AS-IT-HAPPENED COVERAGE: Highway 99 tunnel and tolling update @ State Transportation Commission

(State Transportation Commission, meeting at Puget Sound Regional Council HQ downtown today)

1:27 PM: We’re downtown, where the State Transportation Commission is getting an update on the Highway 99 tunnel and the process of figuring out its tolls. We’ll be updating live.

Leading the briefing about the tunnel-project status, tunnel program leader David Sowers from WSDOT. “We have a big year ahead of us, and that’s an understatement. … The light at the end of the tunnel is upon us.”

“What do we need to do to open the tunnel?” Three bullet points: 1. Complete tunnel walls and roadway decks – the “final topping slabs” of the driving surface will be finished later this month, Sowers said. Second step, “commissioning” – installing and testing tunnel systems. Mid-August is when the contractor thinks those will all be done, Sowers said.

Then when the tunnel is verified as safe and ready to go, STP hands it off to WSDOT, and the Viaduct closure begins – “branded” as 17 days, but more like “about three weeks of time” to “reorient the existing corridor that now goes onto the Viaduct, into the tunnel,” says Sowers. He says there’ll be one big difference from past major closures – once the tunnel opens, post-closure, everyone will have to get used to the new connections from both ends.

Here’s his slide showing what happens on the south end during that closure time:

1:37 PM: Dearborn, in that slide, “is a street that doesn’t exist yet,” Sowers elaborates. He’s now on to explaining that the Viaduct demolition, Battery Street Tunnel decommissioning, and North surface street connections are being combined into one contract, and they’re expecting proposals from four contractors “in the middle of next month.” That contract will be worth about $100 million.

Next – Carl See, senior financial analyst for WSTC, leading the tolling-status section of the briefing. He’s focused on presenting results of a study that was requested about two months ago. He says some key factors have changed since the analysis began. Here’s the slide showing them:

Note “all requested toll rate scenarios maintain initial toll rates” in $1-$2.50 range, the former overnight and weekends, the latter during PM weekday commute, and other steps inbetween. Beyond the possible rates, there are a variety of scenarios the commission wanted to analyze, including how much tolls might rise over the years ahead. Most of the options performed similarly over the years ahead, See said. The analysis also included a look at whether traffic would be “ramping up” post-tunnel opening and a mention of the possibility that there might be a no-tolling period at the start for drivers to get used to the tunnel.

1:53 PM: Three tolling options came out “generally at or above preliminary coverage target” for debt service, See says – options 1a, 3a, 5a. Here are the two slides that explain (note that they are both variants of the $1-to-$2.50 assumption, which remains a proposal – no final decision for a few months):

A lot of what they’re analyzing involves not just how much money is generating but what kind of a “cushion”/reserves will be generated. That would be needed, one commissioner notes, in case toll revenue drops off at some point, so some other part of the state budget wouldn’t have to be dipped into, to cover for a shortfall. In response to a question, See says they still have time to analyze other options … but not much. The commission should “settle on key financing assumptions, and determine if other scenarios are needed” by next month. They need to get some updated information before making that decision – including “updated debt service requirements for $200 million capital funding from Office of State Treasurer.”

It’s pointed out from the commission side of the room that “everybody wants to keep it nimble … we’re going to have to keep it flexible” depending on what actually happens with traffic and resulting toll-paying once the tunnel opens.

Timeline for decisionmaking includes public meetings in late spring, according to what was just shown:

March-April, stakeholder discussions continue

April 17-18, commission meets, decides on finance assumptions and whether more analysis is needed

April-June, more stakeholder outreach and public input meetings – plus more toll-scenario requests IF needed

June 19-20, tolling subcommittee of WSTC will have recommended toll-scenario options for the full commission to review

June-July, more “stakeholder outreach and public input meetings”

July 17-18 meeting, proposed final toll plan approved by commission

July-September, more “stakeholder outreach and public input meetings”

Commission meeting September 11th – public hearing and final decision

And one commissioner stresses that even with a no-toll grace period at start of tunnel operations, the tunnel rates do need to be finalized before opening.

2:25 PM: The tunnel update is over. The financial analyst is now on to a somewhat-related item, status of a proposal to standardize exemptions across the state’s tolled facilities – tolls are the purview of the Transportation Commission, which is why the tunnel decision is in its hands. They’re also looking at systemwide fees and rates, which are charged in different ways (think about the difference between ferries and bridges, for example) – look for public-input meetings on all this later this year, too. So we’re wrapping up our coverage here.

3 Replies to "AS-IT-HAPPENED COVERAGE: Highway 99 tunnel and tolling update @ State Transportation Commission"

  • Jort March 14, 2018 (4:53 pm)

    I love the SR-99 tunnel because it is such an incredible amount of money being spent (wasted) to basically worsen the “traffic” situation in Seattle and does nothing to reduce automobile dependence. 

    This astronomical cost does make for some very, very fun facts. For example, did you know that, if you did a ratio of the cost of the tunnel and the cost of Pronto Bikeshare (which caused every internet commenter in Seattle to froth at the mouth like feral, ravenous wild animals for more than a year), that you could have purchased 562,000 Pronto Bikes and built 56,000 docking stations? That’s enough for nearly every city block in the city of Seattle to have their own Pronto bike station, full of bikes!! 

    Another fun fact: if you divided the cost of the tunnel by the number of registered vehicles in Seattle, each vehicle would account for $7,756!!!! That is a pretty gigantic subsidy for private automobile users!

    But, sure, there’s a “war on cars.” That bike lane is just a total waste of money, right?

  • Question Authority March 14, 2018 (5:07 pm)

    I have no issue with the proposed tolling because the transportation systems need to built and maintained for our driving pleasure.  Own a home? Own a vehicle? Have children?  You can’t have any of those without some cost, so if you don’t like the toll don’t drive in the tunnel and leave your bellyaching to yourself.  Didn’t vote for it? who cares as you lost and you don’t have anything more to worry about if you never drive through it. Just drink less specialty coffee drinks everyday and you’ll have plenty of money to drive in the tunnel if it’s just about money. Ever driven on the East Coast Turnpike and you paid the toll, you were probably perfectly happy with it to get where you needed to go.

  • Jeannie March 16, 2018 (2:21 am)

    Question Authority, you are making some unreasonable assumptions. Some people are financially strapped and DON’T drink fancy specialty coffee drinks.  Also, I am from the East Coast, yet have never heard of something called the East Coast Turnpike. Pennsylvania Turnpike, yes. 

    QA, I agree we can’t get transportation “improvements” without spending money. But “if you don’t like the toll don’t drive in the tunnel” is a rather unfair assumption. Also, “Didn’t vote for it? Who cares you lost” reminds me of what tRump loyalists say when their “president” is criticized . 

    By the way, are we assured the toll won’t increase in the years to come? 

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