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East Side could lose highway funding

OLYMPIA – Nearly two decades after a state gas tax increase that was intended to help pay for Spokane’s North-South Freeway and two Puget Sound projects, local lawmakers say Spokane is in danger of losing the money to transportation projects in Western Washington.

“We haven’t gotten enough money, and we really deserve to have that promise kept,” said Rep. Lynn Schindler, R-Otis Orchards.

Schindler is the prime sponsor of a bill designed to lock up $270 million for the freeway, a long-awaited link between U.S. 395 and Interstate 90.

Rep. Fred Jarrett, R-Mercer Island, the top-ranking Republican on the transportation committee, said the state has so far allocated about $350 million toward the $2.1 billion project. The project is also known as the North Spokane Corridor.

Seventeen years ago, as part of a 5-cent gas tax increase, state lawmakers created a so-called “Special Category C Account” to pay for big-ticket projects. The money came from a three-quarters-of-a-cent slice of the state gas tax, which would be used to pay back hundreds of millions of dollars in long-term bonds.

At the time, Schindler and other local lawmakers say, state legislators agreed that the money would be spent on three large projects:

“Seattle’s First Avenue South Bridge;

“State Route 18 in south King County;

“Spokane’s North-South Freeway.

The bridge is done, Schindler said, as is much of the work on SR 18. But while the state spent nearly $436 million from the account on the bridge and SR 18, she said, only $45.3 million was spent on Spokane-area work.

“Ninety percent of that fund went to the King County projects,” she said.

Part of the problem, local lawmakers say, is that where the money would go wasn’t written into the law.

“It was never down in black and white,” said Rep. Alex Wood, D-Spokane. “This was always understood. Most of us assumed – and shouldn’t have – it was in statute.”

Some lawmakers dispute that there was any such understanding.

“I was here in 1990,” said longtime transportation committee member Rep. Shirley Hankins, R-Richland. “I don’t recall promising anything to anybody.”

Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane, is sponsoring a similar bill in the Senate. But it stops short of writing the North-South Freeway into law.

The state is now struggling to find extra money to pay for transportation projects due to high asphalt, steel, concrete and labor costs. According to Schindler, Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed transportation budget would divert that old money stream toward replacing Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct.

“We are watching it be raided,” Schindler told a House committee Thursday. Gregoire’s office had no comment.

Several members of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce, in Olympia for a three-day legislative blitz, sat in on the hearing.

“I’m also begging you to please pass this bill,” Matthew Ewers, vice president of business development at Inland Empire Distribution Systems, told lawmakers. “This project is designed and shovel-ready.”

The north-south link “is the last piece” in a broader regional freight system, said Frank Tombari, a senior vice president with Spokane Valley’s F&M Bank.

Some lawmakers seemed sympathetic to Schindler’s proposal.

“You are before us today asking basically that promises made to citizens are promises kept, is that correct?” said Rep. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island.

But others were leery of earmarking money for specific projects.

Other lawmakers “have been begging for money for the very same categories” of transportation problems, like safety, said transportation committee chairwoman Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island.

Hankins said she agrees that the North-South Freeway is needed – and soon. But she said she’s strongly opposed to listing projects in state law. It prevents flexibility if there’s a transportation emergency elsewhere in the state, she said.

“Putting projects in statute like this is extremely discriminatory,” Hankins said.