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Opinion >  Column

Getting There: As WSDOT warns of ‘crisis,’ hard decisions lie ahead about new construction, preservation

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 3, 2020

A gaggle of Canada geese take a morning pause Thursday on the Spokane River near the historic East Trent Bridge demolition site where two spans have been removed. The concrete bridge was built in 1910; the work to replace it will last until 2023.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
A gaggle of Canada geese take a morning pause Thursday on the Spokane River near the historic East Trent Bridge demolition site where two spans have been removed. The concrete bridge was built in 1910; the work to replace it will last until 2023. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

On one hand, Mike Gribner is sounding the alarm bells about a severe lack of adequate funding to maintain the deteriorating highway infrastructure in Eastern Washington, where he heads the regional office of the Washington State Department of Transportation – and about the severe consequences it could have for the region’s economy and quality of life.

On the other hand, WSDOT is in the middle of building the massive – and massively expensive – North Spokane Corridor.

Those two circumstances appear hard to reconcile from the outside. And Gribner, whose agency’s main charge isn’t to set funding priorities but to enact those decided by the Legislature, isn’t exactly eager to do so.

“This agency is a reflection of the values of the public we serve,” he said. “What is getting built and what is getting maintained is a reflection of the decisions being made outside of this agency. … The reason we’re building those projects (like the North Spokane Corridor) is that people wanted them. They felt they were important.”

But pressed on whether he thinks the balance has been appropriately set for funding major new construction and for maintaining the infrastructure already on the ground, Gribner offered a well-worn analogy: If your roof is leaking, he said, “you’ve got to put a new roof on the house before you buy a new pickup.”

According to Gribner, though, the house, in this case, doesn’t just have a leaky roof. The foundation is deteriorating, and money for repairs just isn’t there.

The coffers have been drained, he said, by shrinking gas-tax revenue due to COVID-19 and by Initiative 976, which voters passed last year to limit the cost of car tabs.

And while the state Supreme Court is currently weighing the legality of I-976, and WSDOT is continuing to collect the fees it would cut, Gribner said the agency won’t spend that money until it’s clear neither the courts nor the Legislature intends to follow through with the initiative’s promise to reduce car tabs.

Though he says WSDOT has “been beating this drum” about maintenance needs “for 20 years now or probably more,” the recent funding reductions have brought the issue to a head.

“We do not have the money to fix the things that are broken,” he said. “We will be making trade-off decisions about what gets fixed that gets broken. That’s where we are. And what doesn’t get fixed that’s broken is going to have consequences to the public.”

There are 42 bridges rated in poor condition in WSDOT’s seven-county Eastern Region alone, he noted. There is one bridge already, on Highway 195 near Spangle, that has had one lane closed due to concerns about how much weight it can bear. It will be left that way, to deteriorate further, unless WSDOT is able to tap some currently unavailable funding source.

And while work is underway to replace the East Trent Bridge in Spokane, Gribner said those kinds of forward-looking projects might not happen in the future.

“We’re now looking forward, saying decisions will look very different,” Gribner said. “We’re transitioning to something very different here.”

That different approach means there are also no preservation funds in WSDOT’s coffers to deal with roads like Division, Freya and Trent that have a speed limit under 45 mph.

There are freeway ramps in bad shape that Gribner said he gets calls about, and that he has to tell people they won’t be fixed unless his agency gets some new influx of money.

“So if you’re driving on an off-ramp and it’s rough, it’s going to get worse,” Gribner said. “Those things are going to get more and more and more visible.”

And over time, if nothing significant changes, he warned the issues may become severe.

“The shortfall is going to have very significant impacts on the system and how people use it and how it impacts them personally,” he said. “It is going to potentially create some prosperity issues for people.”

Imagine, for example, Gribner said, if the Interstate 90 bridges over Latah Creek, which are among those in poor condition, deteriorate to the point one of them has to be closed.

That would mean, he said, “I-90 is now closed for 18 months or two years while we put something back in.” And that, in turn, would mean an almost unthinkable interruption to local commuters and the local economy.

While any bridge currently open is safe, Gribner said, closures could come anytime.

Pointing to a pair of bridges in poor condition over the Columbia River near Northport and Kettle Falls that closed for repairs within about 18 months of each other, Gribner said “that is an early indicator” of what could happen elsewhere in Eastern Washington without an infusion of new money to repair and maintain the region’s existing roadways.

If those two bridges had failed simultaneously, he said, “we would have shut down the economy in northeast Washington. … These are real consequences.”

Which brings us back to the half-built NSC, and the question of how the state can pay for it when the state’s transportation department is so concerned about its ability to maintain what it already has.

Jake Fey, a Democrat who represents Tacoma in the state Legislature and who heads the House transportation committee, agrees with Gribner that the decision to invest heavily on the NSC was one that came from outside WSDOT.

It came, Fey noted, from the Legislature, in the form of the Connecting Washington package that passed in 2015, providing $16 billion for transportation projects, including $879 million for the NSC and $1.4 billion for state highway maintenance, operations and preservation.

But the pandemic and I-976 have combined with other factors – such as a court decision that requires the state to spend $650 million on culverts to improve fisheries – to mean “we don’t have the revenue we thought we had,” Fey said

“So that all leads up to affirm WSDOT’s concern about having the money to do the things that are required to do and necessary to do,” Fey said.

Fey pushed back somewhat, though, on the urgency of the transportation department’s needs.

“They can do things that will allow things to be OK until we get the money to fix them,” he said. “They have tools in their toolbox to put restrictions on weight on bridges and things like that. They’ve got some workarounds, at least in some of the cases, that could be used effectively.”

That, Fey suggested, could buy the Legislature time to reconvene in January and start making decisions about whether to raise revenues for, or make cuts to, transportation budgets.

“It’s a balancing act,” he said. “If we can’t get additional revenues, we will make cuts. We will make cuts and largely to those Connecting Washington projects. That will be the prime place that we go to cut.”

But doing so, he said, won’t be easy. After all, Fey said, it was the promise of those major projects, including the NSC and a new highway extension to the Port of Tacoma, that attracted sufficient support for Connecting Washington and the 12-cent gas tax increase that funded it.

“They voted for that 12-cent gas tax because of what was included in that revenue package,” Fey said.

And if cuts come to those projects, it’s far from a foregone conclusion that the savings would go to things like fixing freeway ramps or boosting the state’s chip-seal program, Fey said.

“In the condition where we are, where we’re doing cuts to projects already, it will be hard to take additional money and put it into preservation,” he said. “It’s all about getting a majority of the members of the House and Senate to agree to that.”

Gribner said he’s aware that big project like the NSC are “more interesting than preservation” and therefore more likely to draw public support. But he believes it’s vital voters and legislators consider what it would mean if the state’s existing infrastructure is allowed to languish.

Fey said he and a “team of people” that includes Rep. Marcus Riccelli of Spokane are doing just that and are “working through these issues. And one of the things that we’re doing is, we are listening to different stakeholder groups across the state of Washington, whether it’s transit agencies or chambers of commerce or truckers. Everybody who’s affected by transportation projects.

“We’re out meeting with them and laying out this problem and asking what should be the priorities?” Fey said. “Where should we put the money?”

Speaking of the North Spokane Corridor…

The following residential streets will be closed starting Monday as part of a $5.6 million project to relocate city utilities during construction of the NSC: Regal Street from Buckeye to Cleveland avenues, Cleveland from Regal to Ralph streets, Ralph from Cleveland to Upriver Drive, and Jackson Avenue from Market to Ralph.

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