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Scott Hutsell: State aims to catch up on deferred maintenance

Washington needs to invest some $190 billion over the next 20 years to catch up on long-deferred maintenance and improvement of basic infrastructure – water systems, solid waste, roads and bridges.

Drinking and agricultural water needs alone exceed $5 billion.

Infrastructure provides essential resources we tend to take for granted on an everyday basis – clean drinking water, sanitary wastewater treatment and safe roadways.

Local infrastructure is an extremely valuable public asset that needs to be maintained. Just like deferring maintenance on your home’s roof or your car’s engine, deferring maintenance on a water supply system or a bridge can be even more costly over time.

But maintenance and improvement can be very expensive. Many smaller communities, especially in Central and Eastern Washington, need access to low-cost financing and technical assistance to maintain or build vital public projects.

The state’s infrastructure needs are documented in a report by the Association of Washington Cities, the Washington Association of Counties, the Washington Public Ports Association and the Association of Washington Business – all of which are supporting the call for increased investment.

The good news is a successful program is in place. More than 30 years ago, Washington legislators wisely established the Public Works Assistance Account (PWAA). The program, governed by a 13-member, governor-appointed Public Works Board, became a national model for providing a revolving loan fund to help finance community infrastructure projects. It has proved to be one of the state’s greatest success stories, lending $2.6 billion to local jurisdictions for infrastructure projects.

Money for the fund comes primarily from taxes on local utilities, real estate excise taxes and the repayment of previous loans. In the years following the recession, however, legislators diverted those taxes from the PWAA to backfill shortfalls in programs for essential public services.

Now, after more than four years of languishing without funding, the Washington Legislature – with strong bipartisan support – is poised to allocate $97.1 million to restart the loan program and to approve legislation that improves how it works. Final approval is pending.

The projects are typically a “win-win-win” for recipient communities: Public facilities get improved; the projects create construction jobs and economic benefits in rural communities; and the PWAA money is often used as a match to access other funding that wouldn’t otherwise be available.

In Grant County, for example, a $10 million PWAA loan to the city of Quincy makes possible an overall $21.6 million wastewater reuse project. In Wenatchee, a street improvement project is slated to receive 84 percent of the $5.7 million overall cost. Lincoln County is in line to receive a $155,650 loan to improve its solid waste transfer facility. Elsewhere in Eastern Washington, there are projects in Walla Walla, Spokane and Kennewick.

Many of Washington’s roads, bridges and water systems were built more than 65 years ago and were designed to accommodate the state’s 1950 population of 2.3 million people. So not only are the systems outdated, they can’t adequately serve a population that has ballooned to more than 7.1 million and is expected to exceed 9 million over the next 25 years.

Local infrastructure is not only a tremendous economic asset, it’s also the foundation of Washington’s strong, competitive economy and thriving communities.

The PWAA program is only a small piece of the solution. State officials, with the support of taxpayers, are investing billions of dollars in infrastructure programs, especially for transportation. But PWAA is helping on the front line, especially in small, rural communities.

Legislators deserve much credit for recognizing the need to fund the Public Works Assistance Account and to support the legislation improving the Public Works Board programs. Approval this legislative session would be a big step forward in addressing and improving health and safety in Washington’s rural communities.

Scott Hutsell is the chair of the Washington State Public Works Board and a county commissioner in Lincoln County.


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