Tri-City road projects likely going nowhere, as state and federal money runs dry

Tri-City HeraldFebruary 3, 2013 

Plans for a new Red Mountain highway interchange near West Richland, finishing the Highway 12 expansion between the Tri-Cities and Walla Walla, and building a Duportail Street bridge in Richland might remain on the waiting list for a while.

Tri-City officials say they just can't afford those multimillion-dollar road and bridge projects without state and federal help. But the state and federal pots of money that have paid the lion's share of road improvement projects are shrinking.

Washington is short of the $300 million a year needed just for preservation work on its roadways and bridges, said Don Whitehouse, Washington State Department of Transportation's south central regional administrator.

A task force recently identified the need for $3 billion during the next 10 years just to care for maintenance.

Counties will need about $1.5 billion in the next decade to maintain roads and bridges, and cities will need another $3.4 billion, according to the task force's report.

There just isn't money for new improvement projects unless more revenues are found, Whitehouse said.

The federal government is facing a similar shortfall, with $14 billion more needed each year just for highway maintenance, and another $50 billion for improvement projects, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

"The numbers are staggering," Whitehouse said.

LESS FEDERAL DOUGH

Federal dollars once made up about 27 percent of what the state used to pay for road projects, Whitehouse said. But the federal share has declined to 20 percent this year.

Between 2004 and 2011, Washington received $4.4 billion from the Federal Highway Administration. Most of the dollars -- $1.5 billion -- went to bridges. During those eight years, $939 million went toward maintenance, while $446 million went to add capacity, according to an analysis by McClatchy Newspapers.

Federal stimulus money helped with some preservation work, including grinding and rehabbing pavement on Interstate 82 between the Tri-Cities and Yakima, Whitehouse said.

Statewide, the stimulus meant about $490 million for 225 projects. All but two have been completed, according to the federal government. Getting those projects done was good, Whitehouse said, but now that money is gone.

Recently, in Franklin County, state and federal grants helped move Road 170 around a landslide, extend Road 100 past the city of Pasco limits, and connect East Foster Wells Road to the Pasco-Kahlotus Road to create a second arterial route to and from northeast Pasco, said Matt Mahoney, the county's Public Works director.

About 91 percent of Franklin County's $3.2 million road construction for 2013 is federal money, Mahoney said. Among the projects are Peterson Road, which is part of a project to establish legal access to Juniper Dunes, and two phases of rebuilding the Pasco-Kahlotus Road.

Cuts to funding put projects that have been on county and city waiting lists in jeopardy, said Dan Ford, Benton County engineer.

"The monies are not there," he said.

Maintenance is about all Richland can pay for locally, said Pete Rogalsky, Richland's public works director. Richland barely is keeping up with about $1.3 million a year for paving and rehabbing streets.

"We have virtually no local tax revenue to do any widening or add sidewalks or traffic signals," he said.

The project to widen Keene Road from Gage Boulevard to the city limits took 16 years and between $15 million to $20 million, Rogalsky said. Of that, 95 percent came from the state and federal governments.

SHRINKING STATE CENTS

Of the state's 37.5-cent-per-gallon gas tax for preservation and maintenance, only 8 cents is left after bond debt and payments to cities and counties are taken out, Whitehouse said.

In 2001, the 8 cents from the gas tax would have generated $251 million, he said. Now, those same pennies total $134 million, a decline of 47 percent.

The gas tax has no ties to inflation, Whitehouse said. And with fuel efficiency up and the recent recession, people are buying less fuel.

Every dollar spent to maintain a road in the first 15 years of its life saves $6 to $14 in maintenance costs after 20 years, according to the National Center for Pavement Preservation, a research lab for road-building materials at the Michigan State University engineering school.

The Federal Highway Administration doesn't require states to put money into repairing roads before building new ones.

Washington needs to resurface at least 1/15th of its roadways each year to keep up with preservation, Whitehouse said, and that isn't happening.

"We push this problem ahead," he said.

When the Legislature voted in 2003 and 2005 to increase the gas tax by 14.5 cents, that money was meant to pay bonds for 421 specific projects, he said. It's not available for new projects.

Tri-City projects paid for by the gas tax increases included widening Highway 240, improving the blue bridge, widening Highway 12 to a four-lane corridor, and installing the roundabout at Steptoe Street and Columbia Park Trail near Highway 240, Whitehouse said.

Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, said he hopes any gas tax increase passed in the future would be used by the state on a pay-as-you-go basis, rather than issuing bonds and using the revenue all at once. But he'd rather have voters propose a tax increase.

It's unclear what -- if anything -- the Legislature will do to add to transportation funding this session. Suggestions have included taxes for studded tires, tolls and a gas tax.

"I haven't seen any significant move forward toward any gas tax at this time," Klippert said.

LOCAL PROJECTS

Federal dollars are helping pay for Kennewick's efforts to increase road connectivity between the growing Southridge area and the rest of the city, and extend Steptoe Street from Center Parkway to Fourth Avenue, said Evelyn Lusignan, Kennewick's customer service director. Extending Steptoe to Center Parkway from Gage Boulevard also relied on a federal grant.

In Benton County, rebuilding Travis Road for the 3.2 miles between Sellards and Henson roads will cost about $2.2 million, Ford said. Of that, Benton County is using local dollars for $1.2 million and $1 million from the federal government.

In Richland, federal dollars are helping expand Center Parkway in Richland from Gage Boulevard to Tapteal Drive this year, Rogalsky said. The $2.5 million project will improve circulation around Columbia Center mall.

And Pasco is working on improving Oregon Avenue, Argent Road and Road 68, said Ahmad Qayoumi, the city's public works director. They hope to get some federal money for the $7 million to $8 million the three projects will cost.

TRI-CITIES' WISH LIST

This year, Port of Walla Walla Commissioner Mike Fredrickson said the Highway 12 Coalition will lobby for the federal government to step up and help pay for the project. Most of the Highway 12 corridor improvements have been paid for by the state.

"Maybe we'll get laughed at," he said. But it won't stop the coalition from asking for $200 million for one of the remaining two phases.

This summer, two Highway 12 overpasses were finished in Burbank at intersections that had been the sites of fatal and injury car crashes, Fredrickson said.

All that is left to build is the last two phases between Lowden and Wallula, he said. That's the longest and most expensive stretch, with two bridges needed. It could cost $300 million to $350 million.

Pasco hopes to use federal money for a chunk of the $27 million needed to finish the Lewis Street overpass project, which will replace the aging railroad underpass, Qayoumi said. Trying to get state or local money to pay for a project of that magnitude is "almost impossible," he said.

For Richland, the Duportail Street bridge and related street improvements are a high priority, but with a price tag of $35 million, state and federal money is a must, Rogalsky said. A bridge spanning the Yakima River would relieve congestion on Interstate 182 between Queensgate Drive and Wellsian Way and provide access between central Richland and the Queensgate shopping district.

"We rely almost entirely in state and federal money to make any substantial road improvements," Rogalsky said.

The Red Mountain interchange and Highway 12 are the only two projects from the Tri-Cities on a priority list WSDOT submitted to the governor, Whitehouse said.

While there has been some seed money for the Red Mountain interchange, Whitehouse said construction dollars just aren't available. The project includes adding a roundabout at the intersection of highways 224 and 225 in Benton City and building an interchange on I-82 near milepost 100 that would be the first direct access to West Richland from I-82.

Klippert thinks it's unlikely that the state will be able to fully pay for any of the transportation projects on the Tri-Cities wish list. But he said the region may see some dollars to keep projects moving forward.

"I think that we will be able to find something in the budget for local projects," Klippert said.

Curtis Tate and Greg Gordon of McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this article.

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