February 16, 2009 in City

Lawmakers search for north-south freeway funding

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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OLYMPIA – Don’t look for a flood of federal or state cash to suddenly speed up construction on the 53-years-and-counting North Spokane Corridor. The federal stimulus plan, slated to be signed today, includes no sweepstakes-sized check to complete the region’s $3.3 billion “mega-project.”

But in Olympia, where base hits can win a game, local legislators are pushing ahead on several fronts to keep construction moving ahead.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed spending another $15 million on the 10.3 mile freeway as part of a state-funded stimulus plan. And although the state got far less than hoped for in the federal version, local lawmakers nonetheless hope to tap another $40 million for the project from the federal plan.

“We’ll be watching the stimulus package,” House transportation committee chairwoman Judy Clibborn told local lawmakers Monday. “We know you’re ready.”

“I’ve followed this project my whole life,” said state Rep. John Driscoll, D-Spokane.

By showing dramatic savings, some local lawmakers are also hoping to increase the project’s visibility in Olympia. State Sens. Chris Marr and Lisa Brown, both D-Spokane, last month proposed trimming a $730 million plan for three miles of freeway running from Francis Avenue to the Spokane River. The new cost: $370 million. Marr’s hoping that sort of cost savings sways lawmakers into freeing up more money for the project.

A top priority, he said, is getting $38 million to pay for the engineering work on that three-mile stretch. That would set it up well for a second-round stimulus package which Congress is already talking about – or money from the federal highway trust fund.

“When those dollars begin to flow in, this project needs to be in a position to receive those funds,” said Marr.

The federal stimulus plan just approved by Congress includes about $500 million for Washington’s roads, highways and bridges. But much of that is slated for local transportation agencies, leaving the state only about $350 million, Marr said. And the local agencies have made it clear that they have local needs, rather than spending the money on state projects, he said.

Another strategy comes from newly elected Rep. Matt Shea, R-Mead, who wants to re-write state law to explicitly guarantee the project a slice of state tax dollars. In what apparently was a gentleman’s agreement that never made into the law, legislators years ago agreed to divide up a certain category of funding for two western Washington highways and the North Spokane Corridor. With one of the West Side projects done and another delayed by environmental concerns, Shea says, it’s time for the Spokane project to get that money.

How much money? Shea says it would mean $14.5 million immediately, plus another $70 million in bonds over next few years.

Marr, however, says that Shea’s approach is unlikely to work. Over the years, he said, state budget writers have put far more into the North Spokane Corridor than it would have gotten under the plan laid out in Shea’s bill.

“Sadly, this is one of those things that looks like a good argument on paper, but when you look at it, we’ve gotten more than our share of those dollars,” said Marr. “This is not some situation where that money’s magically going for Seattle projects.”

Shea acknowledges that his plan is a long shot. His predecessor, former state Rep. Lynn Schindler, unsuccessfully tried the same tactic. No hearing has been scheduled on Shea’s bill. Still, he says, at least it keeps the issue on the Legislature’s radar.

Shea also noted that the federal stimulus bill includes $1.5 billion for transportation projects of national or major regional significance. He wants state officials to try to tap that money as well.

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