviroIssues, to gather public opinion and get the word out about 520.
"I think in today's climate, a lot of people would be outraged that the state is spending this kind of money without getting any real benefit on the ground," said Dubman.
Of course with any job, time is money -- and the 520 bridge timing got off course. In 2001, after already studying the project for four years, the WSDOT put out these messages for the public: A final design should be in place by winter, 2002. Construction begins in mid-2004, if financing is available. Off-peak tolling would be $0.80.
Those things didn't happen. Construction is now set to start a decade later, and some off-peak tolls will cost triple that amount.
It's unusual for KING 5 to do an investigative story with out getting all sides. We tried. This week, the KING 5 Investigators requested an on-camera interview with Secretary of Transportation, Paula Hammond. Instead of granting that request, WSDOT tried a new strategy -- putting its own spin on the numbers. Today, WSDOT posted all the financial data that KING 5 requested on its website. That's why KING is airing the story now, with no interview from the state.
We did reach David Dye, Assistant Secretary of WSDOT, by telephone. He said the money spent so far is reasonable for a multi-billion dollar mega-project. Dye also said early messages to the public were optimistic, but didn't pan out due to trouble getting the public, politicians and WSDOT to agree on a design and how to pay for it.
Jonathan Dubman said despite years of consensus building, most communities around 520 still aren't happy.
"I'm especially aghast that after all of these years we still don't have a project that we can afford that prioritizes public safety, and that really fixes the transportation issues," said Dubman.
The total budget to replace 520 is now $4.65 billion. About $2 billion of that is still unfunded and will mean tolling on other roads or new taxes to finish the job.
If the state stays on track, they're hoping to have cars on the new bridge in 2014 -- 17 years after the planning began.