2 key Tri-Cities projects likely in limbo after Tuesday’s statewide car tab revolt

Two major Tri-City road projects are in limbo after Gov. Jay Inslee ordered the Washington Department of Transportation to delay unstarted transportation projects after voters passed Initiative 976 on Tuesday.

The voter-approved measure will reset car tab fees to $30 and cut other transportation related taxes.

The Tim Eyman-led initiative passed on Nov. 5, bolstered by strong support from Mid-Columbia voters.

Unofficial election results show it passed with 68 percent of the vote in Benton County and about 72 percent in Franklin.

The initiative rolls back car tab fees, eliminates Transportation Benefit District fees and cuts other transportation fees, with an estimated $2 billion impact to the state transportation budget through 2025.

Kennewick’s Ridgeline Drive at Highway 395 and Pasco’s Lewis Street Overpass downtown are unexpected casualties since they’re funded by gas taxes that took effect more than three years ago.

They’re local projects but the money is from the DOT-managed Connecting Washington program.

David Zabell, Pasco city manager, believes the delay order covers Lewis Street. The long-planned project will re-route Lewis over the railroad tracks and out of an aging, dangerous tunnel. The state committed $26 million.

The city planned to advertise for bids in early 2020.

“The city will need to be fully engaged on this matter if we are maintain current state funding assistance,” he said.

Kennewick is in a similar position.

The state committed $15 million to the $21 million effort to route Ridgeline Drive under Highway 395 near Southridge. The project will relieve congestion and bolster safety on the state highway.

Ridgeline intersection
The second open house meeting about the Highway 395 near Ridgeline Drive interchange project is scheduled for June 12, from 5-7p.m., at the Southridge High School library in Kennewick. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Evelyn Lusignan, spokeswoman for the city, said Kennewick is reaching out to state officials for clarity. In the interim, it is proceeding with preliminary work, including securing land for the rights of way.

“Our position is that we are underway,” she said.

Lewis Street and Ridgeline Drive are both part of the $15 billion Connecting Washington transportation package, funded by an 11.9-cent-per-gallon gas tax that was phased in by July 2016.

Richland’s Duportail Bridge received $20 million from Connecting Washington, but construction is well under way so it probably won’t be affected.

I-976 also raises interesting questions about the now-dead plan to add an interchange on Interstate 82 at Red Mountain between West Richland and Benton City.

Drone Red Mountain interchange
Washington transportation officials are looking for alternative plans after federal highway officials decided Interstate 82 isn’t busy enough to justify the proposed $30 million Red Mountain interchange between Benton City and West Richland. Watch a video at: tricityherald.com/video Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

The Federal Highway Administration nixed the project this year, saying there isn’t enough traffic.

Local and state officials hoped to preserve the $30 million allocated to the interchange for other local projects. That could be more difficult now than it was before.

The full impact on DOT projects is unknown.

The agency is reportedly working on a list of affected projects. On Thursday, it said the directive doesn’t cover court-mandated fish passage work or safety-related efforts.

Future of local car tabs

Sound Transit was the main target of I-976, which revamped how car values are computed for fee purposes. Locally, the Transportation Benefit District (TBD) roll back directly affects Richland and Prosser.

Both use car tab fees to pay for local local transportation projects.

Richland is looking at a $1 million hole in its budget, Prosser a $100,000 one with the loss of the fees.

Richland implemented its $20 car tab fees in 2018 to pay for planning and design costs associated with the $38 million Duportail Bridge span over the Yakima River and to boost its street maintenance budget.

Duportail Bridge August19
Initiative 976 on the November ballot would set car tab fees at $30 and eliminate other transportation districts like the one in Richland that was formed to help pay for the Duportail Bridge project. Watch a video at: tricityherald.com/video Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Mayor Bob Thompson, who as of Tuesday has been re-elected twice after supporting the fees, said the loss leaves the city with a series of choices — allow roads to degrade, raise property taxes, cut or privatize other city services.

The fees are built into the city’s proposed 2020 budget. The city is staying the course for the time being, a spokeswoman said.

Thompson said Richland is lucky in that it didn’t pledge the car tab fees to repay bond debt. Many cities did and the loss will force them to find new revenue to avoid defaulting on their bond covenants.

Thompson notes the city could tap its reserves to buy time while the initiative is litigated by King County. But draining the reserve fund isn’t a good long-term strategy, he said.

“I don’t have any other answers,” he said.

Richland said the money pays for about 13 lane miles of pavement work per year, a figure that will go up when the Duportail bill is paid.

Prosser levies a $25 fee that generates about $100,000 for street work. City officials have said that if I-976 passed, they would have to drop planned street projects.

The project list includes repaving sections of Margaret Street in 2020, Florence Street in 2021, Lillian Street in 2022, Alice Street in 2023 and Wine Country Road in 2024.

While ballots are still being tabulated, the outcome of the I-976 election is not in doubt. But a court battle is shaping up.

King County Executive Dow Constantine directed the county prosecutor to sue to block its implementation.

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Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.