To recap: Approved and funded by last year’s Proposition 1, part of the East Link expansion to Bellevue and Overlake will replace the current I-90 express lanes. Those express lanes were built after a 1976 Memorandum of Agreement signed by several parties, including the state of Washington, to reserve them for transit. They would be used for car traffic until a transit agency needed them.
In an amendment to the agreement in 2004, two things were added: one, the R8A project to build HOV lanes on the I-90 bridge outer roadways (from Seattle to Bellevue) was identified as a prerequisite for handing off the express lanes. Two, use of the lanes would be for light rail, assuming Sound Transit could get voter approval to fund the project (and as we know, they did). The state also signed this agreement (same link as previous). At that time, the state DOT was considered responsible for building these HOV lanes, as the prerequisite was never something required in the 1976 agreement — the capacity added by the express lanes was intended to be temporary.
During the last legislative session, the state essentially reneged on the HOV project, opting to fund huge highway expansions and strip most funding for R8A, failing to fund the paltry $24 million they committed to during Sound Transit 2 negotiations, in which Sound Transit agreed to fund an additional $90 million (PDF). In addition, Speaker Frank Chopp started making comments about Sound Transit paying $1 billion or more for use of the lanes. Given the growing number of concessions Sound Transit made (see that PDF above) to get use of a facility built for transit in the first place, this was outlandish and, in this blogger’s view, highly irresponsible.
After considerable wrangling, the House replaced $10 million of the $24 million, allowing design work to continue, and an agreement was reached to use a third party to determine the valuation of the lanes and how much, if anything, Sound Transit would have to pay the state for their use.
Here’s the new stuff: Last week, the independent consultant agreed to earlier in the year released their draft report, “An Analysis of Methodologies to Value the Reversible (Center) Lanes on Interstate 90…” (PDF). It has some interesting things to say, especially as the legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee will be meeting tomorrow in Seattle to discuss this. Several fantastic points from the report after the jump:
- Pg. 1: The USDOT, in 1978,when issuing their Record of Decision about the I-90 project, specifically required: “public transportation shall permanently have priority in the use of the center lanes.”
- Pg. 3: “Sound Transit believes that federal funds should not be required to be reimbursed. We concur.”
- Pg. 3: The state of Washington contributed less than 10% of the total value of the relevant portion of the I-90 corridor. Of that <10%, only 25%, or two lanes, are impacted by Sound Transit, for <2.5% of the total. There are no ‘damages’ to the remainder of the corridor.
- Pg. 8, and this is my favorite: “For purposes of this report, we have determined that the I-90 center lanes have been permanently committed to transit use since 1978 … [and] that WSDOT is bound by the 1976 MOA and 2004 Amendment…”
- Pg. 25: “We rely on the representations of WSDOT that Amendment 18-restricted* funds were used for the entirety of the I-90 corridor, including the center lanes. If this is in fact the case, then the expenditures for those center lanes may have violated Amendment 18.” (Editor’s note: This is extremely qualified in the following paragraphs, but it’s interesting.)
This looks very clear. An independent expert hired through an agreement required by state law has determined that the I-90 center lanes are for transit, and if the state gets to ask for any money, that money has to be less than 2.5% of the total cost of the corridor. In addition, there’s a lot in the document that points out something we haven’t discussed much before:
Whenever Sound Transit builds an improvement, such as an HOV lane, on WSDOT property, some portion of the value of that improvement is ‘land banked’ — such that if Sound Transit needs highway right-of-way, it can draw from this land bank rather than have to actually pay. Sound Transit has quite a bit in this land bank, and that as well as the Sound Transit contribution to R8A could both be considered credits if WSDOT were able to charge for use of I-90.
The Land Bank Agreement considers full payment as the value of 20 years of use. While the land bank agreement may not apply to this particular transaction, it’s still interesting here: as the center lanes have been used by “highway vehicle , including single occupancy vehicle, travel” (pg. 26) for over 20 years, it’s also arguable that the state investment for the center lanes may have already been fully returned.
What’s next: We’ll be watching closely to see how the state reacts to this – they’re probably not going to react well, and delays to East Link rest on how far the key state players want to take this fight. The valuation comes after this report, and it’s certainly not going to be a billion dollars. Sound Transit’s position seems to be clear: taxpayers should not pay twice for the same structure, especially not when it was dedicated to transit use in the first place.
Thursday, the Joint Transportation Committee (PDF) will be hearing testimony from the consultant. This will be local, at Sound Transit headquarters at Union Station (4th and Jackson), 11 am, in the Ruth Fisher Boardroom. I’ll update once I find out if that meeting is open to the public for comments.
*Amendment 18 to the Washington State Constitution requires that gas tax money goes to roads.