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Saturday, August 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

State takes county powers after Bigelow Gulch Road debacle; federal funds at risk

Two phases of Spokane County’s $66 million project to improve Bigelow Gulch Road don’t qualify for federal right-of-way reimbursement.

On top of that, the Washington State Department of Transportation said Monday, three more phases “may be at risk” because of county blunders.

As a result, state officials are stripping the county of independent authority to acquire land for federally supported road projects, effective April 30.

Meanwhile, state officials – who are responsible for enforcing federal rules – will be looking over the county’s shoulder.

It wasn’t known Monday how much money, if any, the decisions may cost the county. So far, more than $4.2 million of federal money has been spent, and county officials are counting on getting $19.7 million more.

Kathleen Davis, director of the WSDOT’s highways and local programs division, said the department is on the hook for land purchases the Federal Highway Administration rejects. But the department may bill the county.

“It appears that our staff has made some errors, and we are committed to try and understand what those are and to try to correct them,” County Commissioner Mark Richard said.

He said he wasn’t prepared to comment on the possibility of personnel changes.

Richard hoped state officials would hold the county financially responsible “only if we perpetuate these mistakes.”

Davis said she hopes federal highway officials will allow the Bigelow Gulch Road project to be “restaged” to isolate problems and allow work to proceed in unaffected areas. She said federal officials were still considering their response.

The project calls for converting 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.

Davis offered to help bring the county office into compliance with state and federal standards, which she said might include hiring some private-sector professionals. State real estate workers might help, but only on a short-term basis, Davis said.

A WSDOT investigation, launched in September because of citizen complaints, found numerous violations of federal standards for acquiring right of way.

“The findings show evidence of inconsistent and inequitable treatment of property owners,” a review committee reported.

The problems were widespread and “clearly do not promote public confidence,” according to the report.

Among other violations of rights, the committee found in 13 cases that county agents failed to tell landowners they had a right to a free appraisal.

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