Is cross-base highway dead?
DAVID WICKERT; The News Tribune
Supporters and opponents of the cross-base highway are digging in their heels as a regional transportation board decides whether to include the project in a road construction measure voters will consider in November.
On one side are environmental groups who are threatening to lobby against the ballot measure if it includes the cross-base highway.
On the other is Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, who threatens to veto the measure if it doesn’t include the highway.
Caught in the middle is the Regional Transportation Investment District board, a committee of politicians from Pierce, King and Snohomish counties that will decide Thursday whether to include the cross-base highway or pay for other improvements to alleviate congestion in the Frederickson area.
As it stands now, the environmental groups appear to have the upper hand. RTID spokeswoman Charla Neuman said there is support for a proposal to speed up improvements to 176th Street East instead of building the cross-base highway as originally planned.
“People definitely see the wisdom of having to go this route,” Neuman said.
The RTID proposal is part of a larger roads and transit measure that would build highways and expand light rail in the three-county region.
The overall measure would be paid for by a mix of sales and vehicle excise taxes. It would cost about $17.5 billion in 2006 dollars, and an estimated $26.2 billion over 20 years when inflation is taken into account.
In Pierce County, it would extend light rail from Sea-Tac Airport to the Tacoma Dome. And it would provide money to extend Highway 167 from Puyallup to the Port of Tacoma, expand Highway 162 near Sumner and Orting and build the cross-base highway between Highway 7 and Interstate 5.
The cross-base highway – which would run between Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base – has long been a priority for Pierce County officials. It would provide businesses in Frederickson better access to the interstate and help alleviate traffic congestion on county roads.
Environmental groups oppose the highway, claiming it would destroy the last remaining oak prairie in the area. They say they’ll oppose the ballot measure if the highway is included.
“I think the cross-base highway has become a symbol of what’s wrong with roads,” said Bryan Flint, executive director of the Tahoma Audubon Society. “It has become a rallying point for the environmental community.”
The current RTID proposal includes $477 million for the highway. But in the face of opposition, the RTID in recent weeks has been circulating a plan that would shift $50 million in funding for the cross-base highway to other Pierce County road projects.
The plan would speed up widening 176th Street and possibly a portion of Canyon Road. Though those projects are already on Pierce County’s to-do list, much of the work isn’t scheduled to occur for years. Under the latest RTID proposal, work on 176th could begin almost immediately if voters approve the overall measure in November.
Proponents say that would provide quick relief of congestion in the Frederickson and Spanaway areas. Under the original RTID plan, cross-base highway construction wouldn’t begin until 2017. And the project still would be $100 million short of needed funding.
The revised RTID plan would still include improvements to I-5 interchanges that are part of the cross-base highway plan.
But Ladenburg is urging the RTID to keep the highway project on the ballot. He believes the project is vital to the county.
Ladenburg is threatening to veto any package that doesn’t include the highway. And this week he said that if the highway isn’t included then he would step down as chairman of the board of Sound Transit, the agency sponsoring the transit portion of the ballot measure, because he doesn’t feel he could lead the board if he opposes the measure.
In an interview this week, Ladenburg said the environmental groups will back the ballot measure even with the cross-base highway because they support the light-rail extension. And he argued that not building the cross-base highway while improving Highway 167 would endanger farmland in the Puyallup Valley.
County Councilman Shawn Bunney, chairman of the RTID Board, agrees the cross-base highway is needed. But he wants to put off a confrontation with environmental groups that could derail the RTID package.
“We’re talking about tactical and strategic ways of getting this package done,” Bunney said. “The risk to this region of not getting this package done is too great to not do everything we can.”
But the support of environmental groups might come at the expense of backing from some Spanaway and Frederickson residents.
“You’re not going to get their votes without the cross-base,” said Marianne Lincoln, president of the Spanaway Community Action Network.
John Austin, director of community relations for Toray Composites, lives and works in Frederickson and supports the cross-base highway. He said he understands why the new proposal is being discussed, but added, “It’s never going to be easier to fight misguided environmentalists.
“Moving around in this part of the county is getting exceedingly difficult,” Austin said.
Regional Transportation Investment District’s executive board considers November ballot measure.
9:30 a.m. Thursday
King County Council chambers, King County Courthouse, 10th floor, 516 Third Ave., Seattle
MORE INFORMATION: www.rtid.org
David Wickert: 253-274-7341