In the spirit of continuing to float budget-balancing options that probably won't get a serious hearing down in Olympia this year, let's look at how to break into the safe that holds the downtown tunnel money.
Because the question keeps coming up: Couldn't we use those billions of dollars for something else right now?
The simple answer: Yes. We could definitely use those billions for something else right now. The list of needs, from social services to other transportation projects, is endless. But to re-appropriate those tunnel billions for something else you'd first have to remove them from of the place where they're being held.
It wouldn't be easy, but it is theoretically (if not politically) doable. Here's how it would go:
First, zero in on the money you want. There's $2.4 billion in state funds allocated for building the downtown tunnel, but that giant hunk of money is cobbled together from a bunch of different sources: $339.8 million in federal funds (can't re-appropriate those); $247.4 million in other state transportation funds (which could only be re-appropriated by an act of the legislature); $6.5 million in local funding (which, if the tunnel project were to be abandoned, would most likely go back to its local origins); and then the biggest pile, $1.8 billion in gas tax money. If you really want to do something about the state budget shortfall by re-appropriating tunnel money, then that's the part of the tunnel money pile that you want to get your hands on.
Next, grab some of that gas tax money. This is the hardest part.
The gas tax is the third oldest tax in our state. It was created in 1921 (at a rate of one cent a gallon) and after 90 years of increases it's now the highest gas tax in the nation (at a rate of 37.5 cents a gallon). Oh, and, the manner in which we can use revenue from the gas tax is etched into our state constitution. From the state Department of Revenue: "Pursuant to the 18th amendment to the State Constitution approved by the voters in 1944, motor vehicle fuel tax revenues, along with other vehicle-related fees, may be used only for highway purposes." This means that to get at the tunnel project's gas tax money you'd need another constitutional amendment.
Two thirds of the state legislature would have to vote in favor of, say, amending the constitution to allow gas tax revenues to be used for whatever we want to use them for (Basic Health, say, or higher education funding, or any of the other valuable state services that are currently on the chopping block), and then a majority of voters would have to approve the amendment. If there's a way to sell this kind of maneuver, it may lie in the fact that our gas tax is, as mentioned above, the highest in the nation. Do we really need more gas tax money than any other state and zero flexibility in how we spend it?
If you can get a constitutional amendment passed, then next you grab $700 million to $1 billion from the tunnel project's pile of gas tax cash and leave the rest. It will be needed for tearing down the existing Alaskan Way Viaduct and implementing the I-5 improvements / surface transit option.
So. There you go: The path to breaking into the downtown tunnel cash safe.
Like I said: not easy.
But, if we decide that some things are more important than building this tunnel, there's one route to funding them.