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-size 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.
Some local lawmakers are hoping to increase the project’s visibility in Olympia by showing dramatic savings. 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 hopes that sort of cost savings persuades lawmakers to free 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 that 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,” Marr said.
The federal stimulus plan 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 about $350 million, Marr said. And the local agencies have made it clear that they’ll spend the money on local needs rather than state projects, he said.
Another strategy comes from newly elected Rep. Matt Shea, R-Mead, who wants to rewrite state law to explicitly guarantee the corridor 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 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.
Shea says it would mean $14.5 million immediately, plus $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,” Marr said. “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.
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 into that money as well.