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'Like this side of the state doesn't count' | Funding for North-South Freeway in the hands of Washington lawmakers

Gov. Jay Inslee proposed the project lose its funding until 2027, causing a swift reaction from residents and lawmakers who want to ensure the freeway is finished.

SPOKANE, Wash. — A transportation project first proposed in the 1940s could face another significant delay after Washington's governor proposed the funding be removed from the budget for the next four years. Now, the fate of the long-awaited project is in the hands of the Washington state legislature.

The North-South Freeway is perhaps the longest-running project in Spokane history, but a series of funding cuts and other obstacles have delayed the freeway's completion. Gov. Jay Inslee proposed the project lose its funding until 2027, prompting a swift reaction from Spokane residents and Eastern Washington lawmakers who want to ensure the freeway is finished.

While a portion of the freeway is complete, residents across Spokane are anxiously awaiting a finished project decades later. So when Gov. Inslee released his proposed biennial budget with no funding for the North-South freeway, reactions came in strong.

"I thought someone was pulling my leg. I mean, it's been going on for so long," said Jack Green, the owner of Green's Fresh Market in Hillyard.

The Hillyard neighborhood has been anxious for the freeway to finally be finished. As a business owner, Green said he's frustrated a pause was ever being considered.

"It just makes you feel like this side of the state doesn't count, you know? That there's more people, more money, more projects on the other side, so, you know, where can we pull it from?" he said. "And it always seems to be over here."

Washington state Rep. Marcus Riccelli told KREM 2 he's confident funding for the freeway will be put back into the budget before it's approved by the legislature later this spring. Riccelli said he is working with Republican lawmakers to sign a letter to Rep. Jake Fey, the Transportation Committee Chair, detailing their stance on the issue.

"I don't think there's any way that we're going to get out of session here with it being paused," Riccelli said. "I think it would cost significant dollars in the long run and hurt our economy."

One of the Republican lawmakers working with Riccelli is Sen. Mike Padden of Spokane Valley. He said the governor's budget is simply a proposal and believes work on the freeway will continue.

"Seeing the construction, if you go down to Mission and Greene, you've got on stilts, the freeway, right where it stops," Padden said. "And you're going to leave it like that for six years or 10 years? You're going to look like a third world country if we did that."

Last year, Riccelli suggested the project could be completed as soon as 2026. Now, it's looking like it might be closer to the original completion date of 2030 or later.

"Obviously, it's frustrating. I worked in our last session to speed up implementation of the project," he explained. "The reality is, we've seen workforce challenges across the board, supply chain issues. So it needs to be the correct spend, the right spend. So what I would say is probably a right sizing of what we're able to spend in the next two or four years."

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward recently testified before the Washington State Senate Transportation Committee, stating any pause in construction would negatively impact the entire region's economy.

Meanwhile, business owners like Green have no choice but to wait a little longer.

"I constantly have people asking, you know, why don't you open up a place on the South Hill or out north, and because it's inconvenient for me to get here," he said. "This would make it very convenient."

State lawmakers are expected to approve their final budget by April or May 2023. It will then go to the governor for his signature. The new budget will officially take effect on July 1.

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