House Dems offer construction, highway budgets —

House Dems offer construction, highway budgets

By David Ammons; March 19, 2007 © The Vancouver Columbian

Mar 19, 2007

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) -- Majority House Democrats on Monday unveiled a $7.4 billion transportation budget that freezes ferry fares and terminal construction, provides a $120 million down payment on a new Lake Washington floating bridge and creates a $1 billion reserve for costly mega-projects.

The proposed two-year budget includes no new projects, but deals with $2 billion in cost overruns, primarily the soaring price of materials, that have engulfed the hundreds of projects that were promised when lawmakers and voters approved a 9 1/2-cent-a-gallon gas tax hike two years ago.

Lawmakers and Gov. Chris Gregoire said for the first time that Olympia must proceed with some projects, most notably the State Route 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington, without knowing entirely where the money is coming from. The bridge needs at least $2 billion more and will depend heavily on the generosity of Puget Sound voters, said House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island.

The Democrats also offered a $4.2 billion construction budget that includes money for schools, college buildings, low-income housing, prisons, natural resource projects and other items.

The proposal includes a study for expanding prisons at Shelton, Walla Walla and McNeil Island. The state's prison system is overcrowded and has to rent about 2,000 cells in county jails and out of state.

The House Appropriations Committee will announce plans for the main two-year operating budget on Tuesday.

The governor unveiled her spending proposals in December. The House rollouts are the first to surface in the Legislature. Full House approval is expected on Friday. The Senate, also controlled by Democrats, responds next week. Negotiators then will have about three weeks to work.

The transportation plan deals with $2 billion in cost overruns over the past four years. Most of the projects will stay on schedule, said Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island.

The budget drops none of the 432 projects, keeping an important promise to the voters, she said.

But she repeatedly stressed, "There are no new projects."

About $78 million is set aside to cover additional overruns in the next two years and a $1 billion risk pool is created for the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement and rebuilding the floating bridge across Lake Washington.

The plan trims project budgets for the next two years by 5 percent, and plows half of that into the reserve account and the rest into bailing out projects that have exceeded cost estimates.

The budget assumes about $1.1 billion in new bond proceeds and uses federal money, agency efficiencies and other revenue to balance the plan.

"We've made enormous investments in safety and congestion improvement projects throughout the state," Clibborn said.

"Our most important priority right now is to keep those projects moving forward, especially with the viaduct and SR520. We must get these projects done on time, so that's what we're aiming to do and that's where we're putting our money."

The ranking Republican on her committee, Fred Jarrett of Mercer Island, concurred.

"We've worked hard to ensure taxpayer dollars are delivering transportation value," he said. "If we want to build trust and accountability, it must start with delivering on the promises we've already made."

The plan assumes $915 million worth of initial work on replacement of the quake-damaged Seattle viaduct and would include $120 million in early spending on the 520 bridge.

Gregoire and lawmakers said the work on 520 and other projects will have to proceed without a definitive plan on where the money is coming from.

The House proposal would freeze ferry fares for a year while the recommendations of the recent ferry finance study are implemented. The House has passed a bill to require the ferry system to review the way it plans for future growth and how it designs terminals.

Fares have gone up 62 percent since 2001 and the state Transportation Commission recently recommended a 4 percent increase. That will be put on hold for a year and Clibborn said she can't predict what happens next year. She is putting a two-year "pause" on $84 million sought for eight scheduled terminal projects.

The plan provides money to cut tolls on the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge to $1.50 in the first year of operation for motorists who use transponders. It would be $3 for those without transponders.

The construction proposal includes:

-SCHOOLS. The plan would include $879 million for state matching funds for local school construction.

-PRISONS. The proposal includes $20 million for expansion at Coyote Ridge in Connell and Mission Creek near Belfair, with 256 beds and 100 beds, respectively. It also includes $2.3 million for predesign on expansion at Shelton, 198 beds; McNeil Island, 300; and Walla Walla, 300. The plan also includes $79 million for new health care centers at Purdy and Walla Walla.

-HIGHER EDUCATION. About $1 billion is proposed for a variety of college projects.

-HOUSING. The budget would include $140 million for the state Housing Trust Fund, which provides loans and grants for construction, acquisition and rehabilitation of low-income housing.

-NATURAL RESOURCES. The plan includes $267 million for habitat and recreation lands, including $100 million for the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program and $114 million for the Trust Land Transfer Program. About $220 million is provided for Puget Sound cleanup and salmon projects and $206 million for clean water projects.

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