Business leaders want state to hit the roads

Wish list for legislative session focuses on infrastructure upgrades to boost economic development

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

Published:

 

Transportation

Vancouver

• Interstate 5/Mill Plain interchange improvements and state Highway 501 improvements from Port of Vancouver to Interstate 5. Cost: $80 million.

• SR 14 from I-205 to 164th Avenue addition of third traffic lane. Cost: $37 million.

• SR 500, Northeast 42nd and 54th avenues interchange and access improvements to eliminate traffic signals. Cost: $70 million.

• Whipple Creek project, Northeast 10th Avenue from 149th to 164th Street road widening. Cost: $35 million.

Camas

• SR 14 Phase 2 improvements, Southeast Sixth to 32nd streets road widening and interchange construction. Cost: $100 million.

Battle Ground

• SR 502/SR 503 intersection expansion and right turn lanes. Cost: $7 million.

Fairgrounds

• Interstate 5/179th Street Interchange and adjacent roadway capacity improvements. Cost: Not determined.

Ridgefield

• Pioneer Street overpass at rail crossing. Cost: $12.5 million.

Economic Development

• Support EHSB 1978, which would accelerate the permitting and regulatory processes for state-funded transportation projects.

• Support initial funding for attracting matching private investment in economic development.

• Support greater local flexibility and tools to generate revenue for infrastructure and development.

Education

• Support "full and timely funding" for basic education, as required by the Washington State Supreme Court's McCleary decision.

• Allow school districts time to fully implement new mandated programs before approving any additional reforms.

• Provide school districts greater flexibility to determine how state funds are used to implement new programs.

• Increase state funding to maintain affordability and access at Washington State University and Clark College.

• Support improvements to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, programs and Career Technical Education programs in middle schools and high schools.

Clark County's economic development wish list to the state Legislature, and maybe to voters, is for money to invest in road expansions and improvements, with additional funding for infrastructure and education added for good measure.

Those points are summarized in a single-page document developed by the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, Identity Clark County, and the Columbia River Economic Development Council — three of Southwest Washington's biggest business and economic development organizations. It's no surprise that these three groups are pushing for improved road capacity, a key ingredient in attracting more jobs and people to the county. With state funding for the Columbia River Crossing a long shot, and with the Legislature showing more interest in addressing transportation needs statewide, the business groups know that now's the time to talk road improvements.

The groups are also pushing for the state to add money to the depleted Public Works Trust Fund, which in the past has been used heavily by local governments to finance sewers and other infrastructure projects. The Legislature pulled money out of that fund for other uses last year, and local government officials worry that the program may not be replenished.

Tim Schauer, who serves on both the chamber and CREDC boards, says funding for sewers and other infrastructure projects is vital to this region's ability to attract new businesses.

"We need to have urban services that are predictable and ready," said Schauer, president and CEO of the MacKay Sposito Inc. professional services consulting firm. "The Ridgefield interchange is great, but with no sewers it doesn't make a difference."

The business groups have other priorities as well. Those include a streamlined permitting process, which Schauer said would add certainty without reducing environmental safeguards, as well as improved funding and spending flexibility for public schools. The education priorities are critical for the county's ability to maintain a strong public school system, generally considered among the best in the region, and to provide students with skills to succeed in a fast-changing workforce.

On the permitting issues, House Bill 1978 aims to streamline the permitting process for all state-funded transportation projects costing $5 million or more in order to speed up work on those projects. "We're finding in the new economy there is less patience by those moving into the area," said Mike Bomar, president of the CREDC. "Other jurisdictions are able to move through the process quicker." He and other leaders emphasized that there is no intent to reduce environmental safeguards or public involvement.

But road projects are the organizations' big focus. The projects on their list carry a total price tag of about $400 million. That money would only be available if the Legislature moves forward with a large gas tax increase, which it could approve on its own or send to voters as a referendum.

Local leaders acknowledge the difficulty of securing approval from both the Legislature and voters for a tax increase. "This will be the be most politically challenging issue going forward," Bomar said. "Hopefully this will come out right side, and legislators will think this is a reasonable package going forward."

A draft transportation package floated by Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima and co-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, included an 11.5-cents-a-gallon gas tax hike over 12 years, which would have set aside $7 billion for transportation projects statewide. That measure, which had no funding for the Columbia River Crossing, included just $41.4 million for Clark County projects. Local officials note that the region netted $700 million from two previous gas tax increases, which totaled 14 cents a gallon. Also, the Columbia River Crossing, which had been the region's big-ticket item, would have sent $450 million in state money to Southwest Washington.

Business leaders say they're well aware that some Clark County legislators are likely to oppose the tax increase or a referral of the measure to voters. But the business groups say they want to be sure that Clark County gets a larger share of the pot if the tax increase does advance. "We are not doing our due diligence if we don't make sure we're doing our part to get money for transportation infrastructure," said Kelly Parker, president and CEO of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce.

The three business organizations have a long history of speaking with a unified voice to the Legislature on Southwest Washington business priorities. Each of the groups has its own political agenda, and the organizations engage in a give-and-take process to reach consensus on a broad agenda they can present to the region's lawmakers and the full Legislature, Schauer said. The groups each have their own issues and concerns for the Legislature that are separate from their shared agenda, Schauer said.

Winning any new money for transportation, infrastructure, and education will be no easy task. But Schauer remains at least mildly optimistic.

"The odds are better this year than last," Schauer said. "Whether that's enough to get it done remains to be seen."