Cash Cup

The Gristle

Elbow Grease

ELBOW GREASE: Costco Wholesale managed to elbow to the head of the line this week.

After hearing their Public Works engineer tell them two freeway interchanges are basically already screwed up and in need of improvement no matter what may come, Whatcom County Council appeared more inclined to release $2.5 million in grants and loans from the county’s economic development fund to help the City of Bellingham construct a regional stormwater facility to help service the store’s proposed new location on Bakerview Road. Costco’s management say the current warehouse retail store on Meridian is insufficient for their future needs. The new 160,000 sq. ft. Costco and its associated 24-pump gasoline station will be the centerpiece of a large shopping center on 20.25 acres with more direct access to the freeway, a complex property of buildable land and substantial wetlands.

The city applied for a grant in the amount of $825,000 and a loan in the amount of $1.2 million from the county’s Economic Development Improvement (EDI) program to build a stormwater facility of sufficient size to service the big-box shopping center and neighboring development. The balance of the stormwater facility will be paid by Costco and the City of Bellingham. The facility itself represents an experiment for COB, a single large catch-basin for urban runoff as opposed to scattered ponds of site-specific stormwater solutions. The concept appealed to the EDI Board, which recommended the project to County Council. EDI is funded by rural sales tax.

The proposal stalled in October after County Council expressed concerns about the increased traffic impacts of expanded retail in an area already famously congested. Council expressed disbelief in the city’s assurances that traffic could be handled by minor modifications of existing roads and requested their own traffic study.

Assistant Public Works Director Joe Rutan and state highways transportation planner Todd Carlson assured council that—good news—the city’s projections of impacts were reliable and—bad news—inter­changes at Bakerview and, particularly, north at Slater Road are already at or approaching failure. The addition of new Costco volume would not change that prognosis. Rutan sketched possible cost-effective interim solutions—turn lanes, improved signals, possible roundabouts and traffic calmers—but costlier expansions lurk on the horizon, whatever the fate of the Costco project.

County Council member and former County Executive Pete Kremen expressed misgivings about the use of the rural sales tax through EDI to help finance an urban project in a city that already dominates the rest of the county in retail sales; and, moreover, a city with access to utilities, fees and specialized taxes unavailable to rural counties. Nevertheless, COB and Costco managed to elbow in ahead of other potential applicants for EDI funds; and the project is a worthy one by the EDI board’s application criteria.

The previous day Jack Weiss expressed a similar order of misgivings as Bellingham City Council approved $2.25 million in grant revenue for a street improvement project at the Costco site. The funding arrived in the form of an unexpected grant from the Washington State Transportation Improvement Board (TIB), boosting that project from the #16 slot in the city’s six-year Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) to somewhere near the top of the list of proposed street projects. A project that had no scheduled build date is suddenly slated for completion in 2016.

Weiss questioned the purpose of the TIP, updated by council each year, if it did not provide some prioritization of projects and transparency to the public about proposed projects and their timetables for completion—for surely, by moving one worthy item to the top of the list, other worthy items get pushed further down. Those projects are too often pedestrian and non-motorized transportation improvements. The purpose of the TIP, he reasoned, was to create an open document that allows the public to know and understand and help prioritize city projects.

Bellingham Public Works Director Ted Carlson explained that, despite being numbered, TIP projects are sorted in no particular order. Funded projects are slated for completion in the early years of the six-year plan, placing them higher on the list, with unfunded projects pushed to the out years of the plan. Carlson’s answer was only part of the story because, yes, these projects are proposed and sorted, deemed worthy at an earlier stage, by staff and the city’s Transportation Commission. The act of placing them on the six-year TIP makes projects eligible for state and federal funding, so their inclusion is indeed a decision of prioritization by city planners.

Ostensibly, staff should also be prioritizing their grant writing for nearer term projects; but, as Weiss pointed out, someone obviously vigorously applied last summer for TIB funding for a project far down the list.

Carlson admitted that, yes, starved and oversubscribed state and federal funding sources do tend to favor projects for which there is a strong economic development motive; and projects that are additionally supported by a public/private partnership such as the agreement Bellingham has forged with Costco.

It’s an admission that speaks volumes of the troubled search in our times for social equity and social justice—another accelerant on the growing disparity of wealth in the United States and what such wealth can buy, where the fact of having wealth can place for-profit projects in a completely different lane, the fast track, for completion ahead of other projects with perhaps greater merit and social capital. And that completion, in turn, again accelerates the cycle of wealth disparity.


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Past Columns

May 18, 2016

TRAILS VERSUS JAIL: City and county executives almost always get their way with their legislative councils. Almost always. But this year, they’re experiencing some pushback from their councils on matters… more »

May 11, 2016

‘WE DRAW THE LINE’: In a perfect storm of colliding media fronts, the story of the year was eclipsed by the story of the decade in a way that can… more »

May 4, 2016

FOUR OR FOREVER: Few programs can boast the proven success of Bellingham’s Greenways. A series of three modest property tax levies since 1990 have provided revenues to acquire more than… more »

April 27, 2016

FIVE FAVOR FIVE: The Gristle was optimistic in thinking there would be consensus in the effort to draw five new voting districts for Whatcom County elections. After all, representatives from… more »

April 20, 2016

AG GAG: A berry farm in Whatcom County faces a $20,000 fine for allowing water contaminated with manure to discharge into local waterways that flow to British Columbia. Sarbanand Farms… more »

April 13, 2016

STATE OF THE COUNTY: County Executive Jack Louws delivered his annual address to Whatcom County Council last week, reviewing the year’s accomplishments and looking ahead to challenges and opportunities for… more »

April 6, 2016

PUZZLE PIECES: Late last week, the sponsor for the Gateway Pacific Terminal project announced they would suspend the environmental review process as they await the separate determination by the U.S.… more »

March 30, 2016

THE INSTRUMENTS AT HAND, 2: Legislative dysfunction at the federal and state level means local governments must sharpen their pencils to balance revenues and costs to avoid a structural deficit,… more »

March 23, 2016

THE INSTRUMENTS AT HAND: The continued blockade by the Republican conference in Olympia to any form of new revenues (despite being under a court order and sanction to create them… more »

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