January 23, 2011 in City

Probe finds many errors in Bigelow Gulch project

State, county consider takeover by WSDOT
By The Spokesman-Review
 
J. BART RAYNIAK photo

Late-afternoon traffic heads west up a hill through the tight curves on Bigelow Gulch Road last week.
(Full-size photo)

Spokane County’s $66 million project to upgrade Bigelow Gulch Road seems to have as much trouble with state officials as the pavement has potholes.

A draft report from the Washington State Department of Transportation says the county right-of-way office’s work is so badly botched that two phases of the project aren’t eligible for federal reimbursement.

Millions of dollars are at stake, and plans for a five-lane thoroughfare are in jeopardy.

The project depends heavily on federal money that is passed through the state Department of Transportation. State officials must certify that federal rules are followed.

Commissioner Mark Richard says the county likely made mistakes, and will accept responsibility for them. He and Keith Metcalf, regional WSDOT administrator, hope the problems can be overcome.

“This is an important project for the region,” Metcalf said.

He said work has been delayed, but the project is “a long way” from being scrapped.

“We will take whatever steps are necessary to provide additional training or remedy any flaws in our process that we might have to do to regain the trust of our federal partners,” Richard said.

Ultimately, that could involve collapsing the seven-person county right-of-way office and asking the WSDOT to take over. Without the Bigelow Gulch project, the county probably can’t justify such a large right-of-way staff, Richard said.

Metcalf said state and county officials have discussed the possibility of transferring the work to the WSDOT.

“That’s a possibility, but we have a big program of our own to deliver and we would have to make sure the resources are available,” Metcalf said.

Professionalism concerns

The state investigation – prompted by complaints to federal authorities – is set against a backdrop of litigation by Bigelow Gulch Road residents. Also, there has been strife within the right-of-way office as well as between its supervisor, Barry Lines, and the state official who oversees the office’s work.

Many of an Olympia-based WSDOT committee’s findings call into question the competence and professionalism of the county right-of-way office.

In addition to violating rules for fair treatment of sellers, county agents acquired too much land in some cases and too little in others, state officials said.

Among problems that could close the federal spigot, the committee cited “inappropriate” comments in documents.

In one example, WSDOT officials said Lines wrote that a property owner “got a look in her eyes like the lion preparing to finish off the kill.”

Regional WSDOT land acquisition supervisor Roxanne Grimm complained to the county in August that a county employee told her Lines made sexually offensive remarks about her temperament in a staff meeting.

County investigators dismissed the sexual-harassment complaint when Grimm declined to reveal her informant and all but one member of Lines’ staff denied hearing the remarks.

Allen Skimming, a right-of-way agent with a history of disagreements with Lines, told investigators he heard the comments Grimm cited. Public records say Skimming declined to hand over his notes of the meeting, upon advice of his attorney.

Skimming, Lines and Grimm declined to comment for this story.

Lines and Skimming were disciplined for a Sept. 30 incident in which Lines angrily ordered Skimming to leave his office and tried to push Skimming out when he refused to leave.

Lines got a letter of reprimand for inappropriate behavior, and Skimming got a verbal reprimand for insubordination. Both were ordered to undergo counseling.

Among dozens of WSDOT criticisms, Lines is alleged to have violated conflict-of-interest rules when he served as an agent as well as a supervisor.

Legal claims

County officials agreed this month to pay Bigelow Gulch resident Quentin Todd Wood $49,950 to settle his claim that Lines violated federal regulations by coercing him to sell land.

Wood also is a plaintiff in a separate lawsuit in which neighbors Don Hamilton and Lorna St. John and the Prairie Protection Association are trying to stop the road project on grounds of inadequate environmental review.

U.S. District Judge Robert Whaley rejected all the neighborhood objections last March, but an appeal is pending. Center for Justice attorney Rick Eichstaedt, who represents the plaintiffs, said the appeal is on hold to see how the state investigation may affect the project.

The county plans to convert Bigelow Gulch and Forker roads from two lanes to five, including a center turn lane, in an 8  1/2-mile stretch from Havana Street to Sullivan Road, near the Spokane Valley Mall. Critics favor less extensive improvements such as adding only a turn lane and shoulders.

County officials say the improvements are needed because Bigelow Gulch has one-third more fatal collisions on average than other roads in Eastern Washington.

Hamilton argues the county is “trying to build this megalith that will finish the north-south freeway for 10 cents on the dollar.”

Prairie Protection Association Chairwoman St. John says the organization’s mailing list includes 25 to 30 households, but Richard contends only two or three families actually oppose the project.

Millions at stake

Richard said he finds it “interesting” that Hamilton’s daughter, Katie Hamilton, cited the accident statistics the county used to justify the project when she filed a claim against the county for damages from a 2006 car crash near the corner of Bigelow and Palmer roads.

Katie Hamilton alleged the county failed its duty to provide a safe road, but she said in an interview that current project is not the solution she had in mind.

“I think little things could have been done instead of nothing, nothing, nothing, and then, bam, you’re hit with a five-lane road,” she said.

Hamilton’s claim was denied in 2008 on grounds that another driver’s negligence caused the collision. The Prairie Protection Association lawsuit was filed eight months later.

By now, more than $4.2 million in federal money has been spent on the Bigelow Gulch project. It remains unclear how much of that, if any, the county may have to repay – or how much of the $19.7 million in federal money needed to complete the work may be in jeopardy.

The federal funding is to be rounded out with about $16.8 million in state money and about $25.3 million from the county road fund.

Report review

Some of the county’s right-of-way acquisition problems are so bad they can’t be fixed, according to state investigators.

For example, the WSDOT committee’s draft report says it’s impossible to re-create the conditions that existed when county right-of-way agents failed to tell property owners they had a right to a county-paid appraisal before they agreed to sell land.

Nevertheless, county officials are going over the report point by point in hopes of fixing problems or showing the review committee is wrong.

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