Lawmakers weigh in on fixes for local economy

The group of Democratic legislators representing the 19th and 24th Legislative Districts said Monday they’d like more direction from local leaders looking for a solution to the traffic mess created by growing rail traffic in East Aberdeen.

The lawmakers, Sen. Dean Takko of Longview and Rep. Brian Blake of Aberdeen from the 19th District, and Reps. Steve Tharinger and Mike Chapman of the 24th, said that when the Legislature passed major transportation packages — twice in the past 10 years or so — Grays Harbor didn’t seem ready to coordinate with regional traffic officials to deal with the logistical problems created by the train track corridor at the east entrance to Aberdeen.

The lawmakers came to The Daily World for a wide-ranging discussion with the editorial board.

“The Port is humming and we’re going to need some sort of grade differential in town” to lessen conflicts between trains and vehicles, said Blake.

“I don’t think there’s as much coordination in the traffic district here as there is in mine,” said Takko. “In my district they are very organized and have transportation plans so they know where they want to go.”

Because of this, the city has probably missed out on some state funding from the two large state transportation plans. While area legislators were able to get $300,000 for the project, that will only be enough for the planning phase.

The lawmakers also said that the scale of the project, which could include raising the tracks so that traffic could enter and leave the Gateway Mall parking lots, or an overpass to get cars into the lot, will exceed what the state can fund and will mean federal participation, too.

Blake added there isn’t likely to be another large-scale state transportation plan before 2021, further limiting funding options. There may be the potential for more funding from the state in upcoming capital budgets, but the massive project is going to have a sizable price tag.

“There will have to be a piece of federal allocation,” said Rep. Mike Chapman (D-Port Angeles). “The project is too big for a state to cover it.”

The Grays Harbor County Council of Governments has released three potential plans and posted renderings on their web site. The “preferred” option is one that places a roundabout where the eastbound lanes of East Heron Street meet up with westbound traffic on East Wishkah Street. Just north of the roundabout there would be an overpass, with bike and pedestrian lanes, that would funnel traffic into the middle of the parking lot that serves Walmart and numerous other businesses, over the train tracks.

There’s also the issue of the Heron Street bridge which is in need of replacement. Blake said, “those two projects will have to talk to each other” to have success. The bridge project isn’t likely to be ready for the construction bidding phase until 2022.

Gateway Center

These two projects also tie in to the Gateway Center and the installation of a traffic revision of some kind at the confusing and dangerous intersection on Fuller Way, near where the center will be located on the site of the old Selmer’s Furniture brick building on East Wishkah north of Zelasko Park.

Blake supports the Gateway Center plan and said the addition of a brand new building on the way into town would be encouraging for businesses thinking about relocating to the area and could get the thousands of beach-bound tourists that cut right through Aberdeen every year a reason to linger.

Acknowledging the amount of push-back from some segments of the community about the need and benefit of the Gateway Center, Rep. Steve Tharinger of Sequim said, “I’m a supporter,” adding he and other local legislators were able to secure the funding to pay for the design phase. “Even if it’s not the next big thing at least we’ll have something new.”

To those who don’t believe there is any potential for positive economic impact from the Gateway Center, Chapman spoke of a project in Clallam County where funds were used to create a central transportation hub and covered farmers market area.

“Four new restaurants have grown up around it in the 15 years since it was built,” he said.

Infrastructure improvements would make the region more attractive to medium sized manufacturing operations, which could be a major factor in building the economy back up.

“If you come and visit this area and see new structures you may want to move your business here,” said Chapman. All four agreed lower tax structures compared to urban areas and not having to put up with Seattle traffic in a city that has priced its homes out of the reach of middle class families working there could attract more business to the area.

North Shore Levee

The four were behind getting funding for the planning and permitting phases of the North Shore Levee project, which would build a flood wall along the north shore of the Chehalis River. They agree, the removal of several hundred properties from the federal flood insurance requirement, not to mention the additional safety provided by the levee, would also help bring new blood to the region.

Employment

There are jobs available in this county, but not enough workers to fill them all, they added.

“Sierra Pacific has more jobs open than they can fill,” said Chapman. “You can start pushing a broom and quickly learn on the job and move your way up to a $30 per hour position.” The current mill manager, he said, is in his 30s and started at the bottom and moved his way up.

Grays Harbor Community Hospital

The well-publicized financial woes plaguing the hospital have led to dozens of layoffs and the hospital bringing in an outside consulting firm to help get them back on financial footing. Tharinger said recent legislation that gives rural hospitals a higher reimbursement rate can help, but “is a bridge” and long-term solutions need to be found.

“I don’t think we can afford to lose that hospital,” he said.

Tharinger said the state money is needed to help the hospital and new funding possibilities are being explored by the Legislature to allow the hospital to not just survive, but grow.

“This is a challenging period for them right now, it’s difficult to invest in the expansion of service, which I believe they should do,” he said. “Expand services so a mother-to-be can look at the hospital and say, ‘I’m going to have my baby here.’”

Expansion of services would also encourage potential patients to stay here for their medical needs. The hospital is further economically hurt when patients take their business to places like Olympia.

Expanding services could extend lifespans, said legislators. Grays Harbor County is continually at the bottom of the list of healthy counties, and the death rate for people in their 60s is far beyond any other county’s.

Lack of insurance could be part of the blame. Blake said, “So they don’t go to the doctor to check out that cough and it turns into lung cancer.”

Good health care services are also important to businesses and individuals considering moving into the area.

“The first things people look at (when moving to an area) is the quality of health care and the school districts,” said Tharinger.

Education

All four agreed funding needs to go toward education for fields like mechanics, timber work, and other blue collar jobs, where the existing workforce is nearing retirement age and there aren’t enough younger people to replace them in these much-needed jobs.

“I took my car in to the shop recently. It took me three weeks to get it in,” said Chapman. He said when he asked the owner of the business why it took so long to get in, the man told him he has enough work to hire another mechanic, but can’t find a qualified one to fill the position.

Re-election bids

The three representatives are all running for re-election this year. When asked if they would be doing anything differently campaign-wise because of the actions of and perceptions of the Trump White House, all said no. Takko isn’t up for election for another two years.

“I’m not all that concerned about the effect the president will have on this election,” said Blake. “I’m pretty happy with the biennium budget we were able to pass; a lot of projects were brought to the district.”

Two of the representatives chair some powerful committees: Blake is the chair of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, and Tharinger chairs the Capital Budget Committee. Having local representation, let alone chairs, on these committees makes sure the spotlight shines on projects important to the citizens of the district and gives a straight line to funding opportunities, said Chapman.