Costco-related vote on Whatcom council leads to heated debate over traffic

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 9, 2013 

The city of Bellingham has secured the money needed to build a $4 million stormwater treatment system that will serve, among other developments, a 160,000-square-foot Costco store expected to open in 2015.

The Whatcom County Council on Tuesday, Oct. 8, voted unanimously to provide $2.5 million through a grant and a loan to the city from the Economic Development Investment program. The rest of the money for the project came from city funds.

In the same vote, the council awarded a grant-plus-loan of $3 million to the Port of Bellingham for road and utility improvements, and a heavy-crane pad, on C Street near Colony Wharf. More broadly, the port intends to use the money to restore the marine trades on Bellingham's waterfront "to historic levels of activity," the port's EDI application said.

EDI money is sales tax set aside by the state government to promote economic growth in rural counties. The county receives about $3 million a year for the program and had $13 million available going into Tuesday's meeting.

The port's money passed with no debate.

Council members took the decision to fund stormwater treatment as an opportunity to criticize Bellingham's planning in that fast-growing corner of the city near the Bakerview interchange on Interstate 5.

Crews are completing a $3 million improvement to the overpass intended to improve traffic flow - what council member Barbara Brenner called "a very expensive Band-Aid" for Bakerview's traffic problem.

Council member Pete Kremen said the interchange needed a full rebuild, estimated to cost $50 million, to relieve traffic at Bakerview. He also questioned the city's decision to prepare a site for Costco near the burgeoning Bellingham International Airport. Four hotels are either under construction or approved for the area.

"To exacerbate the problem by locating Costco - and everybody knows what kind of traffic that's going to generate - it just defies logic to me," Kremen said.

"It seems like the city is hell-bent on keeping Costco within the city limits, for obvious reasons, with knowing full well that there is really no reasonable, affordable way to address the collective impacts of all the activity and growth in that area before Costco even comes in," Kremen said.

Costco officials have said the 133,000-square-foot store on Meridian Street is too small, and city officials entered talks with Costco to keep the retailer in town. The city covets the sales tax revenue a big-box store such as Costco brings. This type of store generated $283 million in sales in 2012 in Bellingham.

Brent Baldwin of the city Public Works Department tried to reassure council members, saying the Bakerview improvement project would make room for a 70 percent increase in traffic volume. Also, adding Costco to the area would result in the same overall traffic level allowed at that site - level "E."

Baldwin defined level E as being "as close to full as we can take it."

"We want vehicles on our streets," he said.

Kremen maintained that the interchange needed more than a Band-Aid but didn't expect the $50 million needed for the complete fix anytime soon.

"It could be 20 years before we would ever realize the funding for that, and what do we do in the meantime?" Kremen said.

Council member Ken Mann chimed in:

"Sit in traffic."

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Source: City of Bellingham

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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