COMMENTARY: Mayor's budget and the deep bore tunnel
Last week Mayor Greg Nickels presented his 2010 proposed budget to the Seattle City Council. One of the major elements accompanying his final budget is legislation to the council requesting that we approve a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the state signing off on $787 million for the city’s obligations to fund projects related to the bored tunnel.
The council is receiving this legislation eight months after he signed an agreement with the governor and King County executive. The council is scheduled to take a week to evaluate his proposal and approve the MOA.
The legislation will be introduced Monday (Sept. 28) and up for a vote Tuesday in the Transportation Committee, with a final vote expected the following Monday.
There is something wrong with this picture. Why rush to sign an agreement that is barely off the press? What is motivating this breakneck speed after no action for months?
I fear that the public may get the impression that the current mayoral election may have something to do with it. There is no clear reason for the council to bypass our budget deliberations.
The council should act responsibly in considering legislation stating the city’s intent to enter into an agreement with the state and agreeing to fund $787 million in city projects as part of the bored tunnel project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The proposed budget includes $603 million, well short of full funding.
It appears that more than 80 percent of the cost of the public open space on the waterfront is not identified.
Voting two business days after receiving the mayor’s funding proposal falls short of accountability standards we should be setting for ourselves.
We have eight weeks to consider the mayor’s budget; the MOA should grow out of that work, not precede it.
Seattle can be a good partner with the state by replacing the central seawall, establishing a promenade on the downtown waterfront, completing the Spokane Street Viaduct Project, and replacing utilities on the central waterfront. Signing an MOA with the state on these items is a reasonable step to take, but the council should first determine how we are going to pay the bill.
The mayor has released only the vaguest of plans, including parking taxes, possibly increasing property taxes and a new vehicle license fee.
In 2008, the city auditor cautioned about beginning large capital projects without full funding in place. This agreement commits the city to a path to begin capital projects without telling the public how this full funding will occur; it goes against the spirit of the auditor’s recommendations.
The state legislature required the Washington State Department of Transportation to report back in January with a revised cost estimate for the bored tunnel (and prohibited awarding contracts before that), and whether $400 million can be raised from tolling.
A 2002 study estimated $35 to $95 million could be raised. The legislature required cost overruns to be paid for by Seattle property owners. This agreement does not address this provision, and acting prematurely could place Seattle taxpayers at risk.
It’s time to do our homework.
(Editor's note: This opinion piece was published originally in council member Nick Licata's newsletter "Urban Politics.")