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Inslee budget proposal could delay North-South Freeway by another six years

Gov. Jay Inslee's transportation budget would delay funding and completion of the North Spokane Corridor despite the project being on time and on budget.

SPOKANE, Wash. — Spokane and state transportation leaders are pushing back against Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed transportation budget which would pull funding for the North Spokane Corridor (NSC) project for four years.

Washington State Department of Transportation told KREM 2 News in November that the project was on track to be finished in 2028, but Spokane area leaders say the governor's proposal could delay the completion of the freeway project by six years or more.

"They keep constantly delaying it again, what's going to happen," said Thomas Werts, a North Spokane resident. "Residents are going to be asked for some kind of tax money, watch, it's a whole money thing to me."

Gov. Inslee’s biennial transportation budget lists zero funding for the project from 2023-2027 before funding picks up again in future budget cycles running from 2027-2035.

“It is disappointing to see another proposed postponement on the delivery of this critical infrastructure for the Spokane region,” Washington State Transportation Commissioner Kelly Fukai said in a written statement.

Three of Spokane's democratic lawmakers- Sen. Andy Billig, Rep. Tim Ormsby and Rep. Marcus Riccelli- sent KREM 2 an exclusive statement on the budget proposal:

We were disappointed to see the Governor’s transportation budget proposal suggest a pause in construction of the North Spokane Corridor (NSC).  Simply put, this decision does not have our support, nor does it have the support of people across Spokane and Eastern Washington who for years have been waiting for the completion of this vital project.  

Thankfully the Governor's budget is only a recommendation, and it is the legislature that will ultimately create and pass the final budget.

A pause in construction would cost taxpayers significantly more money in the long-run and delay the positive benefits of this project for our region. It is also important to point out that any pause of the NSC will negatively impact the transformative North Division "Division Connects" project  -- a key improvement that will dramatically improve the North Division corridor. This project is closely tied to the NSC and cannot be completed before the NSC is operational.

We will not support any proposal that pauses a safer, quicker, and less congested north-south route that connects to I-90. It simply does not make sense to halt a project that will not only pay for itself in economic impact, but also benefit our state with significantly reduced travel time and emissions.

We will continue to work with our legislative colleagues and community partners to ensure NSC is funded at the level necessary for it to be completed as fast as possible.

Spokane City Councilmember Michael Cathcart also sent KREM 2 the following statement:

It's frankly shocking that such an irresponsible proposal has been submitted by the governor, which if approved by the Legislature, would significantly delay the construction of the North Spokane Corridor (NSC). This is a critical infrastructure investment that not only improves connectivity but will also be a huge economic development driver, particularly for the people and jobs in northeast Spokane that I have the privilege of advocating for on the Spokane City Council. Today, I am calling on Senate Majority Leader Billig and Spokane’s entire legislative delegation to ensure no cuts in funding. After literally decades of constituents waiting for this investment there must be no further delays.”

Jesse Bank, NEPDA Executive Director, states “The Northeast Public Development Authority was formed to make investments in and help guide the development of northeast Spokane in anticipation of the inevitable growth accompanying completion of the NSC. The NEPDA now has the tools to make those investments and is being joined by local businesses who see the potential for a bright future. There is an undeniable sense of optimism and momentum building for this area to finally shake free from decades of disinvestment and poverty, and further significant delays to the NSC project put all that hard work, dedication, and investment in jeopardy. The NEPDA calls on the State Legislature to do right by this community and allocate the needed funding to complete this already-underway project in a timely fashion.

The idea of the 10.5-mile North-South Freeway was first conceived in the 1940s. The project finally broke ground in 2001. In November, WSDOT explained why the actual construction has taken decades.

"The simple answer of why it has taken so long is funding has been sprinkled out through so many years," WSDOT Communications Manager Ryan Overton said in a November interview. "So, since 2001, there has been so much money allocated which is why it wasn't done all at once, the funding wasn't all available right in 2001."

5.5 miles of the NSC is already finished, with another two miles set to open in the fall of 2023. Local leaders say the project has managed to stay on budget and on schedule despite the challenges of the pandemic.

While the governor's current budget proposal doesn't include any of the funding for the NSC, it does allocate almost twice that for a new freeway in Western Washington from Tacoma to Puyallup.

"Frustrates me because on the west side, they got all kinds of freeway stuff going on all the time and they can't fund a just a little north south freeway here," said Laurie Anderson, a North Spokane resident.

There is still time to revise the governor’s proposal. State lawmakers just convened this week and aren’t expected to pass a budget until later in the spring.

Current priorities in the transportation budget include:

  • Improvements to traffic safety, like bike lanes
  • $1.12 billion over ten years for a hybrid-electric ferry system, plus more than $20 million on training and hiring ferry workers
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives

Cheryl Stewart, Executive Director of the Inland Northwest Associated General Contractors, said she is concerned that delays on the project will impact the ability to find workers.

“The Governor’s proposal to delay the construction of the NSC will do nothing to help ensure an adequate workforce. In fact, it will do the opposite,” Stewart said in a written statement. “The industry has been ramping up in preparation for this work for several years, and to have it suddenly go away will do irreparable harm to our local trades. These workers will have to leave the area to find work, and we may never get them back.”

Other concerns include the impact on neighborhoods.

“I am especially concerned about the communities adjacent to the project who will feel a disproportionate impact due to this proposed delay,” Fukai said. “I hope there is opportunity to reconsider the programming of this project [NSC] so that the community can finally realize the benefits of this long-awaited project.”

Local leaders say delaying the NSC will also affect other projects in the region, including the Bigelow Gulch Corridor and North Division Bus Rapid Transit.

“We have worked as a community to program other projects around this timeline and disrupting it will leave a giant hole in our region that we may never be able to dig our way out of,” Stewart said.

KREM 2 News reached out to the Governor's office for comment. His office sent a statement:

"Connecting Washington and Move Ahead Washington provide a long-term plan for fixing roads and bridges statewide. With so many projects, the governor's proposed budget prioritizes based on criteria including existing contracts, legal obligations, and interstate projects. 

These two transportation packages will deliver hundreds of projects and serve every corner of Washington over the next two decades. The proposed budget is just that - proposed. Legislators will develop their own proposals and the governor is eager to work with them to put thousands of people to work on projects of benefit to the entire state."

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