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North-South Freeway slowly moving forward

Fri., March 23, 2007

OLYMPIA – Despite mushrooming construction costs, key lawmakers in both the state House and Senate say they’ll likely be able to keep the first major phase of the long-awaited North Spokane Corridor on schedule.

That’s a bigger achievement than it sounds. A spike in the costs of cement, oil, asphalt, diesel, labor and land has caused a surge in the costs of the project and many others across the state. First proposed in 1946, the 10-mile highway – known locally as the North-South Freeway – would be a high-speed link between U.S. 395 and Interstate 90.

The first major phase – a roughly five-mile stretch between Wandermere and Francis Avenue – was estimated in 2002 to cost $189 million. Now, according to the state Department of Transportation, it’s looking more like $321 million.

To keep things on schedule, legislative leaders say they plan to come up with enough money to cover most if not all of the increase. To do that, they plan to shift money from projects elsewhere in the state that aren’t yet ready for construction.

“We want to at least keep on track,” said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane.

“We have to complete a segment of the North-South from Wandermere to Francis,” said former state transportation commission chairman Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane. “In order for the public to understand this project is moving ahead, they need a driveable segment.”

Still very much up in the air, however, is how to come up with the rest of the project’s estimated $3.3 billion cost over 20 years. With a general drying-up of federal highway dollars, the state is asking Seattle and Tacoma residents for hundreds of millions of dollars in fees, taxes or tolls for West Side projects. Several local lawmakers say they don’t think that will work in Spokane.

“Spokane doesn’t really trust how we spend the money in the first place,” said Rep. Lynn Schindler, R-Otis Orchards. “So asking them to trust us again doesn’t really work.”

The House transportation budget proposal, released Monday, would add $99 million to the North Spokane Corridor budget over the next two years. An early version of the budget would have simply shifted land-buying money over to construction.

“We said, ‘That doesn’t work,’ ” Marr said. The Senate transportation budget won’t be unveiled until next week, but Senate Transportation Committee chairwoman Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen predicted a similar move there.

“That project has gone up $100 million and I think we’re planning to cover that,” said Haugen, D-Camano Island.

The North Spokane Corridor is only a small part of the state’s transportation inflation woes. Transportation budget writers, committed to paying for projects promised voters during gas-tax hikes in 2003 and 2005, are trying to overcome an estimated $2 billion shortfall over the next 16 years.

The primary reason, state officials say, is the higher cost of construction labor and materials, due partly to years of booming construction, particularly in China.

From 2003 to 2006, for example, Washington’s transportation department paid an average of 50 cents a pound for steel reinforcing bar, according to assistant state construction engineer Dave Erickson. Recent rebar bids have been nearly twice that: 98 cents a pound.

Structural concrete – used in bridges and retaining walls – cost $328 a cubic yard two years ago. It’s now $476.

And hot-mix asphalt – closely tied to the price of oil – cost the state an average of $35 a ton three years ago. Today, it’s $57. (All prices Erickson cited were so-called unit bid prices, meaning they include labor and equipment.)

“Like everyone else, we were unable to foresee this exponential rise in commodity prices,” said Al Gilson, a spokesman at the state Department of Transportation’s eastern regional office in Spokane.

Gilson said that the first segment of the corridor – a roughly three-mile stretch from Francis Avenue to Farwell Road – should be driveable in 2009.

As for the balance of the multibillion-dollar project, no one’s quite sure where that money will come from. It took extensive wrangling for lawmakers to OK the two recent phased-in gas-tax increases: a nickel a gallon in 2003 and another 9.5 cents a gallon approved in 2005.

Earlier this year, Schindler tried to get her colleagues in the Statehouse to approve a bill designed to lock up $270 million for the project. The money would come from a thin slice of the state gas tax, part of a deal Schindler said was made 17 years ago to fund two major projects near Seattle and the one in Spokane. Now that the two King County projects are largely done, she said, lawmakers and the governor want to redirect much of that money to Seattle-area projects.

“My contention was, ‘That’s our money, it’s our turn, and we should be getting that money,’ ” she said. The bill – and a similar one sponsored by Marr – died.

One bright spot, Schindler said, is that local elected officials, business leaders and lawmakers are all working hard to raise the project’s visibility in Olympia.

“The key is to just keep pushing and pushing and pushing at it,” she said.

Complicating matters, however, is the increasing state pressure for locals to shoulder a substantial part of megaprojects’ cost through tolls, taxes or fees.

Marr said some senators are floating the idea of a “transportation summit” in Spokane this summer to discuss what’s realistic for Spokane, if anything.

“Is it worth looking at? Yeah. Does it send a message that we’re willing to participate? Yeah. But I personally am adamantly opposed to any tolling scheme or anything applied to this corridor,” said Marr. He’d like to see the North Spokane Corridor as the last multibillion-dollar megaproject built entirely with state money.

“It’s gone on too long,” he said. “If I knock on one more door during the next election campaign and have people laughing when I talk about the North Spokane Corridor, it won’t be good.

“This project should have been built 50 years ago.”

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