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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane to net $200 million in state transportation funding; most to go to North Spokane Corridor

The Washington state Senate and House both passed $10 billion, two-year transportation spending bills in the last two weeks, with more than $200 million dedicated to projects in the Spokane area.

Most of this money is allocated toward construction of the North Spokane Corridor freeway, but funding also is reserved for rail projects, a freight facility at the airport, Spokane Transit Authority’s Central City Line and bikeways related to work on East Sprague Avenue.

With $15 million separating the two bills, however, the projects aren’t assured. A conference committee of legislators will have to meet to reconcile the differences, which could take weeks. The legislative session is scheduled to end April 28.

As the bills stand, the largest chunk of Spokane’s share this biennium is for the long-planned north-south freeway, now called the North Spokane Corridor. Legislators have set aside $183.5 million for the project this session.

Most of that money – $164 million – comes out of the $2.1 billion the Legislature is doling out from the Connecting Washington fund, a gas-tax supported program approved in 2015. The project is slated to receive another $7.8 million from the transportation partnership account, which also is generated by the state’s gas tax. Another $6.7 million will go to the project from the “nickel” account, a 5-cent per gallon gas tax created in 2003 by the Legislature that has mainly gone to highway projects. And $5 million is coming from the special category C account, a 0.75-cent per gallon gas tax that is reserved for high-cost highway projects.

The $1.5 billion freeway is expected to be complete in 2029, and the 10.5-mile road is expected to carry 150,000 vehicles a day, comparable to I-90.

The Central City Line will get most of its local share of funding this year. The Federal Transit Authority, which is expected to fund three-quarters of the $72 million project through a grant, recently asked STA to secure all local funding by the end of year. The Legislature already planned to put $10.4 million toward the project this spending cycle. With the late FTA request, Rep. Marcus Riccelli and Sen. Andy Billig – who represent Spokane – are working to get an additional $1 million for the project added to this year’s spending bill to complete the state’s share.

The project will be Eastern Washington’s first bus rapid transit line, a streetcar-like, fixed-route, zero-emission bus with frequent service running directly through the city’s core. In all, the state will contribute $15 million toward the project, which is scheduled to start running in 2021.

Riccelli also secured $3 million for a renovation project on East Sprague Avenue. The money, and language in the Senate spending bill that says the city of Spokane won’t get it or any other transportation funding until the city develops a plan to build and fund a safe bicycle connection on or near the street, has angered Mayor David Condon, who said the city didn’t ask and doesn’t need the money for the project. Condon asked Billig to remove the language over worries it would harm and delay other important city road work in years ahead.

The project to replace a BNSF rail crossing at Pines Road with an underpass, and construct a roundabout or traffic signal at Pines Road and Trent Avenue, is slated to receive $2.9 million in the bills. The project, which will cost between $26 million and $29 million, is expected to make the increasingly busy intersection safer.

Pines has an average of 16,400 vehicles every day and was rated the top road-rail conflict in the state, according to the Washington state Joint Transportation Committee. Last year, the rail crossing caused more than 27,000 hours of vehicle delays and 27 collisions at the adjacent intersection at Trent and Pines. An estimated 56 trains per day pass through the corridor, and it is projected that number will grow to 114 trains per day by 2035.

A project that replaced an old rail spur between Cheney and Geiger Junction to serve a newly built $30 million grain loading facility on Craig Road is also set to get partly reimbursed by the Legislature.

The money goes to Highline Growers, a grain company created last year when five grain cooperatives across the Upper Columbia Basin merged. Before the merger, the cooperatives built the facility, which assembles 110-car trains on the Palouse River and Coulee City railroad track. In 2015, the Legislature agreed to spend $2.3 million on the rail spur project. This year’s spending bill said the Legislature intends to keep sending state funding to the finished project until its cost of $7.3 million is reimbursed.

The Legislature also has dedicated $500,000 for rail work related to the Spokane airport transloader facility project, which will transfer freight shipments between trucks and rail. The $2 million, 1.2-mile rail line is under construction on the West Plains and will connect with the Geiger Spur. The project is being led by the West Plains Public Development Authority.

Another $300,000 is earmarked this year for continuation of a public information program discouraging the use of studded tires. The Washington State Department of Transportation began the pilot program last fall in Spokane County due to local residents’ high use of studded tires. WSDOT estimates that studded tires cause about $24.5 million in damage to Washington’s roads and highways. The new money would continue the program here and expand it to Whatcom County. WSDOT will update the Legislature on the program’s effectiveness in January 2021.

And legislators have set aside $250,000 for a study looking into an east-west intercity passenger rail service connecting Spokane, the Tri-Cities, Toppenish, Yakima, Ellensburg, Cle Elum and Auburn. This line would connect to an envisioned high-speed rail route running at speeds up to 250 mph from Vancover, B.C. to Eugene, Oregon.

The east-west spur would use the Stampede Pass corridor, and the study would look at the potential ridership of the line, assessment of current infrastructure and would report findings and recommendations to the transportation committees of the Legislature by January 15, 2020.