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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Fish v. students: fish always lose

Editorial

Washington lawmakers spent years developing a 16-year, $16.1 billion transportation project list and associated revenue package that finally put the state on the road to addressing congestion and safety issues that jeopardize our economy and lives.

Now, just six months after the bill’s passage, Sen. Mark Schoesler wants that list shuffled because Gov. Jay Inslee’s 2016 supplemental budget adds $113 million to the Department of Transportation budget – for fish passage.

Spending on fish instead of making highway improvements that will improve safety on roads used by Washington State University students makes no sense, he says, and he’s right.

But it’s not that simple.

The state has been ordered by a U.S. District Court to repair and replace more than 800 culverts and other structures that inhibit fish access to spawning areas. The ruling is but one more aftershock from the 1974 Boldt decision that returned to the state’s tribes the fishing rights they had been denied for decades.

The tribes argue, so far successfully, that removing barriers to spawning areas follow from Boldt.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard a state appeal of the fish passage decision in October, but there may be no ruling for months. In the meantime, the $300 million the Legislature committed to culvert replacement is nowhere near enough to bring the state into compliance with the court timetable.

The total cost is an estimated $2.4 billion. DOT must have its share of the work finished by 2030.

The departments of Natural Resources and Fish and Wildlife are on track to get their projects done by an October deadline.

The $113 million sought by Inslee, spread over the 14 years to 2030, will not get DOT all the way to compliance, just closer.

After all the negotiating that went into the project list, moving up work on state Highway 26, as Schoesler proposes, should be something legislators can sort out within the package of improvements they passed last year.

A pair of Thanksgiving break accidents on Highway 26 and U.S. Highway 195 that took the lives of two Washington State University students refocused attention on the hazards of those two-lane roads.

But inattentive driving, speeding and unwise passing have taken many lives on those roads for a long time. Though tragic, shuffling resources in response to accidents that take student lives, or any other lives, is poor policy and planning, especially when arriving at the 16-year project list was a multiyear effort in itself.

Stretches of U.S. 195 are being repaved, and more passing lanes will be added in 2017 to increase safety. But modifications to Highway 26 are not scheduled until 2025.

Maybe that work should be moved up, but the students versus fish argument is evergreen, and the fish lose every time. But that only backs the state deeper into a corner if money to satisfy the court is denied every time it is put forward.

Schoesler’s frustration with yet another court deciding how Washington should spend its money – the McCleary education case being Exhibit A – is understandable. But the obligation is out there, and sooner or later it must be met.

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