No North-South Freeway Funds For City But House Transportation Plan Finds Extra $47 Million For West Side Ferries
A House transportation plan marketed as a windfall for Eastern Washington doesn’t include $18 million state engineers recommended for a north-south freeway through Spokane.
But the plan, put together by Rep. Karen Schmidt, R-Bainbridge Island, does include an extra $47 million to buy new Puget Sound ferries and do associated ferry terminal work.
Explanations for the change vary with the politics of the lawmaker doing the talking.
Spokane’s House Republicans, who supported Schmidt’s spending plan, called it a “political reality.”
Schmidt, the transportation committee chairwoman, so aggressively pursues money for passenger boats that lawmakers privately call her the “Ferry Godmother.”
One Spokane Democrat, however, wondered aloud whether Republicans put party loyalty ahead of Spokane’s road needs. Republicans could have supported the governor’s road plan, which included money for the north-south freeway.
Schmidt, meanwhile, said the plan was fair, and bristled when asked whether she siphoned money from Spokane to put into her own district: “Don’t you dare pit ferries against Spokane,” she barked.
The director of the state Department of Transportation said the money shift is part of a growing phenomenon: Lawmakers, rather than traffic engineers, increasingly are determining which projects get built first, thus subjecting transportation work to bare-knuckle, pork-barrel politics.
“The Legislature is becoming proscriptive … they now tell us what to build,” said transportation director Sid Morrison.
“The good news is we’re so far behind with everything that legislators have trouble finding any project that’s not somewhere on our priority list,” Morrison said.
The $18 million would have been used to buy land and do preliminary engineering for the first phase of a freeway to run from Interstate 90 to U.S. Highway 2 near Wandermere Golf Course. The project, which has been discussed for 50 years, would cost $2.1 billion and take two decades to finish.
At the request of nonpartisan transportation commissioners, Gov. Gary Locke included the freeway on his list of projects to be built if state lawmakers approved his plan to raise $2.4 billion by boosting gasoline taxes.
The GOP-controlled Legislature early this year announced his plan dead on arrival. Instead, the Senate on Thursday passed a final plan of its own, which raises $2.4 billion for transportation without increasing gas taxes.
The House was expected to pass the plan late Thursday night, which would send it to the voters this fall.
Rather than adopt the spending priorities of the governor or the transportation commission, Schmidt and her committee created their own.
That final list includes more than $45 million in highway projects for the Spokane area, including many that Eastern Washington lawmakers of both parties considered important.
House Republicans issued statements saying the plan contained the most money provided to Eastern Washington road projects in years.
But those statements didn’t mention that the plan left out the $18 million for the freeway. It does include $200 million for ferry projects - $47 million more than proposed by Locke.
Rep. Mark Sterk, R-Spokane, and a member of Schmidt’s committee, said Spokane could only get so much because “there’s 98 House members out there all vying for the same money.
“We’ve always complained that Spokane County doesn’t get its fair share, but the reality is, there are more votes on the West Side than the East Side,” he said. “I only voted for the ferries because I didn’t want to see us lose the additional money we got. We felt it was better to cooperate.”
Besides, Sterk said, Schmidt’s plan provides an extra $140 million statewide to be divided up among cities and counties for local road projects.
But if Republican House members had banded together, demanded the money be included and supported the governor’s plan, things might be different, said Rep. Jeff Gombosky, D-Spokane.
“There was a choice. Did they trim their sails just because they wanted to work within their own party on this?” Gombosky asked. “Well … there’s $18 million not in there for Spokane.”
State and county road officials were disappointed, but not surprised, that the money won’t be forthcoming. In preparation for making tough choices, they had listed other projects - the Evergreen Interchange, adding new lanes to Interstate 90 - as priorities.
Jerry Lenzi, regional transportation director, also pointed out that there still would be about $4 million available from other accounts to at least get started on north-south freeway construction. That may be enough to ensure money is available in the future.
“My sense is that with that we can progress that project and keep the visibility high enough to get additional dollars later, from the state or the feds,” he said.