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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Our State Is $4.6 Billion in the Hole. How About Not Digging a Multibillion Dollar Hole Under Downtown Seattle?

Posted by on Wed, Jan 5, 2011 at 12:59 PM

In the spirit of continuing to float budget-balancing options that probably won't get a serious hearing down in Olympia this year, let's look at how to break into the safe that holds the downtown tunnel money.

Because the question keeps coming up: Couldn't we use those billions of dollars for something else right now?

The simple answer: Yes. We could definitely use those billions for something else right now. The list of needs, from social services to other transportation projects, is endless. But to re-appropriate those tunnel billions for something else you'd first have to remove them from of the place where they're being held.

It wouldn't be easy, but it is theoretically (if not politically) doable. Here's how it would go:

First, zero in on the money you want. There's $2.4 billion in state funds allocated for building the downtown tunnel, but that giant hunk of money is cobbled together from a bunch of different sources: $339.8 million in federal funds (can't re-appropriate those); $247.4 million in other state transportation funds (which could only be re-appropriated by an act of the legislature); $6.5 million in local funding (which, if the tunnel project were to be abandoned, would most likely go back to its local origins); and then the biggest pile, $1.8 billion in gas tax money. If you really want to do something about the state budget shortfall by re-appropriating tunnel money, then that's the part of the tunnel money pile that you want to get your hands on.

Next, grab some of that gas tax money. This is the hardest part.

The gas tax is the third oldest tax in our state. It was created in 1921 (at a rate of one cent a gallon) and after 90 years of increases it's now the highest gas tax in the nation (at a rate of 37.5 cents a gallon). Oh, and, the manner in which we can use revenue from the gas tax is etched into our state constitution. From the state Department of Revenue: "Pursuant to the 18th amendment to the State Constitution approved by the voters in 1944, motor vehicle fuel tax revenues, along with other vehicle-related fees, may be used only for highway purposes." This means that to get at the tunnel project's gas tax money you'd need another constitutional amendment.

Two thirds of the state legislature would have to vote in favor of, say, amending the constitution to allow gas tax revenues to be used for whatever we want to use them for (Basic Health, say, or higher education funding, or any of the other valuable state services that are currently on the chopping block), and then a majority of voters would have to approve the amendment. If there's a way to sell this kind of maneuver, it may lie in the fact that our gas tax is, as mentioned above, the highest in the nation. Do we really need more gas tax money than any other state and zero flexibility in how we spend it?

If you can get a constitutional amendment passed, then next you grab $700 million to $1 billion from the tunnel project's pile of gas tax cash and leave the rest. It will be needed for tearing down the existing Alaskan Way Viaduct and implementing the I-5 improvements / surface transit option.

So. There you go: The path to breaking into the downtown tunnel cash safe.

Like I said: not easy.

But, if we decide that some things are more important than building this tunnel, there's one route to funding them.

 

Comments (40) RSS

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1
These just keep getting more helpful. Kudos!
Posted by gloomy gus on January 5, 2011 at 1:04 PM · Report this
michaelp 2
Are you a fucking idiot?

It's not possible. The surface "option" will never, ever happen. Either a full rebuild, or a tunnel. Expanded capacity, or reduced capacity. Those are the options that have been made clear are available from Olympia. Period.

Do a cheaper version, and that extra money will go to other highway expansion projects across the State, not to transit, not to health care, not to education.

First - name the legislators that would cobble a majority for this little idea to work? That majority doesn't exist.

Second - good luck passing a constitutional amendment that takes away the stupid gas tax provision any time soon. Bitch as we do in this State, voters seem to like dedicated funding sources, and have this belief that gas taxes are like user fees.

Finally - put down the crack pipe.
Posted by michaelp on January 5, 2011 at 1:11 PM · Report this
Fox in Socks 3
But a lot of Washingtonians like the idea of the gas tax as a user fee -- pay as you go. But since you're amending the constitution anyway, why leave the requirement that it be used for highways, but combine lowering the gas tax with instituting a broader, more fair kind of taxation? Like an income tax?

Because rich people hardly feel it when you charge them the highest sales tax on gas in the nation, but it hammers the hell out of the working poor.
Posted by Fox in Socks on January 5, 2011 at 1:15 PM · Report this
Basehead 4
But we ned to feed, house and medicate the stupid.
Posted by Basehead on January 5, 2011 at 1:15 PM · Report this
5

How else are you going to bolster the real-estate value of downtown properties?
Posted by balmonter on January 5, 2011 at 1:20 PM · Report this
6
If it's not politically doable, then it's not theoretically doable.
Posted by Westside forever on January 5, 2011 at 1:23 PM · Report this
7
@6, it doesn't need to be doable, just writeable-about.
Posted by gloomy gus on January 5, 2011 at 1:39 PM · Report this
Fnarf 8
@2, I think you mean "reduced capacity or even more reduced capacity". There's no way on earth they're going to increase it; with modern freeway standards they'd have to make it four decks high, or bulldoze a three-block-wide swathe of downtown.

Thing's a done deal, unfortunately.
Posted by Fnarf http://www.facebook.com/fnarf on January 5, 2011 at 1:40 PM · Report this
Kinison 9
Even if you dont go with a tunnel, the cheapest option will still cost billions.
Posted by Kinison http://www.holgatehawks.com on January 5, 2011 at 1:42 PM · Report this
Joe Szilagyi 10
Lawsuits or the drilling getting stuck under 3rd & Pine or under a WAMU building, forcing us to demolish a building to rescue it, or to suspend downtown traffic to rescue it. Nothing else barring water flooding into and killing workers during the drilling or half of downtown collapsing into it like a sinkhole in Belize is going to stop it now. The only thing left is to actually try to kill off the political careers of our current council in payback like was done to Richard Sanders.
Posted by Joe Szilagyi http://twitter.com/joeszi on January 5, 2011 at 1:49 PM · Report this
11
Washington's gas tax rate is not the highest in the nation. It's lower than California's, Connecticut's, Hawaii's, and New York's.

http://www.taxfoundation.org/taxdata/sho…
Posted by Eric de Place on January 5, 2011 at 1:51 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 12
@2 ha. Lots of stuff is not possible, until you do it.

Let's look at gas tax revenue - it can easily be used to build the bridge portion for a 520 bridge that carries light rail.

It can also be used to build the bridge portion for a 520 bridge that has bicycle capacity.

In fact, it can even be used for HOV lanes that are primarily used (capacity-wise) for BUS TRANSIT.

Once again, Michael P for the obvious clueless "campaigns is me" loss.

We destroyed your Roads and Transit package and forced you to build more transit and kill the freeways built in wetlands.

We can do it again. And again. And again. Noob.
Posted by Will in Seattle http://www.facebook.com/WillSeattle on January 5, 2011 at 1:52 PM · Report this
Eli Sanders 13
@11: The Washington State Department of Revenue says it is:

Compared with other states, Washington's 37.5 cent gas tax rate is currently the highest in the country; followed by West Virginia (32.2 cents); Rhode Island (32 cents); Pennsylvania (31.2 cents); and Wisconsin (30.9 cents).
Posted by Eli Sanders http://elisanders.net/ on January 5, 2011 at 2:01 PM · Report this
14
@10--if a tunnel boring machine breaks down they pull it out the hole it just dug. Stop making shit up, the mayor already does enough of that.

@12--Will favors an elevated viaduct on the waterfront and was about as influential in killing Roads and Transit as Justin Bieber. Keep up your misinformed BS and you will drive more folks into the tunnel camp.
Posted by westside on January 5, 2011 at 2:03 PM · Report this
Joe Szilagyi 15
@14, bullshit -- they can't go back it out, if it gets stuck on the dig, they have to dig down to rescue it. Remember this?
Posted by Joe Szilagyi http://twitter.com/joeszi on January 5, 2011 at 2:10 PM · Report this
Fnarf 16
@13, I wonder what definitions of "gas tax" they're all using. The link @11 says: CA 46.6 cents, NY 44.6, HI 44.4, CT 41.9, IL 39, WA 37.5, MI 35, FL 34.5, IN 34.1, NV 33.1, RI 33, WI 32.9, PA 32,3, WV 32.2. So they not only disagree on who's highest, but they disagree on some specific states.
Posted by Fnarf http://www.facebook.com/fnarf on January 5, 2011 at 2:22 PM · Report this
BombasticMO 17
I really dig these posts about potential solutions to get us out of this mess. I hope they are part of a bigger piece.

I feel like the more we publicize ideas like these, the better the chance we'll get politicians to actually do something this legislative session rather than just sitting on their hands and saying "We can't do anything, it's all Eyman".

Just look at what Jon Stewart did for the 9/11 first responders bill.
Posted by BombasticMO http://www.BombasticMo.com on January 5, 2011 at 2:28 PM · Report this
18

There are some good things about the tunnel.

1. You can avoid Seattle entirely and drive past it on something other than the deadlocked I-5

2. You still get a big plaza...which of course will be empty most times because of the 300 days of rain.

3. Hopefully once they start building it, everyone will just STFU about stupid infrastructure projects as if they were the Second Coming.

The list goes on.

C'mon.

Qwest is a beautiful stadium as is Safeco.

If we had the "will of the people" we'd all be trudging to a dreary Eastern Bloc inspired King Dome.

Let's give Capitalism a chance.

Go Tunnel.

Submit.

Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on January 5, 2011 at 2:36 PM · Report this
19
There's plenty of room to raise the gas tax further if need be. Eric's link shows the API calculation, which includes states that add different kinds of gas taxes on top of the one we use here in Washington. If five states are collecting more with no problems, why not us? Not to mention that in New York, for example, New York City adds its own municipal tax, again with no effect on their traffic. Let's go, Seattle City Council! We've got human services to restore and potholes to fill!

(And seeing the teensy New Jersey gas tax rate really highlights Gov. Christie's cowardice in refusing to raise it to pay for the deep-bore tunnel to Manhattan that would have meant so much for train commuters.)
Posted by gloomy gus on January 5, 2011 at 2:40 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 20
Things are impossible until we spin it enough for the Daily Show to make it a national laughingstock ...

I'll see you one Public Vote of the People for funding and raise you 2 federal EIS hearings (EPA/etc) and 2 state EIS hearings.
Posted by Will in Seattle http://www.facebook.com/WillSeattle on January 5, 2011 at 2:54 PM · Report this
michaelp 21
@Fnarf - my understanding (of course, I could be wrong) is that the elevated structure that was preferred by Speaker Chopp would have been four lanes, each direction, for the majority of the span (currently it's four on the south end, three through downtown, and two at the Battery Street Tunnel), hence the increased capacity (to a degree) statement.

Regardless, even if that would just keep capacity as is, that is not the directly we should be heading if we want to be serious about moving towards a transit oriented city and region.

Will, who is apparently, all on his own, leading the charge to kill the DBT, is of the belief that we can and should shock people into being how he wants them to be.

But reality is a different beast, as I am sure you understand. Snohomish County has legislators, including Sen. Haugen, who would love to put that money into Hwy 9 and Hwy 2. Eastern Washington loves their roads subsidized by the State government. And, of course, Tacoma/Gig Harbor are still butt-hurt over having to pay for increased capacity across the Narrows.

I'm not sure about some people, but I live in a world where Seattle is part of Washington State, and what the folks in Vancouver, Everett, Spokane, Tacoma, etc think has a direct effect on what actually happens in our city.

As for the rest of Will's dribble - light rail across 520 is nearly impossible at this point, thanks in large part to the Mayor alienating Olympia, and wasting what little Political Capital he had on the tunnel. Bike lanes across 520 - well, there are so many bike commuters across I-90, so that really makes sense. And the new 520 is slated for HOV lanes that buses will use, and hopefully make them more attractive to Microsoft employees who are commuting from Seattle.
More...
Posted by michaelp on January 5, 2011 at 3:06 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 22
Got a Funding Vote?

Nope?

Then go back to school.
Posted by Will in Seattle http://www.facebook.com/WillSeattle on January 5, 2011 at 3:10 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 23
@21 specifically, the alterations already made to the 520 design as a response to the Mayor's push, do in fact make it possible to run light rail across 520.

You don't have the funding. You don't have the public support. And just like when the 43rd ignored your choice for Mayor and endorsed McGinn, you'll wake up and realize your tunnel is still dead.
Posted by Will in Seattle http://www.facebook.com/WillSeattle on January 5, 2011 at 3:12 PM · Report this
Martin H. Duke 24
Just remove the sales tax exemption for gasoline and reduce the gas tax by a like amount.

Problem solved, no constitutional change necessary.

Btw some of those "other state funds" are gas taxes as well.
Posted by Martin H. Duke http://seattletransitblog.com on January 5, 2011 at 3:15 PM · Report this
25
This is like entering a marathon when you couldn't even finish a 5k.
Posted by giffy on January 5, 2011 at 3:43 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 26
I like what @24 said. Good idea. Also, use marine fuel taxes since this is a Port City. And airplane fuel taxes since it's a Port issue.

All your exemptions are belong to Epic Fail.
Posted by Will in Seattle http://www.facebook.com/WillSeattle on January 5, 2011 at 3:47 PM · Report this
27
@24 Though you would still need a 2/3 majority to remove the exemption and there would without a doubt be a referendum so basically it's the same thing.
Posted by giffy on January 5, 2011 at 3:50 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 28
@27 no, not if they're fees.

It's only taxes that the Eyman comrades addressed.
Posted by Will in Seattle http://www.facebook.com/WillSeattle on January 5, 2011 at 4:15 PM · Report this
Joe Szilagyi 29
@27 good a time as any for someone to finally challenge the Constitutionality of Eyman's bullshit in a state court.
Posted by Joe Szilagyi http://twitter.com/joeszi on January 5, 2011 at 4:16 PM · Report this
30
I prefer they did it with something else than a rather popular user tax. By all means challenge it in court, but better to pick something that won't have most of the state screaming.

@27 How is a sales tax even remotely a fee?
Posted by giffy on January 5, 2011 at 4:24 PM · Report this
DeaconBlues 31
@Michaelp: "Will, who is apparently, all on his own, leading the charge to kill the DBT, is of the belief that we can and should shock people into being how he wants them to be. "

This is a deeply stupid thing to say. There are lots of outspoken opponents of the tunnel just here on Slog. Even if that weren't true, it would be a compliment of the highest order to suggest that Will is the first person in the entirety of human history to be the only person anywhere with an opinion.
Posted by DeaconBlues http://radzillas.blogspot.com/ on January 5, 2011 at 4:35 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 32
Michael just is trying to pretend he represents the majority.
Posted by Will in Seattle http://www.facebook.com/WillSeattle on January 5, 2011 at 4:42 PM · Report this
michaelp 33
@31 -

I am by no means suggesting that Will is the only one of that opinion, just the only one who believes he is leading the charge.

I confess my sentence structure to be atrocious most of the time, but that was the point I was getting across there. The second half is that he believes that the appropriate way to change behavior is to force people. This is where he and I are diametrically opposed.

I agree that we need to encourage people to use more transit. But getting rid, completely, of an arterial that supports 110k vehicles per day is not the way to do it. Even the DBT is a pretty big step, but a step - not a leap.
Posted by michaelp on January 5, 2011 at 4:54 PM · Report this
34
Washington's gas tax 40 or so years ago generated about a half-cent per vehicle mile traveled. Advancing those figures to today would require a state gas tax of about 75 cents/gallon, or nearly double today's rate.

Everyone grinds their teeth about how the gas tax no longer raises enough revenue to build and maintain necessary roads and highways (setting aside the tunnel), and it's no wonder -- the tax rate hasn't kept up with the real world.
Posted by Citizen R on January 5, 2011 at 5:41 PM · Report this
Free Lunch 35
@33 - Thats the point of a lot of the protest - mine, anyway. The tunnel + Alaskan Way improvements will not support 110K cars a day. And if my standing-room-only bus to downtown is any indication, public transit isn't funded well enough to pick up the slack.
Posted by Free Lunch on January 5, 2011 at 7:06 PM · Report this
36
@35, and what bears gentle repetition is that every other option that was examined was determined to do even worse than this for the problems that you expect to aggravate you so.

Every solution studied caused big problems - this one was found to cause fewer and less-expensive-to-solve problems than the others, is all.
Posted by gloomy gus on January 5, 2011 at 7:28 PM · Report this
michaelp 37
additionally, once the tunnel is finished, the County has pledged $15mm in transit improvements, and there will be plenty of input as to what that can and should look like (ie: BRT? More foot ferries? More regular buses?)
Posted by michaelp on January 5, 2011 at 8:58 PM · Report this
38
The funny part is michaelp actually thinks WiS is leading the charge.

Meanwhile the Weekly thinks it's McGinn leading the charge.

But we all know it's us who have to PAY the charge.

Ouch!
Posted by I Miss The SLUT Debate on January 6, 2011 at 3:32 AM · Report this
michaelp 39
@38 - Clearly my tone falls on deaf ears.

I wish the other side had WiS leading the charge. Fortunately for them, they have folks like Mike O'Brien, who make solid arguments, and actually say what they mean and what they want.

WiS thinks he's leading the charge, and that the folks who are in the nitty gritty are taking their cues from him, and that makes me giggle.
Posted by michaelp on January 6, 2011 at 9:27 AM · Report this
DeaconBlues 40
I think it's pretty fucking presumptuous to say what someone else is thinking.
Posted by DeaconBlues http://radzillas.blogspot.com/ on January 8, 2011 at 1:09 AM · Report this

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