MARCH 10, 1997

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Analysis: The critical need to fix SR-522

SR-522 by Rep. John Koster, D-Monroe, 39th District
The argument for improving SR-522 comes down to more than just whether or not we can afford to spend the money. Those of us who travel the route regularly know that.
   As it now exists, the highway is costing us money in lost time, in wear-and-tear on our vehicles, and in repair costs due to accidents that are bound to happen on a road subjected to traffic levels it simply wasn't designed to handle. Add to that the tragic loss in lives and the toll in pain due to injuries, and you have an equation that has only one answer: Fix SR-522 and do it as quickly as possible.
   That's why I have sponsored House Bill 1612, which would provide funds to widen SR-522 from Highway 9 to the Snohomish River Bridge. I drove the 6.5-mile stretch covered by the proposed project recently, and it took me just over a half-hour. I know many of you have had similar experiences, or worse. Another part of the highway, from the Snohomish River Bridge to Monroe, also needs fixing, and we are considering future solutions to address that.
   My present proposal calls for appropriating $75 million from the state motor vehicle fund to the Department of Transportation (DOT) for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1999. It would be earmarked for construction of two additional lanes along the designated strip of the highway, as well as interchanges at Paradise Lake Road and Fales Road.
   I am also calling for the project to be done by means of an alternative public works contracting procedure known as "design-build," that should speed up the work considerably. Using this process, DOT awards the project to a contractor who is given responsibility for both designing and constructing all structures, facilities or other items in the contract.
   The usual contracting process used by DOT calls for the state to do the design work and come up with specific procedures to be followed. The design-build idea gives more freedom to the contractor, as long as he meets state standards and comes in under the target cost figure.
   I believe SR-522 is an ideal candidate for this type of contract, because much of the preliminary work has already been done. First of all, the state already owns the land. There won't be any long delays waiting for acquisition of rights-of-way. Much of the design work has been done, and the required environmental impact statement (EIS) is completed and still applicable.
   Where is the money coming from to fund this project? During my first year with the Legislature, I served on the House Transportation Committee and helped find ways to cut DOT's administrative costs by $100 million. That money was then put to better use building highway projects. I know the committee is still busy weeding out ineffective or unneeded programs and eliminating inefficiencies in the department, and the money for SR-522 might well come from that effort.
   Another possible source could be the motor vehicle excise tax (MVET). I'd still like to see transportation dollars do the job they were originally intended to do, and nearly half the MVET proceeds go to support general state, city, and county governments; city and county criminal justice; and public health. In addition, in the 1993-95 two-year state budget, $321 million in MVET funds was deposited into the state's general fund to support all areas of state government. Using that general fund money to build highways would mean belt-tightening somewhere else, but I know it could be done.
   I just received a letter from Monroe City Administrator John Arnold, who cited concerns about the economic vitality of the Monroe area, in addition to his safety concerns, as motivating his support for SR-522 improvements. He pointed out that the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) forecasts for population, business and traffic growth in the Monroe area and Snohomish County strongly support the demand for improving SR-522. What's more, his records of area growth in people, jobs, commercial activity and traffic indicate that the PSRC's forecasts may be seriously underestimated.
   For instance, the PSRC predicts that population, and jobs, for the area will grow at an average annual rate of 1.4 percent, but since 1960, the population has grown at 2 percent per year, and jobs at 3.2 percent per year. What's more, the regional council's forecasts were developed before the expansions at Boeing, Microsoft, and Intel. The PSRC predictions for vehicle traffic growth are likely to be lower than the actual growth will be, for similar reasons.
   We may not like it, but growth is inevitable. We must plan and be pro-active in preparing for it. The ports of Everett and Seattle keep growing, and there is an ever-increasing need to move goods and services throughout the area, particularly on the east-west corridors. The new owners at the ski resort on Stevens Pass are looking to attract more customers, creating more traffic on nights and weekends. I don't think any of us anticipated just how much we were going to grow, or how fast.
   Reader's Digest once named SR-522 as one of the 10 deadliest highways in the nation, and yet it still isn't on the list for improvements. In the past six years, there have been 21 traffic fatalities and 478 accidents along the stretch of highway I have proposed for rebuilding. The risk to the driving public is only going to increase. And that's one area of growth we can all do without.