Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) staff shared an email in 2009, which was uncovered this week, that acknowledged interest payments will make the final cost of the deep-bore tunnel billions more than the $4.2 billion sticker price for the tunnel. Now the state is refusing to disclose its final financing estimates for the project, so tunnel critics may file a lawsuit this week to get them.
The internal email sent to WSDOT consultant Amy Grotefendt says that $1.9 billion in interest—just on the state's $2.4 billion contribution to the project—will bring the budget to $6.14 billion. But that figure is still "not counting any interest that the other contributors may incur," the email says. Other project elements that may add more interest include $400 million in tolling bonds and another $1.2 billion in contributions from the City of Seattle and the Port of Seattle.
But some fear the financing plan will cost taxpayers more than the state anticipated two years ago, owing to lower revenues from gas taxes that will slow the pace for paying off construction bonds and adding to the long-term interest. They note that the auto industry announced last week it would embrace higher fuel efficiency standards that will reach 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, which means Washington drivers will likely pay less gas taxes in the future. In addition, per capita driving is down in King County. While that efficiency is a positive development, it means gas tax revenue may not meet previous forecasts to pay off 30-year tunnel bonds. "If the gas tax revenue does not come in as planned, the legislature will need to take action to remedy the situation," the WSDOT email says.
Asked last month about the financing plan, Grotefendt said that the previous estimate is "no longer current." What estimate is current?
Anti-tunnel group Protect Seattle Now, activist Elizabeth Campbell, and The Stranger all requested the tunnel's final financing plan and were denied. The state said disclosing it "would be harmful to the deliberative function process" between the state and the Federal Highway Administration. Further, Grotefendt refused to provide the documents or any estimates to The Stranger, saying, "Once it is finalized—anticipated in mid to late August—it will be available to the public." That is, the records likely won't be available until after the August 16 vote on the tunnel.
Fed up, Protect Seattle Now is considering filing a lawsuit this week that would compel the state to release key portions of the financing plan. Attorney Gary Manca, who successfully fought highway officials and the city to place Referendum 1 on the ballot, says the state may withhold information about policy recommendations and opinion, but not the hard facts of cost estimates and future gas tax forecasts. "We are considering asking a judge to look at the document and decide what should be disclosed," says Manca.
"You'd want to know the full cost of the house before you buy it, and we should understand the full cost of this project before we build it," says Protect Seattle Now campaign manager Esther Handy. "The fact that the state won't tell us how much it will cost and how much taxes will go up in the future should give us pause before we green light the project."