Road help for mid-sized cities

You can forgive Mountlake Terrace, Arlington, Monroe and Snohomish County’s other mid-sized cities, those with populations between 10,000 and 50,000, if they sometimes feel like the overlooked middle child, especially when it comes to funding for transportation projects.

Bigger cities with greater populations and larger job bases usually have an easier time winning state and federal funding for their projects. (We will note the one recent exception being the entirety of Snohomish County, which was treated more like an orphaned child in Gov. Jay Inslee’s 2015-17 transportation budget. Only $81.8 million was set aside for projects in the county in his budget, compared to $3.9 billion for King County. We remain hopeful it’s an oversight that the Legislature will correct.)

Since 2009, Congress has appropriated $4.1 billion in grants for transportation projects through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s TIGER program, Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery. The grants are awarded through a competitive process, but a quarter of the funds are targeted for rural areas with the balance going mostly to larger cities and statewide projects. Typically, projects in mid-sized cities don’t have the resources to compete with the larger cities, said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash. And to date, TIGER has not funded any projects in this state north of Seattle.

Larsen, who says he will focus much of his effort this session on transportation issues, has introduced a bill that could help those mid-sized cities by tacking on three more letters to the TIGER acronym, CUBS, Cities Underfunded Because of Size. Congress loves a good acronym, but the bill’s worthy intent seeks to more fairly distribute funding by setting aside 20 percent of the grant program for cities between 10,000 and 50,000. The bill, of course, doesn’t guarantee that Snohomish County’s mid-sized cities would receive funding, but it should increase their chances.

For a city such as Arlington, funding from the CUBS program would allow it to invest in upgrades to the access roads from manufacturing and industrial businesses to the state-funded improvements being planned for Highway 531, said Mayor Barb Tolbert. The federal grants would allow investments that the city can’t put solely on the backs of its taxpayers or for which it can’t count on state funding, she said.

Even if the Legislature does allocate funding for transportation projects above what is in Inslee’s budget, it’s not likely to provide all $1.067 billion in projects advocated by Economic Alliance Snohomish County. So any federal funding that could go to projects in the county’s mid-sized cities would “make sense not only for the state but for the U.S. economy as a whole,” the alliance’s CEO Troy McClelland said in a statement supporting Larsen’s legislation.

Every $1 billion invested in transportation projects for roads, bridges, highways and transit creates more than 13,000 jobs in those communities, Larsen said.

Just as important, it makes it possible to keep the jobs that are already here.

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