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The Gristle

Elbow Grease

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

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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