The latest bills from the state Transportation Department arrived late last year at Airway Heights City Hall.
They total about $18,500 and represented the amount spent by state crews clearing snow from the 2.5-mile section of U.S. Highway 2 located within city limits since 2013. The state plans to send another bill for the current year, too, and Airway Heights officials say estimates indicate it could reach as much as $50,000 per year or more and are turning to Olympia for help.
“It’s a highway, not a city street,” said City Manager Albert Tripp. “The state has always taken care of snow removal on the highway before … and from what we understand isn’t billing any other city (along Highway 2) all the way over to the coast.”
The total bill, which the city fears could nearly double what Airway Heights typically spends clearing snow from local streets each year, appears to be an unanticipated consequence of a massive 2011 annexation deal on the West Plains that greatly expanded Spokane’s city limits and secured Airway Heights’ claim to a portion of land that included a sales tax-rich Wal-Mart.
Under state law, cities generally are responsible for snow removal along highways within their boundaries, though state crews often will continue plowing while passing through small highway towns if it’s within an otherwise established plow route.
That’s what has long happened in Airway Heights, state officials said, but circumstances changed after the latest annexation left little of the West Plains outside city limits. Additionally, the highway expands to five lanes through the city, which requires more attention than simply leaving the blade down while passing through, said state Transportation Department spokesman Al Gilson.
“If we’re having to drive through the town anyway, they’ll just leave the blade down,” said Gilson, noting that the trucks won’t drop sand, de-icer or clear berms at intersections. “But that’s not the case in Airway Heights now.”
The standoff has reached Olympia, where lawmakers have been briefed by both sides of the dispute.
“This is a conversation that’s been going on for a couple years now,” said state Rep. Jeff Holy, R-Cheney, whose legislative district includes Airway Heights. “Both sides believe they’re technically correct.”
The city argues that even though Highway 2 serves essentially as a key local arterial, it’s primarily a freight and commercial route designed to benefit the entire state. The city’s population is about 7,500, but more than 25,000 vehicles per day use the 2.5-mile stretch of the highway that’s within the city limits, Tripp noted.
Currently, Airway Heights allocates about $30,000 per year for snow removal from city streets, he said, and the Department of Transportation has advised that its expenses along the section of Highway 2 within Airway Heights will range from $40,000 to $60,000 annually. State officials said their estimate actually was $30,000 to $50,000.
If the city refuses to pay the plowing bill, the state has threatened to withhold the portion of gas tax revenue that would otherwise be shared with Airway Heights.
“We’re being asked to choose between plowing city streets versus plowing Highway 2,” Tripp said.
State road crews say they also have tight budgets and, by law, cities are responsible for the cost of snow removal within their boundaries. Exceptions include limited-access corridors and freeways.
Gilson noted that Spokane is responsible for North Division Street, which also is part of Highway 2, and has accepted responsibility for the portion of the West Plains that it annexed. Spokane Valley reimburses the state for snow removal along Pines Road, which also is part of state Route 27, and along Trent Avenue, which is part of state Route 290, he said.
Holy said lawmakers are aware of the conflict but are hopeful the city and the Transportation Department can find agreement without legislative intervention.
“We’ll get involved if we have to,” he said. “But when you’re asked to change something you have to look at how it could potentially change things for everyone.”
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