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Getting There: Billig vows to push transportation package as Washington struggles with decaying road infrastructure, pandemic slowdown

Crews work to set girders for a new BNSF overcrossing at Market and Wellesley in northeast Spokane’s Hillyard neighborhood last Friday.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

At least we’re not New Jersey.

That was one of the few bright spots to be found in a new report from the libertarian Reason Foundation ranking state highway systems for “overall cost-effectiveness and condition.”

North Dakota came in first, New Jersey came in last and Washington finished 45th.

While Mike Gribner, administrator of the Washington State Department of Transportation’s Eastern Region, said a “single study does not define the system” and pointed out that other studies “rank us considerably higher,” he didn’t dispute one of the Reason Foundation’s fundamental findings: that the state isn’t doing nearly enough to preserve and maintain its roads.

That’s something Gribner has been telling “anybody that will listen,” including this newspaper and the state Legislature. And Andy Billig, the Senate majority leader from Spokane, has heard the pleas.

Billig said last week that he plans to push his fellow lawmakers in Olympia to respond to those concerns.

“There’s going to be an effort to pass a transportation-infrastructure package, which would shore up the funding for current projects as well as invest in maintenance and culverts and some new projects as well,” Billig said.

The notion that the state will spend heavily to not only make up huge shortfalls in WSDOT’s existing budget, but also invest further in new infrastructure projects at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on budgets statewide, may seem far-fetched.

Billig, however, said the state should invest in new infrastructure work not in spite of those broader economic challenges – but because of them.

He argues that now is actually “a good time for us to make investments” in infrastructure due to the potential “economic stimulus effects of a transportation package.”

Because the state has a constitutional mandate to have a balanced budget, Billig said it’s not possible to pay money directly to citizens to fuel economic activity. But, he said, “we can provide stimulus through a capital budget or a transportation-infrastructure package that creates construction jobs now” and also lays the foundation for economic growth in the future.

Another factor in favor of such a bill: interest rates are low, meaning the state could borrow money for cheap.

While Billig wouldn’t hazard a guess about how large the infusion of funds for transit might be, Gribner said the latest revenue forecast suggested the transportation department’s budget for the 10-year preservation program alone will be underfunded by nearly $7 billion. Funding for the maintenance program, which pays for things like plowing and filling potholes, is off by about $400 million, he added.

Those shortfalls come after a long period when WSDOT has been forced to do its best with less and when much of the deferred work is reaching a point where it can’t be deferred any longer, Gribner said.

“We have been in kind of a triage mentality for maintain and preservation for a decade or more,” he said. “So we’ve been spreading the money thinner and thinner and thinner for some time. … We can’t really go much thinner.”

The effect won’t just be seen on paper, he said, assuming it’s not being felt already.

“So these (shortfalls) will be very obvious to the public when these service level cuts start to happen,” he said. “We’re getting complaints about sections of roadway now and our answer is, ‘Yeah, they are starting to get bad.’ ”

The Reason report confirms Gribner’s take, ranking the state 47th for maintenance disbursements per mile and 46th for rural interstate pavement condition.

Meanwhile, though, WSDOT is moving forward with a suite of expensive projects that are part of the Connecting Washington program, including the North Spokane Corridor.

Asked whether money woes will jeopardize completion of that long-awaited project by its current 2029 deadline, Gribner offered a mixed assessment.

One on hand, Gribner noted, the Legislature has not changed the schedule it imposed, and his department is “still on track to try to meet what’s in budget law.”

On the other hand, he said, “the revenue’s just not there to build them under the original schedule.”

Billig said he’s committed to finding a way to make up that difference and at last see the NSC finished.

“Spokane has waited decades to complete the North Spokane Corridor,” he said, “and I think we should hold as close to the current timeline as we possibly can. And I certainly will be pushing for us to stick to the current schedule.”

He said the project is important because of not only the planned 10-mile stretch of roadway itself but also the benefits that will be felt on other north-south thoroughfares that currently carry the brunt of the traffic.

“One of the reasons why the NSC makes sense as a project is that it will take truck traffic off of Division and allow Division to become multimodal and more efficient,” Billig said. “And having a bus commute on Division that is frequent and easy and fast will really help our city to move forward.”

Spokane-area planners are already moving forward on a plan to do just that: remake Division Street with bus rapid transit and other amenities after it’s freed up by the new NSC, whenever that may be.

Work to watch for

A crew is stabilizing the Coulee Creek slopes below the Pine Bluff Bridge, leading to interruptions on Pine Bluff Road from Seven Mile Road to Carlson Road. Motorists should expect delays in both directions and all lanes.

Avista crews are installing a power pole on the east side of the 8800 block of Wall Street this week, leading to closure of the northbound lane from Country Homes Boulevard to Jay Avenue.

Southbound Nevada Street will have a lane closure at Jay Avenue due to grind-and-overlay work.

Riverside Avenue will have alternating lane closures between Wall and Post streets from Monday through Dec. 21 due to construction by a private contractor.

Austin Road between Quamish Drive and Windflower Court will be closed completely through Dec. 31 for work by a private contractor.

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