Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

With deal, Inslee lifts pause on local highway projects

The governor says he has an agreement with lawmakers to commit to finding money to fix fish-blocking culverts

OLYMPIA — Three Snohomish County highway projects, worth millions of dollars and put on hold by the governor earlier this month, are back on track.

Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday cleared the way for those and other projects around the state to proceed after reaching an understanding with legislators on the importance of adequately funding the removal of hundreds of fish passage barriers in the next two-year transportation budget.

“I am lifting the pause today based on the agreement reached between the Legislature and the governor,” wrote David Schumacher, Inslee’s budget director, in a memo to House and Senate transportation leaders.

Inslee directed the state Department of Transportation on Jan. 11 to not solicit bids on certain highway projects mostly supported by state dollars. His directive, which was to be in place through the end of April, exempted fish passage, preservation and safety projects.

His action stymied nine projects, including two on Highway 9 in Lake Stevens, for which contracts were to be advertised Jan. 19, and one at the interchange of Highway 529 and I-5 in Everett, which was to move forward in April.

“I am glad we were able to work out an agreement to get these projects moving and deliver them to Washington taxpayers as promised,” said Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Hobbs and Schumacher said the agreement, in general, recognizes the need for the Legislature to have time to work on the transportation budget and an understanding of the governor’s priorities, most notably funding the removal of culverts that block migrating salmon. A 2013 federal court order set a 2030 deadline for removing most state-owned culverts.

Inslee is pushing lawmakers to significantly increase the amount of money spent on removing barriers to fish. His budget proposal earmarks $726 million for the effort in the next biennium, an almost three-fold increase from the current budget cycle. It is estimated it may take $3.5 billion to comply with the court order.

Barring a new stream of revenue through a gas tax or carbon fee, for example, Inslee figured delaying projects could free up money in the current budget for his priorities. All nine projects are ones he and lawmakers committed to do in the 2015 Connecting Washington transportation package.

The approach incited much criticism.

Some Democratic and Republican lawmakers contended it was an overreach of executive power for him to selectively pause projects authorized and funded by the Legislature.

There were deeper parochial concerns.

On Wednesday, 15 Democratic and Republican lawmakers representing Snohomish County sent the governor a letter urging him to the lift the pause. Two days earlier, 19 Pierce County lawmakers made a request on behalf of projects stalled in their communities.

“We understand that the purpose of this freeze is to allow lawmakers the opportunity to make funding decisions through their budget process, but we ask that you allow us the opportunity without jeopardizing these projects and the meaningful opportunities they provide to our Snohomish County constituents,” Snohomish County lawmakers wrote.

Then early Thursday, 23 city and county leaders — including the county executive and entire Snohomish County Council — wrote Inslee of their concerns.

“These transportation projects are vital to Snohomish County’s economic recovery, and I thank the Governor for moving forward with them,” said Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers. “As one of the fastest growing counties in the state, we need to move people and products on our roadways, and these projects are key components of a properly functioning transportation system.”

Inslee’s action means bids can now be sought for an estimated $10 million in 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, involves improvements at the intersection of Highway 9 and South Lake Stevens Road.

“I am grateful that he saw the need of post-COVID economic development and furthering a project that will help with that as well as a project that will assist in the removal of a fish passage barrier,” said Lake Stevens Mayor Brett Gailey.

The decision also restores the schedule for the Highway 529 and I-5 interchange improvement project in Everett. That $89.4 million undertaking 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.

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: jcornfield@heraldnet.com | @dospueblos

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