Inslee pauses local highway projects to fund culverts fix

Lawmakers and civic leaders were peeved. The move slows work on Highway 9 in Lake Stevens and I-5 in Everett.

OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee has put the brakes on highway projects, including three in Snohomish County, as he pushes lawmakers to get serious about complying with a federal court order to remove hundreds of culverts blocking salmon from thousands of miles of habitat.

Inslee directed the state Department of Transportation to not solicit bids for two projects on Highway 9 in Lake Stevens, whose contracts were to be advertised last week, and one at the interchange of Highway 529 and I-5 in Everett, which was to move forward in April.

They were on hold Friday as the governor negotiated with lawmakers on ways to significantly increase the amount of money spent on removing barriers to fish passage in the next two-year transportation budget.

Saturday morning Inslee signalled he may change course and lift the pause if “an alternate approach” can be found.

“We have heard concerns from legislators regarding our plan to pause advertising a number of transportation projects,” wrote Debbie Driver, the governor’s transportation policy adviser, in an email. “We are reviewing this short-term pause and will be working closely with transportation leaders in the House and Senate to find an alternate approach.”

Inslee, in December, put forth a spending plan with $726 million for fixing culverts — nearly three times the amount in the current budget. His plan also called for an infusion of $400 million for road preservation and added dollars for electrification of ferries.

Barring a new stream of revenue through a gas tax or carbon fee, for example, Inslee figured to free up money by delaying projects, which he and lawmakers committed to do in the 2015 Connecting Washington transportation package.

The pause, ordered Jan. 11, was intended to provide “as much financial flexibility as possible” during budget negotiations, Driver said last week.

“Not obligating dollars is a financially sensible strategy to take given the budget gap and multiple transportation priorities we have in this state,” she said. “Once a project moves to the construction phase, the department is committed to providing the funding to complete that project.”

Lawmakers and civic leaders weren’t happy.

“Halting projects breaks the promises we all made six years ago,” said Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and lead writer of the roads budget to be developed in the Senate.

“There is no disagreement about the need to build and repair fish culverts, electrify ferries and invest in preservation, but we need a partner in these endeavors,” Hobbs said. “Simply pausing projects to pay for these shared priorities is robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin said Friday that the delay is frustrating and disappointing.

Improvements in the Highway 529 corridor are desperately needed, Franklin said, and the setback hampers not just Everett but all of north Snohomish County.

“We work hard to get these projects approved and moving through, our residents pay for these transportation investments that our legislators work hard for,” she said. “To see it not come our way really erodes the trust of our residents and taxpayers that we can bring these projects to fruition.”

Inslee’s strategy drew steady criticism Thursday when the House Transportation Committee held a public hearing on the governor’s budget blueprint.

Lake Stevens Mayor Brett Gailey told the panel, and reiterated in an interview, that the projects in the city are not highway expansion and should have been exempted because they increase safety, improve fish passageways and bolster economic development.

“We candidly see a real contradiction between pausing these projects and furthering the goals of safety, fish passage, economic recovery and carbon reduction,” Gailey said.

In a separate interview, Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said it will be an ongoing conversation.

“We have to do the culverts. He can’t spend what we don’t let him spend. And his authority to move money around ends each biennium,” said Fey, who this week rolled out a $26 billion transportation package containing $3.5 billion for culverts. An 18-cent gas tax increase and a carbon fee would generate most of the money for package.

Washington faces a federal court order to fix drainage pipes beneath roads that block migrating fish.

In 2013, U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez ordered Washington to fix or replace more than 1,000 culverts blocking access to 1,600 miles of salmon habitat. He gave the state until 2030 to reopen about 450 of the worst ones, of which the majority run under highways. It won’t be cheap with an estimated price tag in the neighborhood of $3.5 billion.

Inslee’s proposed two-year transportation budget spends $726 million on removing fish passage barriers. The House and Senate will each craft their own budgets, and negotiations would commence on a final spending plan. The session is set to end April 26.

Inslee didn’t wait to see how budget negotiations with the Legislature play out.

On Jan. 11, the first day of the legislative session, he told the Department of Transportation to not solicit bids on certain highway projects mostly supported by state dollars. His directive exempts fish passage, preservation and safety projects.

A week later, on Jan. 18, the transportation department issued the list of nine affected projects, reiterating the pause is in place until lawmakers and the governor agree on a plan for the 2021-23 transportation budget.

The next day was when bids were to be advertised for making improvements to the intersection of Highways 9 and 204 in Lake Stevens, including building a northbound lane at Fourth Street NE and a northbound right turn into Frontier Village. The second project, with an estimated $3 million cost, involved improvements at the intersection of Highway 9 and South Lake Stevens Road.

Gailey told the House panel that while the city “strongly questioned” slowing the process for work on Highways 9 and 204, “we may have even more heartburn” with delaying the work at South Lake Stevens Road, which will benefit the arrival of a new Costco.

The allotted money is for a roundabout and construction of fish passage improvements, he said. And about two-thirds has been spent.

“We question what the real ‘savings’ are with this pause,” he said.

In Everett, the delay would affect the Highway 529 and I-5 interchange improvement project. It has three major components — a northbound ramp and a southbound ramp linking the freeway and highway on Ebey Island, and a northbound high occupancy vehicle lane between Everett and Marysville.

Lisa Lefeber, chief executive officer of the Port of Everett, expressed concern that many of the paused projects, including the one in Everett, could negatively impact the movement of freight.

“Delaying these critical projects disproportionately affects our state freight corridors at a time more critical than ever as we are laser-focused on regional economic recovery,” she said.

Other projects on the list are on I-405 in Kirkland, the Highway 520 and I-5 interchange in Seattle and Highway 501 in Vancouver. And in Pierce County, the Gateway Project, a major redo of a corridor linking Highways 509 and 167 and I-5, is affected.

“To put it on pause is just the wrong, wrong approach,” Pierce County Councilman Hans Zeiger told the House committee.

Zeiger is a former state lawmaker. In 2019, while serving in the Senate, he helped craft and pass a bill to expedite work on the project.

“It was one of the most important bills that was passed,” he said.

Inslee, in a December interview, pushed back when asked if his approach blows up the 2015 agreement because it would mean not carrying out projects on a promised schedule.

“I would not describe it as blowing up a multibillion-dollar (package of) projects. Maybe a few will be delayed, but they are still going to happen,” he said.

The state cannot ignore the federal court’s deadline, Inslee said.

“This has to happen. It is non-negotiable,” he said.

As for revenue, Democrats in the House and Senate are pushing separate multibillion-dollar proposals reliant on gas tax increases and fees on carbon emissions.

Inslee suggests they embrace his cap-and-invest program, aimed at reducing carbon emissions and generating dollars for state government. It sets caps on fossil fuel emissions for large companies and requires them to buy allowances tied to emission levels.

“I am making available a revenue package if legislators want to do it,” he said. “I really hope the Legislature will step up to the plate and put meat on the bones of their commitment to reduce carbon emissions.”

Herald reporter Jerry Cornfield: jcornfield@heraldnet.com; @dospueblos

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