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Gov. Inslee pauses key road projects to focus on fish passage improvements

The Washington State Department of Transportation continues to replace hundreds of culverts. (WSDOT)

Fish over freight and congestion: That’s the battle brewing behind the scenes in the Legislature, with Gov. Jay Inslee “pausing” several key roads projects, choosing instead to push more money to a court-ordered removal of fish barriers.

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Gov. Inslee told the Washington State Department of Transportation to put the bidding process on hold for projects that did not meet his directive to focus on fish passage projects. WSDOT head Roger Millar then came up with a list of nine transportation projects that did not meet the criteria, and they include the Gateway Project, which would finish 167 from Puyallup to I-5 and 509 into the Port of Tacoma, and the I-5 projects in Marysville that would add a new on and off ramp to Highway 529.

Those are two huge projects that those areas have fought to have funded for years. They are also projects that were funded under the 2015 Connecting Washington transportation plan.

Fife Mayor Kim Roscoe testified before the House Transportation Committee last week to ask lawmakers to reconsider.

“It is incredibly ironic and counter-productive that a project so pivotal to economic recovery, so instrumental to complete a direct connection into a world-class container cargo port and one that will bring so many thousands of new jobs into our state would have the pause button hit on it,” she said.

Pushing the pause button does not cancel the project, but it stops the bidding process from beginning. Because of the uncertain financial picture and budgets being hammered out in Olympia, the rationale is to not commit to dollars right now that might not be there when the budgets are finalized.

Tacoma City Councilmember Christina Walker echoed Mayor Roscoe’s testimony.

“Despite our current financial challenges, the City of Tacoma and other local governments are making our payments, as agreed upon, and we are concerned that the delay will only increase the construction costs,” she told the hearing.

There is also a concern that local and federal dollars that have been assigned to these projects will disappear if they don’t move forward. For the Gateway Project, that’s about $200 million that could be at risk.

I posed this question to WSDOT’s Kris Rietmann. She said “at this point there is no risk to federal or local funding.”

“Your question longer term is why the Governor’s Office and the Legislature need to discuss how to address our transportation budget challenges longer term to include funding for fish passage and preservation,” she continued.

Former state senator and current Pierce County Councilmember Hans Zeiger helped move the Gateway Project up several years, and said this pause is going back on what people were promised.

“So many people are expecting that this is going to happen,” he said. “To put it on pause is the wrong, wrong choice during this time.”

There was similar testimony from Snohomish County about the pausing of several projects, including the I-5/529 interchange.

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Gov. Inslee’s two-year budget contains $726 million for fish passage work. That’s nearly triple what’s in the current budget. No one disputes that keeping up with the fish passage work is necessary, considering a federal court order mandating it.

House Democrats have proposed putting $3.5 billion towards the effort spread out over 16 years.

I asked the Governor’s Office to explain why these key projects were included on the pause list, and it sounds like he might be willing work to keep these projects on schedule.

“We have heard concerns from legislators regarding our plan to pause advertising a number of transportation projects. We are reviewing this short-term pause and will be working closely with transportation leaders in the House and Senate to find an alternate approach,” Inslee’s transportation policy advisor Debbie Driver told me.

Other projects on the pause list: two roundabouts on Highway 9 in Lake Stevens; improvements to 405 at 132nd in Totem Lake; the reversible HOV lane between I-5 and 520; improving 520 at 148th in Bellevue; and a project in Vancouver.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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