Patty in the News

It appears Seattle will finally have the money to fix the Mercer Mess.

On Wednesday, Sen. Patty Murray's office announced a $30 million stimulus grant to the Mercer Corridor Project. That just about covers the project's remaining tab so Seattle can move forward on the long-debated plan to convert one-way Mercer Street into a two-way boulevard through South Lake Union.

"This funding is a critical piece of the puzzle for a project that is central to the economy of our state and the Puget Sound region," Murray said in a statement. "Rebuilding the Mercer Corridor is going to create direct construction jobs, improve port and highway access and reduce commute times in an area that contains some our most vital employers."

Murray said she was informed of the decision Tuesday by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The first phase of the Mercer project, known as Mercer East, is priced at $190 million. It also would reduce Valley Street to two lanes in both directions, with wider sidewalks and bike lanes. The reconfigured Mercer corridor would serve as north portal to the deep-bore tunnel that the state Transportation Department plans as a replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

The money was awarded through the Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program, which Murray fought to include in the stimulus bill as chair of the senate's transportation appropriations committee. About $56 billion in applications from around the country competed for $1.5 billion available. The only other Washington state project to benefit was a highway corridor project in Spokane -- out of about $1.6 billion in applications from this state.

The Mercer Project beat out two other significant local projects, including the South Park Bridge and the State Route 520 bridge replacement plan. The South Park Bridge, a major freight connection in South Seattle, is falling apart. Owned by King County, officials had applied for $99 million to build a new bridge. Without it, officials say they may need to close the bridge this year for safety reasons.

Both projects could possibly benefit from a $600 million grant program included in the 2010 federal transportation spending bill.

A year ago, state lawmakers doling out federal transportation dollars snubbed Seattle and then-Mayor Greg Nickels, who was counting on federal help for a $50 million shortfall in the Mercer financing plan. Without the money, the City Council voted to approve preparations for the Mercer project, but delayed construction until all the financing was in place. With the grant, and bids coming in low in the recession-affected construction market, financing the first phase should no longer be a question.

City officials say fixing the "Mercer Mess," a circuitous routing of traffic through South Lake Union that clogs with 80,000 vehicles per day, is critical to the city's future transportation needs. Skeptics, however, deride the plan as a handout to Vulcan, the company owned by Paul Allen and the primary developer in South Lake Union. Vulcan contributed about $36 million. Still, critics huff at the costs and point to studies that show congestion may not improve. A second phase, known as Mercer West, would transform Mercer all the way west to the waterfront and would add another $100 million.

The grant program was aimed at ready-to-go projects that would improve congestion, safety and sustainability; generate jobs; and be substantially completed by 2012. It was geared more toward large projects with complex financing plans.

Murray is expected to join Gov. Chris Gregoire during a public event Thursday to discuss the award.

"After decades of studies and reports, we are finally solving the Mercer Mess," Gregoire said in a statement. "This project will improve a critical freight corridor and help people get to their jobs in a neighborhood that is expected to add thousands of new jobs over the next few years. With the Mercer corridor project underway, we are taking a major step forward in our efforts to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct."

- Seattle PI