By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News
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Local agencies’ 34 percent share of federal transportation funds will go elsewhere unless counties and other municipalities can show they have projects ready to begin construction, according to new rules.
County Engineer Ross Tyler said it is “the new reality,” and counties must adapt by funding their own plans and specifications in order to procure federal dollars for construction.
“We’re essentially going to have to, out of pocket, fund the up-front cost,” Tyler told the three commissioners.
“We’re going to have to use more county road money to get more fed money.”
Tyler said the suspicion is federal officials “want projects out there and people to work.”
“It’s not a stimulus package, but they don’t want unused funds just sitting around any more,” Tyler said.
“They’re not going to tolerate five years just to get a project done.”
Engineers in the Clallam County road department have been working overtime to meet new deadlines for federally funded projects.
The state’s Local Agency Task Force, which oversees spending of the 34 percent share, recently developed a two-tier “obligation authority” that sanctions agencies that can’t meet specific targets.
“Sanctions means they can take [funding] away,” said Rich James, Clallam County transportation program manager.
“It’s both a challenge to us and an opportunity to us. It just depends on how well we manage our way through it.”
If the county gets its federally funded projects out the door in time, it will be in a position to get more federal funds from agencies that can’t meet their deadlines.
Otherwise, the money will be shifted to the state Department of Transportation or to other local agencies with construction projects ready to start.
“This is both a burden, but it’s also an opportunity,” Tyler said.
County Administrator Jim Jones said the county will have to prioritize its most important projects and remove others from the six-year transportation improvement program, which is approved though a public process in December.
Clallam County’s largest transportation project is a $7 million underpass of U.S. Highway 101 near Deer Park Road east of Port Angeles.
The county is building a two-lane road with a 10-foot-wide foot and bicycle path to eliminate the hazardous left turns onto the four-lane highway from Deer Park Road and Buchanan Drive.
“And we’re fortunate, actually, that Deer Park is ready to go out [to bid] right now because that’s going to help us to meet that obligation in the first year, which is the most critical,” James said.
“So that’s a good thing.”
Construction of the federally funded underpass beneath U.S. 101 will begin this summer or in early fall.
Part of the reason that local governments struggle to get projects going are the layers of regulations, James said.
“Now we have to do cultural studies before we even begin a project,” he said.
“That sometimes can take two or three months. It will take a month to even get [the state] to let you have the authority to go out there and look for
“So all of these things are adding additional time to these projects and it’s so hard to get from one phase to the next.”
Federal funds can be used on major collectors such as Old Olympic Highway and minor collectors such as Mount Pleasant Road.
Projects to build and repair smaller local access roads are supported by the county’s own road fund and real estate excise taxes.
Commissioner Mike Doherty said state and Clallam County have good reputations for getting road projects out the door.
“We’ve got plan ahead and spend the money well, or we give it back,” he said.
Traditionally, it has been politically unacceptable to take federal dollars from the local agencies’ 34 percent share.
“It was a fairness issue,” James said.
“But if you can say ‘Well, they’re not using it, so we’re going to take it,’ that’s another way to look at it.”
James said the state Legislature is “not really happy” with local agencies that have been slow to obligate their road funds.
“Basically they’re saying use it or lose it,” he said.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.