Dec 15, 2023 - Politics

Ballooning costs may delay road projects in Washington state

Illustration of a road with a dollar sign hole in the middle

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Skyrocketing costs to build roads, bridges and fish passageways in Washington state mean lawmakers will have to make some tough choices when they convene early next month.

Why it matters: The state will most likely have to delay or at least slow down parts of some projects because "we don't have enough money," state Sen. Marko Liias (D-Edmonds), who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, told Axios.

Catch up quick: State officials are under a federal court order to replace hundreds of fish-blocking culverts by 2030.

  • Culverts allow streams and creeks to pass under roads, but many weren't designed to allow fish to return to their spawning grounds, which is the problem the courts have told the state to address.
  • The state also has other major projects in the works, including adding toll lanes along part of I-405; replacing the elevated part of State Route 520 in Seattle that goes over Portage Bay; and upgrading part of its ferry fleet.

Yes, but: All of those projects are now projected to cost more than originally planned — roughly 50% to 100% more in some cases, the state Department of Transportation estimates.

  • That's due to a combination of factors, such as inflation, supply chain issues and labor shortages, House Transportation Committee Chair Jake Fey (D-Tacoma) told Axios.

By the numbers: Replacing the fish culverts is now expected to cost about double what the state has budgeted, leaving a $3.5 billion to $4 billion funding shortfall.

  • Meanwhile, the estimated price tag on the I-405 project is $254 million over the $521 million budget.
  • And the best bid the state received on the Route 520 project will require about $683 million more than the $1 billion state officials planned for.
  • That leaves the state somewhere approaching $5 billion short to complete projects the Legislature has already approved.

Between the lines: Projects funded through the 2021 federal infrastructure bill and Sound Transit's expansion have created stiff competition for qualified contractors, leaving the state with fewer bidders to choose from, Fey said.

Plus: With more projects set to go out to bid soon, top transportation officials are worried about potential cost increases they don't even know about yet, Fey said.

What they're saying: "This might not be the best time" to do some of these projects, Fey said.

  • "It causes us to have to rethink what we're going to be able to accomplish."

What's next: Lawmakers return to Olympia Jan. 8 for a new legislative session.

  • Before their planned adjournment in March, they'll have to find some way to address the transportation budget shortfall, Fey said.
  • That will involve debating which projects to put off and which to prioritize, he said.
  • Lawmakers also could consider other sources of revenue, including raising toll rates on some highways.
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