Rural WA wants in on state highway, health and housing dollars

Democrats introduced a wide-ranging transportation package on Feb. 9 that would allocate billions to public transit, electrifying ferries, pedestrian safety measures, carbon reduction, new bridges and rail systems. The package draws on new state energy and fuel-export taxes, as well as $3.4 billion in federal infrastructure funding.

Legislators received a final revenue forecast Wednesday and will use that information to move forward in the next week on supplemental operating and capital budget proposals. 

“The budget priorities are largely focused on continuing the recovery,” said state Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, the Senate’s lead budget writer. 

Rolfes expected public health and education would remain high priorities for additional funding. School districts need money for nurses, counselors and other support roles, as declining enrollment has cut into their budgets. 

The Legislature would also likely support Inslee’s housing and homeless agenda, she said, by making additional money available to local governments and nonprofits. 

Some remaining federal relief dollars must be spent this year, she said, and other money is earmarked for helping keep child care centers open. Lawmakers plan to allocate many of those by the end of the session on March 10.

“Right now we know we have the needs,” Rolfes said. 

In a recent Crosscut/Elway Poll, voters indicated they want state lawmakers to focus on action that promotes economic recovery and addresses the pandemic. 

Local leaders have voiced support for additional affordable housing and public health efforts. Elizabeth Chamberlain, deputy city manager of Walla Walla, said the city would like continued funding for its temporary shelters and transitional housing. 

Chamberlain said city officials support many of the public transit and pedestrian safety programs included in the proposed transportation package, but they also need funding for regional highway projects. The city has lobbied for money to widen and improve sections of Highway 12 between Walla Walla and the Tri-Cities in addition to local roadway projects.

“We’re disappointed that Eastern Washington was left out,” she said. 

Chamberlain said she did not see any new or existing highway projects in her legislative district or the greater Inland region in the proposed transportation budget. A close look at the list, however, shows a $2.5 million road improvement project near the Colville Reservation, nearly 200 miles away in northeast Washington. 

Two other projects — $178.7 million to widen Interstate 90 through Snoqualmie Pass and $75 million to replace a bridge over the Columbia River at Hood River — arguably serve as cross-state corridors more than projects based in Eastern Washington. 

Coastal communities in Grays Harbor and Pacific counties also missed out on proposed highway funding. 

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