State defends tax dollars spent on 520 before construction

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by SUSANNAH FRAME / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @SFrameK5

KING5.com

Posted on April 4, 2011 at 10:30 PM

Updated Tuesday, Apr 5 at 7:44 AM

BELLEVUE, Wash. -- The Washington State Department of Transportation says taxpayers are getting a good bang for their buck on the six-mile long 520 bridge replacement project. It’s the biggest mega-project ever in the state of Washington. With nearly 15 years of planning and a budget of $4.65 billion, it outpaces other transportation projects such as replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

The finding by the KING 5 Investigators shocked commuters and even those who’ve worked on the design: that nearly $400 million has already been spent before any significant construction.

"I'd be lying to you if when I came onto this project that I thought it would be a decade later before we'd get to construction," Dave Dye, WSDOT Deputy Secretary said. "You just don't wander into these projects without the full knowledge up front that you've got to spend a very substantial amount of money before you can turn dirt. And, fortunately, we're turning dirt."

The dirt being turned is in Aberdeen. Construction is underway there to build the facility that will build the giant floating bridge pontoons. WSDOT has spent $125 million on early construction, land purchases to make way for the highway and on tolling.

But the bulk of tax dollars have been spent on planning. For 15 years, a long list of consultants has collected millions for technical work and community outreach. Billing records obtained by KING 5 show some consultants make over $200 an hour.

Dye says using consultants was a strategic decision made by WSDOT to get the best outcomes.
 
"The public has gotten their money's worth in all of the work that we've had provided by our contractors and consultants," Dye said.

Complicated process

With any job, time is money. And the 520 bridge replacement project timing derailed early on.

In 2001, after already studying the project for four years, WSDOT put out these messages for the public: a final design should be in place by winter of 2002. Construction begins mid-2004 if funding is available.

The project has never been fully funded, which delayed progress. But other factors, such as studying dead-end design options for years, took the project off track.

"This is a very, very complicated project in an area with many competing interests. There's a lot of evaluations, a lot of outreach, a lot of involvement, a lot of studies that have to be done - technical studies and environmental studies,” Dye said.

The most complicated interests are in Seattle. The University of Washington, the arboretum, environmental groups concerned with wetlands and fish, and well-heeled neighborhoods such as Montlake and Capitol Hill have all advocated for their preferred designs for years. The debate dragged on and on trying to come to a consensus.

The city has spent $1.36 million on design and local impact studies throughout the process.

"We really try to make everybody happy and it’s just not possible always to make everybody happy. Sometimes you really have to make decisions,” Seattle City Council President Richard Conlin said.

Conlin says state leadership was lacking by not setting better goals and a deadline.

"I think the leadership really needed to come from the state; the state legislature and the Department of Transportation. It would have been great if they would have defined the project more clearly as to what it is that they wanted to do and set themselves a deadline," said Conlin.

WSDOT defended the time spent.

"It's really common with these big projects around the country to spend the kind of time it takes. They're very large, they're very complicated (projects). It just takes a lot of time to get through the required steps to get to where we are today,” said Dye.

More time, more money

As time passed, cost estimates for the entire project grew dramatically.

According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), accurate cost estimates are essential for sound decision making and to maintain the public's trust.

“If the cost estimate isn’t well done and the costs keep increasing year to year, the public can easily get the perception that we aren’t managing our program well,” said King W. Gee, FHWA Associate Administrator for Infrastructure.

In 2005, state engineers estimated the current plan, which includes a six-lane highway with an interchange at Montlake, would cost $2.5 billion. In 2006, the state raised the estimate to $3.9 billion. At that time, WSDOT said they used overly optimistic inflation numbers. By 2008, the number skyrocketed to $4.65 billion, where it remains today.

The state said the adjustment was needed because the price of materials unexpectedly went up and some design features were added.

"One of the things that's really important for us is public trust and accountability. One of the ways you can gain that is by explaining that you don't know everything all of the time," said Dye.

One of the major items the state doesn't know about this project is how to pay for a huge chunk of it. WSDOT is $2 billion short to finish the work. Mostly likely that will mean tolling other roads or raising gas taxes.

Why replace the bridge at all? State engineers determined years ago that the 520 bridge across Lake Washington and the western span over Portage Bay in Seattle needed to be replaced for safety reasons. They’re vulnerable to earthquakes and wind storms.

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