Troubled DOT projects could cause problem for state transportation package

State legislators enter the 2014 legislative session with a mixed bag.

With positive revenue forecasts, lawmakers aren’t too worried about this year’s supplemental budget, but two mistake-ridden transportation projects could cause problems for a proposed $10 billion transportation revenue package.

Both the State Route 520 bridge replacement project and the underground replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct have come under fire in recent months.

House and Senate leadership and members of the transportation committee discussed the projects and their implications for this year’s session at a legislative forum hosted by the Associated Press Jan. 9.

The state Department of Transporation will ask the Legislature to raise the budget cap on the bridge project from $2.77 billion to $2.89 billion this session to cover a pontoon design flaw and additional expenses. There’s still a debate about whether the state will foot the bill for a delay caused by an underground pipe blocking Bertha, the machine boring the Highway 99 tunnel.

“When was the last time that we didn’t have an overrun on a megaproject?” asked House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish.

He and other Republicans questioned the wisdom of funneling more money into state transportation projects when both the 520 bridge and the Highway 99 tunnel are going so poorly.

But Maury Island Sen. Sharon Nelson, the newly-elected Senate Democratic leader, spoke in support of the package, which she said should have been approved last year.

“To keep Washington moving, we need this transportation package,” she said.

“I know that sometimes there is a tendency to think that we can kick these cans down the road, but this year is a year for a transportation package,” Gov. Jay Inslee agreed.

The House passed the package, which included a 10.5 cent gas tax increase, last session. But the bill didn’t even get a vote in the Senate, dying in the hands of the Majority Coalition Caucus. House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said that since the House had already passed the legislation, it was up to the Senate to move the package forward.

Lawmakers also discussed K-12 education funding — one of the Legislature’s biggest projects for last session and coming years. Last year, the state funneled an additional $1 billion into public schools and will likely provide more funding in the future to comply with the 2012 State Supreme Court decision in the McCleary case.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, of Ritzville, said his caucus will continue to focus on reforms instead of simply pumping money into the state’s schools. Last year, members of the Republican-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus worked on bills that would assign letter grades to schools and change reading requirements.

“It’s not just the money,” Schoesler said. “If money was the key to education, we’d all want our young people in the Washington, D.C., schools.”

Gov. Jay Inslee used the event to talk about his supplemental budget proposal, released Dec. 17. The plan calls for a $150 million in increases to K-12 enrollment, collegebound scholarships and increased prison capacity, among other things.

Legislators won’t have to write a full budget this year, but Inslee said legislators will need to prepare for future sessions and costs.

“This is what I call a hold steady, get ready year,” Inslee said.

The legislative session will begin Jan. 13 and run through March 13.


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