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Transportation projects in Spokane area poised to benefit from federal spending bill

A passenger gets on an STA bus in Spokane. Public transit projects are  poised to receive funding as part of the recently approved federal spending plan passed by Congress and signed by President Trump. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
A passenger gets on an STA bus in Spokane. Public transit projects are poised to receive funding as part of the recently approved federal spending plan passed by Congress and signed by President Trump. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The federal spending bill President Donald Trump signed last week plows billions more dollars into public transit, highway and rail projects and other transportation needs, including some in the Spokane area.

The $1.3 trillion omnibus bill contains big boosts for nearly all federal agencies, but the biggest percentage increase came to the transportation department, which will see a 47 percent bump to its budget over the last fiscal year, from $18.6 billion to $27 billion. In dollar figures, the Department of Defense saw the largest change, with an additional $61 billion added to its budget.

Local transportation officials applaud the spending boost, even while they are still determining its local impact.

“This is a good thing,” said Brandon Rapez-Betty, Spokane Transit Authority spokesman. “Ultimately we’re happy that the White House and Congress are funding projects in public transit.”

In STA’s case, the 2018 legislation increases preventative maintenance funds by 2 percent over last year’s budget. It also provides the transit agency with upwards of an additional $400,000 in what are called “formula grants,” which supply urban areas with funds for a number of activities including vehicle replacement and infrastructure improvements.

The spending legislation also fully funded the Small Starts project program, at $400 million. STA won’t receive any of this funding this year, but plans to request that type of funding during the next budget cycle to help finance its Central City Line project.

“That’s two years in a row the president and Congress agreed that funding the Small Starts grant would benefit people across the country,” Rapez-Betty said. “I can’t predict the future, but it is a promising trend. … We’re going to make sure we do everything we can to make sure we’re ready.”

This year’s boost in transportation spending came despite repeated statements from Trump that he wanted such programs greatly reduced or eliminated all together. Most notably, Trump said he would veto the spending bill if it included the Gateway Project, a $30 billion rail tunnel connecting Manhattan and New Jersey.

The bill’s largesse has other local impacts, most directly from its tripling of an Obama-era transportation funding program, TIGER grants, from $500 million to $1.5 billion. The program has delivered $248 million to support 17 projects in Washington state since its creation in 2009. Nationally, TIGER grants have gone to every state, funding 462 projects with $5.6 billion.

In Spokane, TIGER grants have been used to fund $45 million toward construction of the North Spokane Corridor, a $1.5 billion project; and $9 million for the Barker Road project in Spokane Valley separating vehicles from rail traffic, which has a final price tag of $19 million.

In North Idaho, $7.4 million in TIGER grants have gone to re-aligning and constructing a segment of U.S. 195 near Worley; $1.5 million was used to construct a 6,800-square-foot transit center in Moscow; and $1.3 million went to a dock extension at the Port of Lewiston.

Sabrina Minshall, executive director of the Spokane Regional Transportation Council, said she could identify three projects that could be likely candidates for upcoming TIGER spending.

First is the Pines Road grade separation in Spokane Valley. Two projects that applied in the last round of TIGER grant allocation, but were passed over, are from the Spokane Tribe of Indians, which wanted more than $10 million for its roundabout project near the new casino, and the Spokane International Airport, which sought $5 million for a project to relocate and separate Spotted Road from the inbound and outbound roads that access the airport.

Minshall said it was unclear how the new federal funding would affect the region, but noted that federal transportation funds are mostly distributed to states on a formula basis, and could eventually come to our region.

Recent federal funding that came to Washington in this way include a $150,000 analysis of studded tire impacts in Spokane County and $500,000 toward the design of the I-90 Harvard Bridge and Barker interchange.

Minshall said the state Legislature is currently studying conflicts between vehicles and railways statewide. She said there are 14 crossings in Spokane County that will be looked at in the first phase of the study.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement she was “glad my colleagues joined me in rejecting President Trump’s attempt to curtail investments in these programs, and I will continue to fight for critical infrastructure investments that make a real difference to families and communities.”