CRC, SR-99, SR-520
CRC, SR-99, SR-520

It’s probably a bit early to draw broad conclusions about this election, but please indulge me.

If McGinn holds his lead and wins, this election will be a significant setback for WSDOT’s three largest projects. Together totaling over $13 billion dollars, the deep-bore tunnel, SR-520 bridge and the I-5 Columbian River Crossing (CRC) will all face significantly altered local political landscapes. One that is not entrenched in the establishment like the former mayoral incumbents of Seattle and Vancouver, as well as one that is hostile towards key aspects of WSDOT’s projects. The establishment knew this, and that is why they lined up behind Mallahan. Not because they liked him, but because they knew he was malleable or pragmatic, depending on your point of view. Not so with McGinn.

While Seattle’s mayoral election was epic, there are other cities in Washington. In Vancouver, transportation also pushed its way to the forefront, dominating a contentious, $400,000 dollar mayoral contest.

More after the jump.

Vancouver citizens voted out their 14-year mayor for City Councilor Tim Leavitt, who supports a new 12-lane bridge but doesn’t support tolls over the new span. The Columbian reports:

The Leavitt campaign and the Portland news media portrayed the race as largely a referendum on tolling, though the mayor of Vancouver ultimately will have little or no influence on whether Clark County commuters pay tolls to use a new Interstate 5 bridge.

Nevertheless, the perception that anti-tolling sentiment on the north side of the river could derail the Columbia River Crossing drew attention to the race from Portland business and political leaders — and an endorsement for Pollard from the Portland Business Alliance. Pollard has said for years that tolling on a new bridge is inevitable, but he hopes to keep tolls to $1 or $2. Leavitt has vowed to oppose tolls on the bridge, though he has said he would not let the project die over the toll issue.

He said Tuesday night that he would continue to “fight on behalf of the commuters of Clark County” to protect them from tolls.

In Clark County, a particularly tax hostile county (shop in Portland + work in Vancouver = no sales tax, no income tax), the anti-toll message seems to have resonated with residents. It is also important to note that Sam Adams (Portland’s Mayor) has also recently come out against the current alternative, stating that tolls and light-rail non-negotiable and a 6-10 lane bridge is more reasonable.

In more tax friendly Seattle, which supports tolling both SR-520 and I-90, the anti-toll message with respect to the deep-bore tunnel hardly measured as a blip on the radar screen. This aspect of tunnel funding, which I will venture to guess few Seattleites know about, was not used against the tunnel. Rather, McGinn tried to redefine the tunnel debate as a competition between different objectives. Freeways vs. sidewalks, freeways vs. schools, freeways vs. public safety. To cap it off, he tried to redefine the tunnel debate as freeways vs. light-rail. I think that point got a bit lost in the ether, but it may resonate with Seattle voters, especially in the West of the city.

So while the results of this election are still uncertain, and all of us nervously await updates, I’m sure WSDOT’s higher ups, politicians down in Olympia as well as in Seattle, and large construction firms are even more nervous. These two Mayoral candidates have dared to rock the boat. We might just see if they can sink it.

39 Replies to “The Biggest Loser: WSDOT?”

  1. Why is it that people are so against tolling? Don’t they understand that the infrastructure that they use has a cost to it.

    1. They think that the gas tax covers all of it. Too few people has been reminding tax payers that the gas tax isn’t index to road building and repair inflation.

  2. WSDOT outside of Seattle and Clark County is fine, as a State a bifurcated transportation priority between urban Seattle and the remainder of the suburban region is a good thing.

    Road capacity can be added much more cheaply outside of developed Seattle, it is also these areas that more highly favor road expenditures and are better suited to BRT over the short-mid time frame.

    Seattle’s experiment in transit may not work, however the McGinn project is certainly a prudent test. The region will not suffer for it, and the lack of abusive dominance of the corrupt and incompetent downtown politburo will be a good thing for the regions economy – including Seattle’s!

    Tolling issues are going to be very interesting to watch and I look forward to STB’s continuing leadership on this subject – including systemwide expansion of HOT Lanes (is it too soon to start talking about two lane HOTs?) and I-90 tolls.

    If lack of tolling delays the CRC, so be it.

    1. Have you been keeping up with the “Eastside Corridor Tolling Study”? Check it out. There is some good stuff. I tried viewing the video on the left but it doesn’t work on my computer for some reason. They are moving away from the HOT name to “Express Toll Lane” which I think is a fair and better description of what a system wide HOT lane would be like.

      I really enjoyed reading the documents in the project library as well.

      Its exciting to see the state continue to push tolling as a way to improve freeway performance and revenue generation. I thought that once Doug retired it would fall by the wayside but it hasn’t.

      1. FYI,

        Another meeting to discuss express toll lanes on I-405 will be held tomorrow at Kirkland City Hall from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. All are welcome to attend.

  3. I’m not sure what part of “McGinn isn’t going to stop jack” people don’t understand (McGinn himself has even admitted it) but hey, knock yourself out if it makes you happy.

    Plus dude is leading by what, 100 votes?

    If he does win, though, I look forward to the unicorns and rainbows he’s promised.

    (Don’t get me wrong, I can’t stand Mallahan either, but the chance that McGinn’s biggest campaign promises – the ones that got him elected – will actually happen are next to zero, and I would place money on that.)

    1. Oh, and LOL:

      McGinn tried to redefine the tunnel debate as a competition between different objectives. Freeways vs. sidewalks, freeways vs. schools, freeways vs. public safety.

      No, he certainly did not.

      He tried to define it the same way cranky senior citizens do: a boondoggle that is doomed to repeat (insert biggest public works failure in history). He stressed cost and dire, enormous overruns, and made sure to mention the “Big Dig” as often as possible.

      I have his campaign flyers, so don’t try and tell me what his message was.

      1. Yeah he did talk about the big dig a lot but I was taking it one step further. He was trying to get people to think is that if you are spending billions on a boondoggle you’re not spending billions on something basic that you rather have. At least that I how I interpret it.

      2. Opportunity cost. It’s not always as simple as “you do A you don’t get B” with restrictions on what money can get spent where, but arguably you could change those restrictions if you so desired. In a state where higher ed is looking at 14% tuition increases over 2 years and we cut 40,000 people off the basic health plan, I’d say there are lots of things that may be more important than the tunnel.

    2. Hehe. Really, unicorns?

      In all honesty I agree that McGinn has an uphill battle to stop the tunnel. But I’m still unconvinced that it is a done deal. The way I see it there are 4 major hurdles left.

      – Tolling: will it bring in enough revenue without making I-5 a partking lot?
      – SEPA: if the project gets tied up in litigation there will be at least a year delay in the project.
      – Design-Build contract: do they come in on budget?
      – Cost overruns: Will the state change the bills language so that the state explicitly has to cover costs?

      At each one of these stages if WSDOT falters McGinn could step in a try again to kill the project.

      1. I’ve wondered, how do you have cost overruns on a design build contract? Isn’t the contractor on the hook to complete the job for the agreed to bid? Only if there are City/State change orders can I see there being a cost overrun. In either case the party that asks for the change would be expected to cough up the doe. Of course things like the seawall and other surface improvements can have overruns but the City would be on the hook for those anyway. If the bid comes in over budget then it’s not an overrun, it’s a reset. I doubt the City will agree to pay the difference between the agreed on price estimate and any inflated bid. I do think the State is in for a rude awakening when they actually get the construction bids in hand.

      2. Yeah I looked into this last week. I’m not completely sure and I wanted to talk to someone with more experience in design build contracts but the basic idea behind design build is that the contractor accepts the risk of the project rather than the owner (ie. WSDOT).

        The idea being that the contractor then has a financial incentive to make it come in on budget. The bad part about then is that moving risk from the owner to builder is then presented in an increased bid cost. So bids will be higher in a design-build project than in a normal design-bid-build project.

        With that said I don’t think that all risk is covered and that is what I want to read more about. From my somewhat basic understand if it was impossible for the contractor to have known about the risk it can petition WSDOT to amend the contract to cover the additional cost. This process is usually handled between the agencies in a negotiation but if relationship become bad this process can go to court.

        I’ll be looking into this more for sure.

      3. The bad part about then is that moving risk from the owner to builder is then presented in an increased bid cost.

        I think this is supposed to be mitigated in part by the construction firm using specifications and methods with which they are most familiar and may potentially be able to reused portions of existing work. But, with the unexpected soils conditions encountered in our latest tunneling endeavor I suspect the cushion any contractor includes in the price will push the cost well in excess of the $2B the State pulled out of the ground for it’s estimate. Especially since the firms will be attempting to bid without incurring any of the extensive engineering work which would all be for naught if they don’t win the contract.

      4. Yes very true. For example PCL that won the Tukwila segment of Link won because they came up with an innovative concrete pumping technique for the support columns that I believe lowered their material costs or increased construction speed. That was from a tour a while ago and I don’t remember all the specifics.

        I think everyone is worried about soil. The southern portal is built in what used to be a tide flat just 100 years ago. You just don’t know what you will encounter. Just take a look at this tunnel in Sweden. It is expected to cost 10 times the initial estimates, and mostly because of poor soil conditions.ås_Tunnel

    3. This is pretty asinine.

      I mean, for starters, it’s 900 votes. Sure, it might reverse at 4:30.

      But seriously, you seem to be missing the point. Mallahan isn’t aware of or interested in moving us forward with the ideas we already know we need to start from. He’s opposed his only two election season ways of promoting bicycle or pedestrian transportation (head tax and burke-gilman), and hasn’t proposed anything material, either.

      McGinn just *gets* what needs to happen. We need sidewalks. We need to strengthen our urban centers and direct our new growth there. We need transit, and to start viewing feet as a default, instead of cars. We need better infrastructure that will allow us to compete with other cities who have already gotten a clue.

      The unicorns and rainbows are just a different approach to the challenges we’re given. He’s not promising anything, he’s thinking differently, and the ideas that will get traction in city government will be better than the conservative approach Mallahan has taken.

      1. I agree that McGinn has better ideas in terms of transportation than Mallahan. But I don’t think either of them, as mayor, will be able to “stop jack” or make anything new happen.

      2. With McGinn a Seattle funded light rail plan is much more likely to happen, though Mallahan may not have much choice but to get on board with Council President Conlin pushing the idea.

    1. Thanks! I saw this in my e-mail box a yesterday I think. I’ll take it since I’m trying to distract myself till 4:30.

    2. I’ve submitted my opinion. I wrote them that “the wording section 40 of the state constitution specifying that the use of motor vehicle related revenues be spent exclusively on highways” was the biggest transportation problem facing our state.

      1. Yes and yes. Things are going pretty well. It looks like you’re getting a great education on rail operations in Stockholm. Bring back some high speed trains when you come back.

    3. Done!

      I know what I write makes it look like I don’t like WSDOT but in most ways WSDOT is my favorite government agency in Washington. They have amazing public access to documents, are accessible, and in many ways are pushing the envelope of what state DOTs in the US are doing. In many ways they even outdo ST, and hands down outdo Metro.

  4. I would like to see WSDOT broken into several smaller agencies, with one for each metro region of the state and one agency for all non-metro parts of the state. Let counties form RTAs on the Sound Transit model (keeping transit and roads in separate regional agencies for constitutional and governance reasons). Let each agency have full taxing authority and no state-imposed limits. Let each county decide what areas are in a metro area or remain covered by the non-metro transportation agency. The roads agencies would continue to rely upon the gas tax, but with metro areas controlling gas tax collection and revenue within their authority.

    This would be a boon to the central Puget Sound metro region, avoiding the WSDOT roadblocks and imposed projects of little or controversial local interest. It would allow smaller metro areas the option of greater local control. Clark County would have a bit of a dilemma–they’d get greater local control but also have to pay their own way without relying on the rest of Washington to pull their weight, and that might be a hard bit of reality to take at first. They’d also have to accept that Portland is going to remain a senior partner in any cross-river transportation projects. But these are realizations that are in their benefit in the long run.

    1. No, the point of WSDOT is to unify the entire state’s transportation system. We already have counties, cities, and local/regional transit systems to serve the specific metro areas.

    1. Yup sorry. McGinn wants a 4 lane bridge with light rail. He wouldn’t even answer which West side alternative he supports because he sees them as all seriously flawed.

  5. Personally, i think tolling is pretty awesome. While I do use transit for about 80% of my mobility (the other 20% being roughly evenly split between car and bicycle), it affects me both as a transit user and an occasional driver.

    1)I’m poor. I can’t afford it when tax increases end up affecting the gas for my grocerygetter and getting passed along in things i buy.
    1a)and being poor, i can’t afford a dense or fashionable neighborhood; Seattle’s ghettos lack reasonable supermarkets that sell healthy food. I generally am hiking four miles to a decent Safeway, not crossing the lake. Building the cost of the bridge into my taxes is unfair as it taxes me even though i don’t really use it, bringing me to…

    2)You pay to get your butt on the bus. You pay to play golf. You should pay for nice new roads.

    3)When i do need to drive to the Eastside, it will be quick and i won’t sit in traffic all day. $4 and not wasting half an hour in traffic (burning gas at 3 bucks a gallon getting 0 MPG) and the time i save counts. Really, the underclass loses more money in waiting for things; a half an hour late means i lose my job whereas it’s less likely to be that way for people with more dosh, who also benefit by moving at higher speeds. Remember the Tacoma Narrows before the new bridge? That 2.whatever i pay with Good To Go! is worth every penny to not sit in interminible traffic.
    3a)The bus goes faster, too! Hopefully we’ll have light rail but this will nevertheless mean faster buses. More people ride the bus when it’s faster.

    4)There’s an incentive to keep the toll road moving. WSDOT does a *great* job attending to less severe wrecks. That said, a toll can fund an extra tow truck, etc…the authority has a financial incentive to keep everyone moving.

  6. I’d say McGinn has a chance to upset the entire rotten apple cart. The mega-projects WsDOT and SDOT have laid out are extremely overbuilt. No worries about future petroleum supplies nor carbon dioxide nor globalization from those highway robber barons. Their highways are all built to ‘their’ expected future of increased motor vehicle travel, no problemo! McGinn may also gain some control over Sound Transit, whose light rail expansions are similarly overbuilt with subways and elevated segments and park-n-rides. Sound Transit doesn’t work well with other transit agencies. Incorporating bus route designs in light rail plans you’d think should be a priority, but noooo…

    1. Subways, elevated segments, and park-n-rides make it so people actually ride it. When our system is built out we will have way more riders per mile than almost any other light rail system.

    2. Exactly. The reason subways work so well in NY/DC/London/Paris/Moscow is they’re allowed to function like freeways. People take them because “it’s the fastest way to get somewhere”. You build some crappy surface line with traffic crossings and stops every half mile, and people are going to say, “It’s no faster than a bus, what’s the point of it?” If you really want to get people out of their cars, you have to go to the next level of transit infrastructure. That’s why most New Yorkers and Londoners don’t drive, because they have that infrastructure.

  7. I think we need to balance demand, speed, and funding in future rail lines. On the one end you have local bus type service with streetcars running in mixed traffic. It doesn’t buy you much other than increased capacity and larger investments from developers. On the other you have 100% grade separated alignments with gentle curves, shallow grades, direct routing, and widely spaced stations. You get plenty of speed, but it is extremely expensive, limiting how much you can build. Furthermore you may miss some major transit markets and transfer points due to direct routing and wide station spacing. You have a number of options in-between with varying costs, potential ridership, and travel time savings. The trick is to strike the right balance for each corridor.

    1. A definitive balance is necessary between buses and rail. No matter how many (or how few) rail lines and stations can affordably be built, buses will still serve the larger urban/suburban area. Integrating the two modes is essential, not only to reduce rail costs and impacts and make building more of them possible, but to ideally guide development along each transit corridor. Huge park-n-rides and transit centers at rail stations offer less development potential than simply designed transfer stations.

      The first model I use as a study example is Denver’s 16th Street Transit Mall. Surface light rail crosses this 1 mile ‘car-free’ transit mall between Union Station and the State Capitol grounds. Specially designed hybrid buses run at 2 minute intervals. There is virtually no waiting time for a bus and no need for shelters. The district is completely developed and busy at all hours. No doubt, there were calls for an expensive subway instead by people obliviously convinced one was necessary.

      If Bellevue were to accept the Lake Washington RR Line route for Link LRT, a similarly designed shuttle could run the fraction of a mile from the closest station into town and perhaps even north to SR-520 where it could terminate at a light rail station there instead of another subway into downtown Bellevue. Or, Bellevue could refuse any consideration of this ‘modal integration’ and end up building no light rail lines, ever. Surface and structured parking lots along such a shuttle line would serve ‘double duty’ for transit users and adjacent commercial development.

      NYC has a great subway system, but terrible traffic and nowhere to park. Denver has a ‘carfree’ transit mall.

  8. Add some serious railroad tracks and catenary to that rendering, and somebody could have a plan. A hundred years ago, there were trains all over the Waterfront, passenger and freight. Think surface rail transit has to be slow? Go ride the streetcars in Gotheburg, Sweden. Just remember to hang onto something soon as you board. Motormen achieve right of way by sheer aggression, and a long understanding it’s your own fault if you get hit by a streetcar.

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