A Roundabout Way
Lummi seeks road improvements
What: Slater Road / I-5 Interchange Improvements open house
Where: Te’Ti’Sen Gateway Center, 4920 Rural Avenue, Ferndale
Public Presentation by transportation experts at 2pm. The Presentation will provide an overview of the project, walk people through how the study was conducted and will show the pros and cons of the three alternatives. The public will have an opportunity to ask questions and provide their ideas.
Wednesday, June 8, 2016
Lummi Nation wants to improve transportation just south of Ferndale, but the City of Ferndale is having no part of it.
Lummi seeks better traffic flow and improved safety to the Slater Road interchange on Interstate 5 near Ferndale, building upon changes approved by the Washington State Dept. of Transportation and Whatcom County in 2014. Those earlier changes included the elimination of a traffic light at Slater and their replacement by three compact roundabouts. Slater Road is a gateway to tribal properties and also serves a corridor to industries at Cherry Point, as well as a freeway exit point for the City of Ferndale.
New plans would add or enlarge roundabouts on the western portion of Slater Road, with a goal to improve access to and from I-5 and establish a corridor that supports the connection and completion of the greater local road network in the vicinity of the I-5/Slater Road interchange.
Transportation planners recommended the original compact roundabouts as a practical, low-cost solution for the intersections after examining several options, including making each a four-way stop, installing traffic signals or adding full roundabouts. Four-way stops would create even bigger traffic backups, especially at peak hours. Signals or full roundabouts cost about $1.5 to $2.5 million each, according to WSDOT. Compact roundabouts can be built in the existing paved area for a tenth of that cost.
Those earlier roundabouts were understood at the time of their installation to be an interim improvement; however, the next phase requires some cooperation with Ferndale policymakers, and the tribe is not getting it.
A 2009 Whatcom County transportation study logged more than 10,000 vehicle trips per day westbound from the Slater Road exchange, and a fraction less eastbound. Those numbers are growing each year. The current roundabouts are projected to be overwhelmed by 2036.
Lummi planners have proposed a number of scenarios for improved traffic flows at that complicated interchange, subject to approval by WSDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The proposed alternatives vary in cost and complexity (Lummi prefers a low-cost alternative of modest complexity), but nearly all would require a section of Kope Road to accommodate the plan.
On Monday evening, Ferndale City Council on the recommendation of their planning staff took no action on a motion to vacate that section of Kope Road.
“Lummi Nation has the legal right to request the vacation of Kope Road,” Ferndale planners reported to City Council Monday evening. “The City Council has the discretionary authority to either approve or deny the petition.”
City Council did neither, and the petition died without action.
“We already face increasing traffic congestion and decreasing mobility along the Slater Road interchanges,” Lummi Planning Director Kirk Vinish noted. “Some of Whatcom County’s largest employers are along or at the end of Slater Road, putting large numbers of trucks, cars and people on this road every day.
“Interim improvements to install compact roundabouts at the Slater Road ramp intersections were constructed, but will not be enough to accommodate future planned growth in the area,” Vinish said. “By 2038, the compact roundabouts would cause undesirable delays and would also adversely impact nearby roads andintersections, including I-5.”
Whatcom County has good connectivity north and south, and fine roads in its western and eastern sections. Connecting east and west is a transportation planning challenge, however. Improvements at Slater Road ranks high on the county’s list of capital projects in its six-year transportation plan.
The Slater Road corridor from Rural Avenue to Pacific Highway is heavily used by vehicles accessing I-5 and by local trips traveling to and from the Lummi tribe and the cities of Ferndale and Bellingham. Slater Road is within the city limits of Ferndale at the interchange and both the cities of Ferndale and Bellingham have urban growth area boundaries that cover the Slater Road and I-5 interchange area.
Improving the interchange at Slater Road is also a top priority of the Whatcom Council of Governments and so in 2015 the Washington State Legislature placed $21 million in the Transportation Budget to fund the interchange improvements at Slater Road.
The regional project is intended to improve access to and from I-5 and establish a corridor that connects and completes the greater local road network in the vicinity of the I-5/Slater Road interchange. When complete, this will be one of our major east/west connector roads. The Legislature anticipates that the project will begin in 2019.
Blood on the path
At least one drop of the bad blood between the City of Ferndale and the tribe frankly involves a piece of property owned by Lummi adjacent to the freeway that would be served by traffic improvements.
Lummi acquired 164 acres of property in 2013 along the Rural Avenue and Kope Road sections near Slater Road. The purchase was part of the tribe’s strategic plan to gain some negotiating leverage over an intersection that would undoubtedly play a role in planned industrial development at Cherry Point; however, the property also served as an excellent location for some planned future development for the tribe—possibly retail.
In 2013 and 2015, the tribe applied for federal approval to place portions of the property into trust land status, setting the stage for potentially significant economic development on Slater Road near Interstate 5. The trust land status, however, could deny the City of Ferndale taxable revenues from retail development on a key interchange north of the city.
With concerns about potential industrial development at Cherry Point now behind them, the tribe is now indeed looking to create a Salish Village retail development, with the first construction of a travel center beginning by the end of the year, according to Lummi Indian Business Council Chair Tim Ballew II. The travel center would serve to usher visitors to the tribe’s existing Silver Reef hotel and convention center complex, and help anchor a retail development adjacent to the freeway.
With the pieces now in place, the tribe has reached the point that it can start planning what to do with the property, Ballew said.
“This helps realize a stated concern of the council to help build family-wage jobs for tribal members and the community,” Ballew said. Ballew estimated that 2,000 jobs could be created through the development of Salish Village and associated projects. Transportation improvements would also help anchor hundreds of industrial jobs west of Ferndale dependent on Slater Road.
“The Nation wants to ensure that any development adds value not only to Whatcom County, but to all of Northwest Washington.”
Diversifying the tribe’s revenue stream is an important consideration.
Silver Reef is a key economic driver for Lummi Nation, but the gaming/entertainment industry can be vulnerable to economic cycles. It may also, tribal leaders recognize, be even more vulnerable to demographic changes. Uses imagined for Salish Village include retail shopping and a waterpark hotel.
“The tribe’s goals and aspirations are not to continue to rely solely on gaming,” Richard Jefferson, a principal with the Lummi Commercial Company told the Business Pulse. “We want to develop businesses that bring in as much revenue as the casino does.”
“We think in generational terms,” Chairman Ballew agreed.
Potential revenue sharing between the tribe and the City of Ferndale has been discussed but no final agreements have been reached. Other tribes in the Western Washington corridor have developed such cooperative arrangements with their adjacent communities. Lummi has not ruled out such an agreement, but is under no duty to share revenue with Ferndale. Thus Ferndale is looking at the potential loss of an industrial service corridor at Kope Road as well as the forfeiture of one the city busiest freeway exchanges as a potential source of tax receipts.
“It is undeniable that Rural Avenue is still useful as part of the city’s road system because it provides access to and from the city as a through-road,” Ferndale City Administrator Greg Young noted in a report to city policymakers. “In addition, Kope Road remains useful for public travel even though it is currently a dead-end because the city believes in good faith that Lummi Nation will develop the surrounding parcels for economic development purposes, as illustrated by the proposed development plans published by Lummi Nation online and representations in trust applications, and that the development will serve both the tribe and the general public. The public derives utility from being able to access any such future developments.”
“It is completely deniable that Kope Road is a useful part of the city’s road system,” Cleo Callen noted in remarks to Council. A developer and board member with the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County, Callen owns property near Kope Road. “It is approximately 400 linear feet of dilapidated old chip seal road. You cannot use it for anything in its present condition. It only ever served four houses to start with. To make it useable, it would have to be brought up to full city standards, which last I checked runs approximately $1,000 linear feet. But the question is, why would you want to?”
Indeed, Whatcom County surplussed the road to the City of Ferndale in 2010, desiring neither the utility of the road or its upkeep.
“If Kope Road is retained, I believe it will pose a nightmare for a traffic designer to try and somehow incorporate that into the new roundabout at Slater and Rural,” Callen observed. “This completely compounds the complexity of trying to design this roundabout. Imagine if you will trying to maneuver a 75-foot semi through this maze. It’s simply a complete design boondoggle.”
“Historically, the City has approved few road vacations, and in hindsight, some prior vacations (after the fact) did not serve a public benefit and in reflection might not have been good policy,” Young observed to Council. “The city lacks an ordinance related to road vacations, but since World War II has established certain precedents through its actions. Since 1948, city records indicate that Ferndale has approved a total of only eight street vacations. Of these, we believe only five would be approved in hindsight.”
“I have always found it best when entering into negotiations to approach it with a win-win attitude mindset,” Callen observed. “This is completely lose-lose. The developer loses because he is severely hampered in being able to maximize the use of his property in the most efficient manner possible. The city loses because they gain absolutely nothing other than the ill will of Lummi. This [recommendation] is bad karma and accomplishes nothing. If the city moves forward with this recommendation by the staff, heaven help you if you ever want Lummi to negotiate with you in good faith in the future.
“What goes around comes around.”