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Additional Transportation Dollars Turned Back $4 Million For North-South Freeway Among Projects Stalled In 11th-Hour Vote

Last-minute Republican attempts to provide millions of additional dollars for Spokane highway projects screeched to a halt late Thursday when angry Democrats threw up roadblocks.

One of those Democrats was Spokane Sen. Lisa Brown.

In the waning minutes of the 1998 Legislative session, GOP leaders took on what they expected would be little more than a house-keeping measure.

They sought authorization to buy an extra $60 million in bonds for three projects: $4 million for preliminary work on a long-sought north-south freeway in Spokane, and the rest to relieve congestion on Highway 18 near Tacoma and the First Avenue Street bridge in Seattle.

Lawmakers in 1990 had set aside a portion of gasoline taxes to shore up $240 million in bonds for those projects. The interest rate for those bonds was lower than expected, so lawmakers now have the money to secure $60 million more.

But authorization to do so requires approval by 60 percent of lawmakers. Republicans, who hold only a three-seat majority in the Senate, fell one vote shy.

“That was the most coldly partisan vote I’ve ever seen,” said a frustrated Sen. Bob Oke, R-Port Orchard.

After the vote, surprised caucus leader Sen. George Sellar, R-East Wenatchee, scowled at onlookers waiting in the wings and snapped “what next?” before shuffling into his office.

Brown said she voted against the Republicans in protest of their entire $2.4 billion transportation plan. She called the plan “fiscally irresponsible” because it requires voter approval and could affect other state spending priorities if the economy sours.

“I’m not going to refinance my house if the roof is leaking and I’m not planning on fixing it,” she said. “That’s exactly what this is like.”

The bonds would have dedicated $4 million to a 20-year, $2 billion project to build a 10-mile stretch of Spokane freeway north of Interstate 90.

Already, $18 million to do engineering work and buy some land for the project was stripped from a House transportation priority list. The Senate on Thursday put the work back on a priority list, but didn’t single out money for it.

Firm spending decisions on that part of the project will be made next year, after lawmakers and transportation officials see what voters decide. The result of the bond vote is that no new money will come this year for the north-south corridor - including the $4 million state Transportation Department officials had counted on.

Brown said earlier in the week she wasn’t sure she supported the project as configured anyway, because it likely will require eliminating some homes in her district.

But fellow Spokane Sen. Jim West was steamed.

“One vote! One!” he snapped, and scurried into the hallway to share with business lobbyists a list of all the people who voted against the plan.

It was the majority Republicans’ second road defeat of the evening.

They also tried to earmark $25 million of a $194 million supplemental budget to immediately begin work on seven other road projects, including $10 million to start reconstructing an Interstate 90 interchange near Sprague Avenue.

Sen. Darlene Fairley, D-Lake Forest, objected on technical grounds and was able to single-handedly defeat the measure.

Now, the Sprague Avenue interchange work is contingent upon voters approving the GOP transportation plan in November.

Democrats called the plan unfair. They had watched as GOP leaders huddled behind closed doors much of the last day, trying to determine which projects from which lawmakers’ districts would be set aside for immediate funding.

“Transportation used to be bipartisan; now half the population around here gets nothing,” Brown said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo