State funds five major road projects in Whatcom County

Local government leaders in Whatcom County said they got four multimillion-dollar road projects funded by the new state transportation package, plus another one they didn’t ask for, because they came up with a project list they could all agree on.

“We did very well as a region this year,” said Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville, at a meeting of local transportation officials with U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett.

Larsen was in Bellingham on Thursday, July 2, to talk about federal transportation funds. He appearance was upstaged by news of the state money, which had fallen into place — almost — over the previous 48 hours.

The Legislature approved an 11.9 cent-per-gallon gas tax to pay for projects in the $16.1 billion, 16-year transportation package. But it had not yet approved the part of the package that included the project list.

Despite that, the project list should remain unchanged, David Schumacher, Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget director, said Wednesday, July 1.

“I would be very, very surprised if there was a change to the project list,” Schumacher said. “The discussions and the arguing has stopped being about the financing and the project list.”

The county and cities within the county submitted a single list of 12 projects to the state through the Whatcom Council of Governments. Four were included in the transportation package, including two of four the Council of Governments labeled “highest priority:”

▪ Slater Road interchange (highest priority): The state will provide $20 million to build five roundabouts on a 1.2-mile stretch of Slater, from Rural Avenue to Northwest Avenue.

▪ Northbound on-ramp at Bakerview interchange (highest priority): $10 million to build a new on-ramp that will improve eastbound traffic flow on Bakerview.

▪ Rebuild a Blaine interchange: $45 million to redo the Exit 274 interchange to allow access to northbound traffic and reduce the backup of trucks going to the border.

▪ New Interstate 5 underpass: $10 million to build a half-mile road from Birchwood Avenue-Squalicum Parkway to James Street Road-East Orchard Drive, including a short tunnel under I-5, to provide another way into downtown Bellingham and a quicker route for emergency vehicles headed to St. Joseph hospital.

Another project on the county’s list, the one that local officials were surprised got funding, is an elevated $3 million pedestrian overpass for Meridian Street. Reached by phone on Thursday, July 2, Rep. Vincent Buys, R-Lynden, said the overpass was put into the package by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale. Ericksen could not be reached for comment.

In all, $88 million was earmarked for projects in the county — the kind of money local jurisdictions can’t come up with by themselves.

“It’s really beyond our ability to fund without significant state and federal help,” said Ted Carlson, Bellingham Public Works director.

For Bellingham and Whatcom Transportation Authority, federal funds are a bigger slice of the revenue pie than state funds. Transportation officials made sure Larsen knew what their needs were.

One bill introduced by Larsen, the At-Grade Crossing Enhancement Act, could help Bellingham pay for an expensive rerouting of the rail line near Cornwall Avenue and a bridge that would take three railroad crossings off street level.

Linville said the crossing improvements, which are in the final phase of the waterfront plan, are key to economic development along the waterfront, “the last place to get family-wage jobs” in the city. The city’s plan for the waterfront says the Cornwall Avenue bridge and relocating the railroad would cost $42 million.

County engineer Joe Rutan told Larsen that while the county is doing a good job replacing bridges that are failing, it isn’t getting enough money to fix bridges with out-of-date designs that can be dangerous, for example, to bicyclists.

WTA General Manager Pete Stark said the federal government doesn’t provide enough money to both replace aging buses and enable the transit agency to expand to meet county growth.

Larsen said Rutan and Stark’s issues are addressed in legislation he supports in the U.S. House.

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