Transportation projects may stall after 2013

Currently bustling with activity, region will see big dip as funding dries up

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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The state Department of Transportation expects another busy construction season in Southwest Washington this year, to the tune of a $182 million construction budget in 2012.

But as transportation planners gear up for a big slate of projects in 2012 — even 2013, based on continuing work already underway — the future is less certain, said WSDOT regional administrator Don Wagner. A large spike in public funding is about to dry up if nothing emerges in its place, he said, both statewide and locally.

Much of the recent boom of transportation projects in Washington was boosted by a pair of state gas tax packages, approved in 2003 and 2005. Those dollars will help pay for 19 projects in Clark County alone.

But transportation officials intentionally front-loaded the work schedule funded by those packages, Wagner said, with borrowing costs to be paid off long-term by gas tax collections. Construction activity is now reaching a peak, and could soon come back down, he said.

“We’ll be done with that work in 2014,” Wagner said. “We’re going to pay for that work for the next 30 years … It was not a pay-as-you-go system.”

Among Clark County’s biggest active projects are the $133 million Salmon Creek Interchange Project, a $50 million widening of state Highway 14 in Camas and Washougal, and a $48 million rebuilding of the state Highway 500/St. Johns Boulevard intersection in Vancouver. Another widening project on state Highway 502 west of Battle Ground is scheduled to start construction this year.

Work stays local

Much of WSDOT’s local work has gone to local contractors. Yacolt-based Rotschy Inc. is currently tackling stage three of the Salmon Creek Interchange Project. Tapani Underground, Inc. of Battle Ground took the lead on both the Highway 14 and Highway 500 projects.

The recent spate of public projects provides a welcome boost to the local economy, said Dan Korpela, a senior estimator with Rotschy. Public building activity has helped fill a void left by an ailing private sector, he said.

“I think the public market staying strong and being able to get these public work projects done …

is a good deal for everybody,” Korpela said. “It preserves jobs and provides economic benefit.”

Korpela said his company has also done work for Clark County and the city of Vancouver, among other local clients.

It’s unclear what the future of transportation funding in Washington holds, Wagner said. Lawmakers in Olympia have indicated that a funding package may be in the works for the 2012 legislative session, though details aren’t certain. Much of that talk will likely center around the biggest of big-ticket items on the schedule: the more than $3 billion Columbia River Crossing.

Wagner said the state may have to rethink how it funds transportation in the future. Hybrid and electric vehicle technology has taken a bite out of gas tax revenues, even as population and road usage are as high as ever. The trick is for the state is to adapt accordingly, Wagner said.

Even with huge activity recently, there’s still plenty of work to do to keep Washington’s transportation system viable and forward-thinking, Wagner said. Wagner pointed to at least one item on his wish list: widening Interstate 5 beyond two lanes each way north of Castle Rock — a wish that doesn’t have a penny committed to it.

“We need a good transportation system,” Wagner said. “We can’t just preserve what we have.”

Some municipalities have experimented with a usage-based fee for road funding — known as a “mileage tax.” That may be among the options to consider in the future, Wagner said. Any major change may have to come from the federal leaders first, he added, which is far from a sure thing in the near-term.

“I think somehow,” Wagner said, “we’re going to solve the issue.”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.