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Seattle neighbors upset with government project tearing up street twice to avoid fees

A map provided by King County shows the area where crews are installing an underground sewage storage tank. (King County Wastewater Treatement Division)

A big construction project in North Seattle has neighbors up in arms because the contractor is proposing to tear up new paving after just 10 days, then repave it again to avoid paying street-use fees.

“This is insanity here,” said KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson, when he first learned of the project in a report by Q13.

Neighbors in the Blue Ridge area have been dealing with construction and detours from the $24 million North Beach CSO Control Project for several months. King County is installing an underground sewage storage tank to prevent sewage overflows into Puget Sound below.

But residents of the area recently grew angry and began speaking out when they learned one of the contractors, Stellar J Corporation of Woodland, Wash., plans to pave Triton Drive NW and reopen it for just 10 days, then shut it down and tear it up again to avoid paying increasing street-use fees.

The Seattle Department of Transportation charges contractors for every 10 days a street is closed to traffic, and the fees double each month a road is closed.

“The purpose of the fee is to minimize impacts and incentivize efficiency, not extend or delay projects,” SDOT right-of-way manager Brian De Place tells KIRO Radio. “Paving something to only tear it up again is not efficient and a good use of anyone’s resources or time.”

But Pam Elardo, the director of the King County Wastewater Treatment Division, defends the contractor and says the fee structure set by the city is the problem.

“The contractor is not trying to pad the project,” Elardo tells KIRO Radio. “They are a reputable contractor that has worked with us on other projects.”

Elardo says the contractor was under the impression it would be able to reset the clock on the fee increases and bid the $9 million contract accordingly, but recently came to believe it would only avoid paying the escalating fees if it opened the road briefly before tearing it up and resuming the work.

“I think the contractor is doing the best it can. They went on information they got from SDOT they received over several months and were very confident they’d be able to get the fee reset in place,” she says.

She agrees it doesn’t “necessarily make the most sense for the terms of the project,” but says it’s a practice used on other projects in the city.

But SDOT’s De Place says the contractor is mistaken. He says Stellar J will still have to pay, and the city is in talks with the contractor to come up with a resolution he hopes will avoid the contractor trying to do the same work twice to skirt the fee.

Elardo says her division has spoken with SDOT for at least five years in an effort to change the street-use fees so they don’t apply to “essential public projects,” such as the North Beach sewage overflow project. She says the fees don’t make sense when the taxpayers are ultimately paying the same amount, whether to King County or the city of Seattle.

“We really want to get this built at the lowest cost and get this done as soon as we can,” she says. “The fees shouldn’t be applicable to essential public agencies that are really doing the same thing for the same public as SDOT is.”

De Place counters the fees are intended to incentivize all projects to minimize their impact on city streets, not just private construction. He says ultimately, the fee structure is set by the City Council.

Regardless of the outcome, Elardo says the controversy is disappointing and unfortunate because it overshadows such an important project and all of the good work done by King County.

“We really are striving to be the best run government in the country. We are very much run like a private entity for a lot of the work that we do. We are very keen on continuous improvement and implementing efficiency so we are reducing costs to our rate payers.”

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