The state cannot claim that it's "deliberating" over the contents of a document as an excuse for withholding that entire document from public scrutiny. That's the gist of a lawsuit filed today that would compel the Washington State Department of Transportation to divulge the deep-bore tunnel's most detailed financing plans to date.
Interest and other financing will add billions to the $4.2 billion project's eventual cost to taxpayers—but the exact amount hasn't been released publicly. However, if it doesn't say anything bad, and the state has the records in its hands, why not share them before the tunnel vote on August 16?
Representing anti-tunnel group Protect Seattle Now, attorney Gary Manca's lawsuit filed today in King County Superior Court repeatedly cites the state's Public Record's Act's robust deference toward disclosing records and providing judicial review for the sort of information that can be legally extracted for public view. These record should be released "even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment to public officials or others," the laws says.
But on July 19, highway officials insisted on shielding the financial plan for the deep-bore tunnel on the basis that the department was involved in a "deliberative process" with the Federal Highway Administration.
Manca's suit contends that the "deliberative process" exemption may used shield policy recommendations and opinions, but not facts. "Factual matters and raw data do not fall under this narrowly construed exemption," he writes. "It is rare for an entire 60-page document such as the Finance Plan to contain zero factual information or raw data."
Twelve days before a city election on the deep-bore tunnel, Manca specifically wants to know "how much the tunnel would cost over the years of construction, how much money would need to be financed with bonds, the cost of interest on the bonds, and projected revenues available to meet the debt-service payments."
Preliminary estimates from 2009, for only about half of the project's baseline costs, suggest financing will cost $1.9 billion. But the final plan must also consider dropping revenue forecasts from gas taxes and specify means to finance $400 million on tolling bonds.
In June, the state's Office of Financial Management forecast that gas consumption would drop by 27 percent by 2027, which Manca says could result in $4.6 billion less revenue for the state—affecting the tunnel's long-term cost.
Also pertinent, state law specific to the Alaskan Way Viaduct that says "it is important that the public and policymakers have accurate and timely access to... information regarding costs," Manca notes. "As Seattle voters contemplate whether the tunnel is a good deal for Seattle and whether to green light the City Council to go ahead with it, nothing looms larger than the project’s costs, the state’s projected revenues, and Seattle taxpayers’ liability for all costs above the state’s cap."
"This public record that WSDOT has chosen to conceal from the public eye is precisely the sort of information about this project’s costs that the legislature believed to be so important," the brief continues.
WSDOT has released preliminary estimates on project financing before, Manca says, including records on viaduct replacement financing in 2006 and twice for the 520 bridge replacement.