Tunnel project cost overruns might not be as bad as feared

SEATTLE — The financial hit to taxpayers for delays to the State Route 99 tunnel might not be as high as the state warned last summer.

On Thursday, the Washington State Department of Transportation revised the cost overrun estimate downward by a third, to $149 million from $223 million.

The revision comes after nearly a year of successful tunneling and a new, detailed financial analysis.

The state says the estimate could drop more after mining is done next year and risks drop.

"Of that $149 million, about $69 million of it is risk that we're managing and we hope that we'll never have to ask you for that money," Transportation Secretary Roger Millar told legislators.

Bertha's two-year breakdown has increased overhead costs for the state, as WSDOT covers continued payroll and land leases.

In 2017, legislators will need to come up with a first installment of $60 million to cover overruns.

Governor Jay Inslee proposes drawing from a fund provided by gas taxes passed more than a decade ago.

Some legislators have suggested higher toll rates might be needed for the tunnel.

Those haven't been set, and the state is now modeling options ranging from a dollar to $2.50 per trip.

So far, the bigger cost for Bertha's breakdown has fallen on the contractor.

Seattle Tunnel Partners has filed a $480 million claim with the state for repairs.

The state says taxpayers are protected from those costs, but the courts will likely sort that out.

Bertha is digging a replacement for the earthquake-vulnerable Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Mining is now more than 70 percent complete.

The tunnel is projected to open to traffic early in 2019, three years late.

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