City, legislators look into an empty purse

October 22, 2008

By Jon Savelle

I-90 undercrossing among projects to be put on hold

Prior to their meeting with state legislators Oct. 13, Issaquah’s mayor and City Council entertained hopes that state money might be found for local projects. But no dice. The state is hurting for dollars, too.

It didn’t take long for this to become clear. During the dinner meeting at Tibbetts Manor, Mayor Ava Frisinger, council members and City Administrator Leon Kos quizzed all three 5th District legislators, plus Sen. Rodney Tom (D-Bellevue), from the 48th District, and Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island), from the 41st. All said the state’s more than $3 billion deficit has effectively shut off the funding spigot, and cuts in services are likely.

This has direct implications for Issaquah. Frisinger said she is worried that as the state and King County try to close budget gaps, the services they once provided will become the responsibility of cities — who also can’t pay for them.

Another worry is that the Legislature could require cities to shoulder other tasks that cost money to perform, yet provide no money to perform them.

“We don’t want unfunded mandates,” Frisinger told the legislators.

It’s the same plea states have made to the federal government, as years of federal budget cuts have left states scrambling to provide services. Much of Washington state’s current deficit can be traced to those cuts, Clibborn said, because it has had to “backfill” funding for programs once covered by the U.S. government.

Which means that Issaquah’s planned Interstate 90 undercrossing project, which would connect Northwest Gilman Boulevard at the post office to the north side of Interstate 90, is going to stay on the back burner for some time to come.

It won’t be alone.

“All these projects are just sitting there, waiting,” Clibborn said. “It’s all over the state. Your project fits right in there.”

There really isn’t any way for Issaquah to climb to the top of the state’s project list. It’s just a matter of taking a number and standing in line.

Issaquah may even be at a disadvantage, said Sen. Cheryl Pflug (R-Maple Valley), because it has “a bit of a credibility issue.”

Pflug was referring to the city’s axing of the long-proposed Southeast Bypass road project, which would have connected I-90 at the Sunset Interchange to Issaquah-Hobart Road via a cut into the west flank of Tiger Mountain. She noted that Issaquah signed an agreement with the state Department of Transportation and Port Blakely Communities to fund part of the bypass project when the Sunset Interchange was built, but has not paid.

Next on the city’s list was the upper intake dam on Issaquah Creek, upstream of the hatchery, which is poorly engineered and blocks salmon passage to high-quality spawning habitat. Frisinger noted that chinook salmon runs from Issaquah Creek contribute significantly to the Puget Sound fishery, and that the only thing preventing replacement of the dam is the lack of funding.

Again, the legislators were not encouraging. But Rep. Jay Rodne (R-North Bend) said he would try to help.

Which brought the conversation to its final topic, namely tolls on the Lake Washington floating bridges. As Councilman Joshua Schaer explained, the city’s primary concern is that tolls will impose a severe hardship on low-income retail workers in Issaquah who commute from Seattle. City officials also wonder whether tolls on the state Route 520 bridge might divert traffic through Issaquah as drivers head to a toll-free I-90.

All seemed to be in agreement that burdening wage earners with tolls is not a desirable result. However, Clibborn, who is drafting legislation on that issue, said the federal government is pushing for tolls, and that congestion pricing — charging a premium to users during peak hours — does work to reduce congestion.

“It’s not social engineering, it’s about giving people choices,” she said.

Pflug said she is not convinced, adding she would like to see more consideration of other options before embracing tolls.

“The suburban cities are very concerned about tolling,” she said. “Also, it’s unclear whether we will have a governor who would sign a tolling bill.”

As the meeting broke up, Councilman John Rittenhouse summed up his thoughts succinctly.

“It seems like there are money issues and we should expect bupkis,” he said.

Reach Reporter Jon Savelle at 392-6434, ext. 234, or jsavelle@isspress.com.

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