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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Valley to hire federal lobbyist to pursue transportation funding

In this Jan. 21, 2018 file photo, lights shine inside the U.S. Capitol Building as night falls in Washington. Spokane Valley is seeking candidates for a full-time federal lobbyist position, hoping it will help them secure funds for local transportation and infrastrucutre projects. (J. David Ake / AP)

Spokane Valley leaders are banking on the idea that spending money will bring in even more.

The city is looking to hire a federal lobbyist, a position that will cost the city $92,400, including $18,000 in travel expenses to Washington D.C.

It’s about twice the amount the city of Spokane spends for federal lobbying, but Spokane Valley officials say the amount is worth it as they seek millions in federal money, especially to build new railroad bridges.

The city recently acquired funding for its Barker Road grade separation project with a $9 million federal TIGER grant award and is now focusing on additional funding opportunities for the $29 million Pines Road grade separation project, which will replace an at-grade rail crossing with an overpass.

The federal lobbyist will research available funding for transportation projects, gain congressional support for grant applications and communicate the city’s transportation needs with the United States Department of Transportation, key decision makers in Congress, federal agencies and trade association groups.

“It seems like a lot of money, but when you consider we’re looking for $29 million dollars for the Pines Road grade separation project, it’s a good investment,” said Mark Calhoun, Spokane Valley city manager at a June 12 budget meeting.

Spokane Valley City Attorney Cary Driskell said the city anticipates contracting with a firm by September that has established relationships in Idaho, Oregon and Montana.

The city will retain its state lobbyists to work on other issues, Driskell said.

Spokane Valley Mayor Rod Higgins said the city was successful with obtaining state grant funds, but there’s additional federal funding needed for future road projects, such as fixing an at-grade rail crossing at Park Road and the BNSF tracks, and widening Barker Road from the Spokane River to Trent Avenue.

“We discovered some time ago we are better off with some presence in Washington D.C.,” he said. “It’s not a bad idea. There’s quite a few smaller, other things that would help us out along the way that we aren’t aware of and a presence back there (in Washington D.C.) to keep an eye on details just makes a lot of sense.”

City Council initially expressed interest to hire a federal lobbyist at a June 12 budget meeting.

Spokane Valley Councilman Arne Woodard said upcoming bridge construction projects require a significant amount of federal dollars.

A lobbyist could help the city secure those funds, he said at the budget meeting.

“I think building a relationship with all the primary departments and legislators that are the chairs of those committees is going to make it a huge difference as it does with our state lobbyist when we are able to utilize them for state types of funding,” Woodard said.

Spokane Valley Councilwoman Pam Haley said she saw the benefits of having a federal lobbyist during a trip to Washington D.C. with the Spokane Transit Authority.

“(The lobbyist) basically completely rewrote their grant request for them after discussing it with the people they needed to,” she said at the budget meeting. “And that’s how they are successful because they have (the lobbyist) over there, they have relationships with the people over there, and I think we need that too.”

Municipalities spent more than $73 million on federal lobbyists in 2017, according to data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

The city of Spokane spends about $35,000 to $40,000 annually on a contract with lobbying firm K&L Gates for various issues affecting the city and the Spokane International Airport, said Ben Stuckart, city of Spokane council president.

“I think (a lobbyist) is really helpful for myself and the mayor when we go to Washington D.C. and for specific issues,” Stuckart said. “Our lobbyist is an expert on opportunity zones, so we’ve been able to get lots of briefings on that.”

Spokane Valley Councilman Ben Wick said although the city was successful with securing a TIGER grant, the process is highly competitive. Spokane’s North Spokane Corridor project is the only applicant in the U.S. that’s been awarded two TIGER grants.

While the city worked extensively in the past with state and U.S. legislators to secure federal transportation grants and will continue to do so, a federal lobbyist focusing specifically on Spokane Valley issues gives the city an advantage, he said.

“(A lobbyist) would cost us money, but we would have a presence in D.C., and can share more of what our needs are,” Wick said. “If we are able to get a major grant, it’s still going to be a significant return on the investment. My hope is to be able to secure the federal dollars and return that money to community.”