Only a week after Mayor Nickels' election loss, the City's Department of Transportation (SDOT) Director Grace Crunican presented a new budget for the Mercer Plan to the City Council’s Transportation Committee. Councilmembers in attendance, including the committee’s chair Jan Drago, did not bat an eyelash when Crunican’s powerpoint showed that project costs had risen from $190 million to $290 million.
Undaunted by a shortfall of over $60 million when the project was set at $190 million, Crunican announced the Mayor’s intention to move ahead with a second, more westerly phase to their Mercer plan adding another $100 million to its cost. For several years, SDOT has said there is the potential for a second phase but not since about 2006 have they seriously presented the idea to the City Council, least of all with a budget attached. Apparently, SDOT has quietly continued planning on a second phase even earmarking $10 million from existing sources to keep the planning going.
For nearly a year, SDOT and Mayor Nickels have used a budget figure of $190-$200 million for a project they have called “shovel ready.” Suddenly, a second phase has been added, and the full Mercer is now a $290 million project. How SDOT can dedicate city funds for a second phase and get this far along without a public airing or even council discussion seems puzzling, but neither the committee’s chair Drago nor other councilmembers have raised a peep of concern about it.
What makes this even odder, Nickels and his staff at SDOT do not have full funding lined up yet for phase I. With phase II added to the budget, the shortfall would be well over $150 million for both phases. Perhaps activating the second phase now is the Mayor’s version of a “Hail Mary.” Or he hopes to solidify funding for Phase I and get some funding lined up and spent on a second phase before he leaves office — deep enough into it so his successor and the City Council can say with at least a semi-straight face, “it’s too late to turn back.”
Crunican indicated that to fill that $150 million gap, SDOT already was aggressively going after a host of additional sources including more federal, regional and local funds. She also made clear that more “Bridging the Gap” dollars would be tapped to make up the difference as well. Bridging the Gap (BTG) is the name given to the $544 million, 9-year transportation package passed in 2005 to cover a backlog of basic street, road, sidewalk, and bridge repairs in our neighborhoods. Voters approved a special property tax levy to cover $365 million of its cost, and the City Council passed an employee head tax ($51.5 million) and parking lot tax ($127.5 million) to cover the rest of the tab.
In 2005, planning for the Mercer Project was well under way. Phase I plans called for a rerouting of traffic from I-5 headed westbound along Valley St. onto a widened two-way Mercer St., which is now only an eastbound street. Valley would become a two-lane residential street. These Phase I Mercer improvements would run from I-5 to Dexter Avenue which parallels Aurora one block east. Today, these plans remain essentially the same.
There was talk in 2005 of a second phase that would extend improvements westward beyond Dexter to Seattle Center, but those plans were never well defined or if they were, they were kept hidden as project costs on the first phase went up.
The plan that Crunican announced two weeks ago for Phase II calls for improvements west along Mercer from Dexter all the way past Seattle Center and down the hill to the waterfront. Most of the cost of this second phase is related to the cost of sinking Aurora just north of the Battery Street tunnel and "reconnecting the grid" with overpasses across Aurora at Harrison, Thomas, and John Streets. That portion of Broad Street that now angles under Aurora from Harrison near the Seattle Center to Roy Street at the South end of Lake Union would be eliminated; Roy Street would be reconnected and run under Aurora. This $100 million estimate for the second phase is just a "5 percent engineering estimate," so it is still very rough.
In 2005 with the price tag rising to about $90 million, up from $75 million a year earlier for phase I, councilmembers committed $30 million from BTG sources for the project. Assurances were also made that only monies from the employee head tax and parking lot tax would be used and not the voter-approved portion destined for neighborhood projects. Too bad no one wrote that into the ordinances creating the package.
By 2007, project costs for the first phase had shot up to $190-$200 million — about the time we also stopped hearing about a phase II. With only about $30 million in hand, Mayor and council decided to make up the difference by inserting Mercer into the $18 billion county-wide roads and rail ballot measure. When voters soundly rejected it that in 2007, City Hall turned back to Bridging the Gap for more of those funds.
First, the Mayor and council unceremoniously scrapped long-held plans to improve South Lander Street, taking these BTG dollars and reprogramming them for Mercer. For years, city engineers planned a grade separation from First to Fourth Avenue along Lander so freight haulers would no longer be stalled by train traffic moving through the city’s industrial area. At present there are no plans to revive this important project.
That maneuver brought the amount of BTG funding committed to Mercer up to about $75 million. On top of that, SDOT cobbled together monies from several other sources including city general fund revenues (from sale of land along Mercer bought earlier by Paul Allen) and federal grants passed through the Puget Sound Regional Council. That still left them $60 million short of $190 million needed for Phase I.
In spite of the shortfall, last spring, Mayor Nichols pressed the City Council to release the monies already in hand and let him proceed with construction. Both he and Jan Drago, also a longtime proponent, assured councilmembers that the state Legislature soon would approve use of some the state’s allotment of federal stimulus money to cover the gap in Mercer funding.
Over the objections of Nick Licata, Tom Rasmussen, and Sally Clark, the council gave the Mayor the go-ahead. Within a day of that council vote, legislators turned down the City’s request for stimulus funds. Subsequent news stories indicated that both the Mayor and Drago were made aware of the state’s intentions days earlier and before of the council’s vote to release Mercer funding, which they both denied was the case, saying the signals coming out of the Legislature were murky.
Only Licata seemed particularly upset at the seeming deception. Councilmembers did re-impose the proviso preventing the Mayor from proceeding with construction until full funding was found, but they did give him what was called a “yellow light,” releasing about $40 million for design and land acquisition. Licata reminded his colleagues that by allowing the Mayor to proceed even to that degree without full funding violated their own auditor’s recently released “best practice” guidelines.
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