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Wednesday, September 20, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Cost estimates for viaduct replacements jump

Seattle Times staff reporters

The price tag for a new, elevated structure to replace the aging Alaskan Way viaduct has grown from $2.4 billion to $2.8 billion and the cost of building a tunnel has gone from a high of $3.6 billion to an estimated $4.6 billion, according to a report released today by the state.

Meanwhile, the estimated cost of building a new 520 floating bridge has grown from an earlier estimated high of $3.1 billion to $4.4 billion, according to the state Department of Transportation report.

Inflation and the cost of building materials are blamed for the higher price tags.

Until this week, officials assumed that the state had enough money to replace the old viaduct, using the state Department of Transportation's 2005 estimates of $2 billion to $2.4 billion, but not enough to build a tunnel with a cost of up to $3.6 billion.

The new numbers assume that concrete and steel prices will continue their rapid increases of the past two years. Even before hearing the exact numbers, Seattle City Councilman Richard Conlin said he's now against putting an Alaskan Way advisory measure — elevated structure versus tunnel — to voters this November. He said some other members are feeling the same.

"This changes the dynamic," Conlin said Tuesday. "In some ways, it makes the decision more up in the air. You're looking at two potential alternatives, neither of which has funding."

Councilwoman Jean Godden echoed Conlin. Calling the numbers "troublesome," Godden said she is reluctant to put the issue to a vote with so much uncertainty.

The 50-year-old viaduct was damaged in a 2001 earthquake and is considered near the end of its lifespan. Similarly, the floating bridge is 42 years old and state engineers believe it is as vulnerable as the viaduct to earthquakes, or could be damaged in a severe windstorm.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who is the leading tunnel backer, met today in Seattle with Gov. Christine Gregoire and House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle.

The city is threatening to cause delays if Gregoire pushes for a cheaper elevated highway to replace the existing viaduct.

The state, which hopes to begin viaduct construction in two years, has said every month of delay costs $10 million.

Seattle believes it has control over street-use and other permits needed for construction. By obstructing an elevated project, the city thinks it can drive up the cost another $1.6 billion, to nearly $5 billion, according to a chart issued this morning by Seattle Department of Transportation director Grace Crunican. That would put the elevated structure close to the cost of a tunnel.

Only two of the nine City Council members, David Della and Council President Nick Licata, have backed the elevated option. Others prefer either a tunnel, or no new highway all which would divert thousands of motorists onto buses or surface streets.

An Expert Review Panel appointed by the governor issued a report Sept. 1 criticizing the state DOT for using overly optimistic inflation rates in its cost estimates.

The state had used an annual inflation rate of 2.4 percent, but panel members said the rate should be 6 percent to 10 percent. The review panel urged the state to rework its numbers, and Gregoire ordered DOT to update its figures this month.

Today's numbers were arrived at using an inflation rate of up to 5.7 percent. Based on the old numbers, Mayor Nickels, a tunnel advocate, has issued funding concepts that he argues would make a tunnel affordable with cash from city utility fees, the Port of Seattle, regional highway taxes, and a local property tax on landowners who would benefit from burying the highway. The expert panel considered the financing package to be reasonable, despite the concerns about inflation.

The new numbers show the city would have to find even more money for a tunnel.

Demand for building materials from China and India — as well as a wave of U.S. projects including the post-hurricane reconstruction of New Orleans and the rebuilding of terrorist-damaged New York — are driving up prices. Nationally, cement costs have risen 5.5 percent in the past year, while steel is up 13.6 percent, according to Engineering News-Record, a leading industry journal.

The $4.38 billion Highway 520 number assumes the new "Pacific Interchange" option, which would move the Montlake Interchange east. Doing so would reduce concrete ramps over the Montlake neighborhood and Portage Bay, but add a high-rise interchange that crosses Foster Island, so that traffic will be deposited directly at Husky Stadium. Earlier, the Pacific Interchange was thought to cost $3.1 billion.

Meanwhile, the City Council faces a Friday deadline to decide whether to put the viaduct option — elevated or tunneled — to a public advisory vote in November.

A majority of City Council members have said they'd prefer to pass an ordinance endorsing the tunnel without sending the issue to the ballot, an option given them by the state Legislature earlier this year.

But many said that could cause a political backlash, with voters expecting to have a say on how the viaduct is replaced.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com. Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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