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Wash. Legislature Unveils $340 Million Highway Stimulus Plan

Sun March 15, 2009 - West Edition

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) Highway projects from Omak to Willapa Bay would be bankrolled with federal stimulus money under a spending plan announced Feb. 24 by the Legislature’s Democratic transportation leaders.

The Legislature’s stimulus spending plan for roads would use about $340 million of new federal money on 35 highway construction and repair projects around the state. The plan still faces votes in both the House and Senate, and will need final approval from Gov. Chris Gregoire.

State lawmakers said their highway stimulus plan conformed to federal requirements that projects be “ready to go,” with half the money being obligated within four months and the rest dedicated within a year.

But the Legislature also is ruffling some big feathers — particularly in Seattle — by leaving local governments’ favorite projects off the statewide transportation stimulus list.

Seattle officials wanted projects on two major roadways in the city included on the state stimulus list, and Gregoire pledged to support those projects as part of a plan for replacing the troubled Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel.

Gregoire asked for the estimated $75 million worth of Seattle projects, but lawmakers left them off the stimulus list. On Feb. 24, legislators said they decided early on that the Legislature wouldn’t be paying for local government projects with the state’s share of highway stimulus money.

Instead, they focused on these criteria: Putting delayed gas tax projects back on track, launching needed repairs to existing roads, making safety improvements and creating or keeping 10 jobs per $1 million spent, through projects with statewide benefit.

“It’s a very principled approach to allocating those funds,” said Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat on transportation.

Avoiding projects in specific local areas ensures that the spending will “not be viewed by the public as some kind of pork or political reward,” Marr said.

Some of the selected projects originally were paid for with recent increases in the state’s gas tax, but have been delayed as money has gotten tighter. Lawmakers want to use stimulus money to put some gas-tax projects back on a quicker schedule, such as $70 million for two projects on Interstate 405.

Other projects were characterized as much-needed repairs to existing highways, such as paving and concrete repairs on Interstate 90.

Local officials will have to take their projects to smaller regional boards that dole out federal transportation money, lawmakers said.

In a statement, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels said it was “mystifying” that the Legislature wasn’t spending its stimulus money on major Seattle projects.

Not putting stimulus money into the state’s most important economic center, Nickels said, contradicts the stated purpose of the stimulus program: to revitalize the economy as quickly and effectively as possible.

“This runs contrary to economic good sense, and the explicit directions from President Obama,” Nickels said. “Seattle has 17 percent of the jobs of the entire state, and 15 percent of total retail sales.”

Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen also was hoping the Legislature would keep one of the hoped-for Seattle projects on the stimulus list because of benefits for major Allen developments in a portion of Seattle.

The money discussed Feb. 24 is the largest slice of about $490 million in federal highway money that came to Washington through the federal stimulus package. The state got about 70 percent of the money, with the rest — about $150 million — sent to regional transportation boards in the Puget Sound area, Vancouver and Spokane.

The state could get more stimulus dollars for transportation projects through federal transit spending, and grant programs. The state has its own multibillion-dollar transportation budget, which will be passed as part of the 2009 Legislature.

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