The Gristle

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CARWRECK: Surefooted Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws stepped off the curb into a deep hole at a regional transportation planning meeting last week, rejecting a Lummi initial offering for improvements at Slater Road, angering tribal leaders.

Crossroads of Whatcom County, gateway to Ferndale, Bellingham, Cherry Point, and Lummi Island, the Interstate-5 interchange at Slater Road is also one of the most dangerous sections of road in the county—with high speeds, limited sight distance and meager exit ramps that in peak hours can actually pile stacked cars back out on to the freeway. Slater Road will also service the county’s proposed new jail site, along with an expected increase in emergency vehicle traffic. Finally, with the anticipated growth of commerce and traffic at the next freeway interchange south—Bellingham’s Bakerview corridor—congestion and dangers at Slater may only increase, county transportation planners predicted to County Council last year.

A proposed near-term solution would be the addition of compact round-abouts on Slater Road that would help calm traffic pending more extensive improvements on the Exit 260 interchange in the Washington State Dept. of Transportation (WSDOT) planning horizon.

Accordingly, County Council moved proposed improvements up on their 2015 Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP), a planning document that sets priorities for the next six years (through 2020) in order for projects to be eligible for state and federal assisting funds. Council unanimously approved the county’s six-year TIP at their Sept. 30 session. The approved TIP was sent on to the Whatcom Council of Governments (WCOG) transportation policy board, a 16-member intergovernmental agency (including the cities and tribes) that coordinates regional transportation planning with state and federal transportation authorities. The board was set to approve the TIP Oct. 8.

The round-abouts would cost about $300,000, and were introduced as a concept to board members by Executive Louws during the WCOG’s transportation board meeting in July. County Public Works had announced the proposed project in an Aug. 6 press release.

“I’m pleased that we are able to provide this interim solution to the ongoing traffic challenge that we have at Slater Road,” Louws announced in that release. “Whatcom County has financial commitments of support from the Lummi Nation and is working with the City of Bellingham and City of Ferndale for similar support.  This is such a great example of the strength of collaboration with local jurisdictions.”

The Slater exchange is also gateway to Lummi Nation, and the tribe had expressed interest in assisting county efforts there, authorizing a payment of $70,000, one-quarter of the estimated near term costs to help with construction of the round-abouts.

State highway officials at the WCOG meeting noted that WSDOT had been meeting with the Lummi Nation for approximately two years in preparation for the tribe’s Slater Road improvement process, and had officially launched the study period Sept. 10.

The announcement prompted a bitter outburst from Louws, who said he had only been made aware of meetings between WSDOT and Lummi Nation the previous week, when he was briefed by WSDOT staff regarding potential improvements to Slater Road needed to accommodate the tribe’s plan for a large-scale commercial development on tribal trust land in that area. Louws expressed disappointment that neither he nor county staff had been invited to or informed about those meetings—this, despite having briefed the council and issuing a press release about it in August. Council members present at the WCOG meeting were astonished at the aggression of the executive.

Lummi Chairman Tim Ballew II, also present at the meeting, expressed surprise and exasperation with Louws, noting that Lummi staff had spoken with county staff about the Slater project on numerous occasions. Ballew said he felt ambushed by Louws.

“Perhaps I didn’t express myself as diplomatically as I might have,” Louws admitted, “but I was clear the concerns I was expressing were those of the office of the County Executive and not a reflection of the wider county government.”

Louws litigated his concerns to the state in calls to the governor and state highway officials, complaining that they had not adequately looped his office into their early planning. Louws had expressed similar frustrations earlier in the summer when he briefed County Council about what he perceived as a lack of transparency in what Lummi Nation was planning on their trust lands at Slater Road.

In a letter to Chairman Ballew, Louws formally rejected the terms of Lummi’s $70,000 offer, noting “Whatcom County is one of several partners addressing the transportation needs of the Slater Road/Interstate-5 interchange area… However, [the proposed agreement] positions Whatcom County to have the primary responsibility to ‘develop a long-term solution’ for the transportation improvements for this regional multi-jurisdictional issue.”

Louws said he could not subject county taxpayers to the potential costs of the lead role, but his statements cannot easily be reconciled with his irritation that the county is not in a more prominent role in transportation planning. In their proposed agreement, Lummi Nation acknowledges the county’s lead.

“Whatcom County is committed to completing this project whether or not the Lummi Nation provides a financial contribution,” Louws argues at cross purposes in the same letter.

His complaint is an old one with the tribes, who negotiate government-to-government with the state and feds in a way that can loop out local jurisdictions; it’s also a complaint that doesn’t change anything. It’s clear the tribes operate at least at the potency of state agencies.

The county needs Lummi partnership; the county needs Lummi goodwill.

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