Washington Legislature alert: Kent Council says it will lobby state for levee repairs, traffic studies

The off ramp on to Willis Street backs up towards Highway 167 in the early-morning hours Nov. 24. The City of Kent wants the state to fund a design study to rebuild the interchange so as to improve traffic flow. - Charles Cortes, Kent Reporter
The off ramp on to Willis Street backs up towards Highway 167 in the early-morning hours Nov. 24. The City of Kent wants the state to fund a design study to rebuild the interchange so as to improve traffic flow.
— image credit: Charles Cortes, Kent Reporter

Kent city officials plan to lobby the state Legislature next year to help pay for Green River levee repairs as well as a design to rebuild the Highway 167 interchange at Willis Street.

Doug Levy, a lobbyist hired by the city, outlined the city's top Legislative priorities at the Nov. 17 City Council meeting. The Legislature opens the 2010 session Jan. 11.

"There is no system for the state to invest in levees," said Levy, who works as the city’s lobbyist on a contract basis and met with city directors and staff to help determine issues to address in Olympia. "There are several hundred millions of dollars needed for repairs of levees that date back to the 1930s. We do not expect funding in 2010, but we need to start laying the groundwork for the state to begin to invest."

Levy doesn't expect any funding to the city next year because the Legislature faces a $2.6 billion deficit for the remainder of the two-year spending period for 2009-2010.

The state kicked in $10 million in 2009 to help repair the Horseshoe Bend levee last summer in Kent. But city officials estimate more than $300 million worth of projects are needed to finish repairs along the city's 13-mile stretch of the river.

"There's not much hope for money next year but the state has to step up to partner," said Michelle Witham, city community and public affairs manager in a phone interview Monday. "It's not just Kent. There are four cities (Kent, Auburn, Renton and Tukwila) that need to get levees fixed. This is a regional issue with major state impact. The local governments can't come up with the money."

With improved levees, city officials hope to achieve certification from the Federal Emergency Management Agency so that residents and business owners can pay less for flood insurance. Levees must be strong enough to provide 100-year flood protection to be certified by professional engineers and approved by FEMA.

Levee repairs also are needed because of the uncertainty by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about how much water will be stored behind the Howard Hanson Dam the next few winters to help control flooding along the river because of a leak at an abutment next to the dam.

"This will be a major priority until the levees are done, especially since the corps says the dam will not have a permanent fix for the few years," Witham said.

As far as state money for Highway 167, Levy told the Council something needs to be done because of the heavy traffic that backs up along Willis Street, also known as State Route 516.

"The interchange is not working well," Levy said. "With railroad-grade separation projects, there will be even more stress. We will ask the state for funding to study how to rebuild the interchange."

The Legislature reportedly is looking to send a transportation tax measure to voters in 2011.

"This is to plant the seed," Witham said about the Highway 167 project. "There are a lot of projects and we want to make sure people are aware of the needs here to be addressed, although we have talked to the state about a new interchange for years."

Without even a design, no timeline has been set yet about when work would begin on a new interchange, Witham said.

City officials plan two projects over the next few years to separate vehicles from trains along Willis Street. Contractors would build bridges for the trains with a four-lane roadway under the bridges. The city has yet to acquire the funds for the proposed projects, estimated at anywhere from $25 million to $30 million each.

City officials plan to meet before the session with state representatives from the Kent area including Sen. Claudia Kauffman, D-Kent, 47th District, and Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, 33rd District as well as House representatives Geoff Simpson, D-Covington, 47th District; Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, 47th District, Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, 33rd District, and Tina Orwall, D-Normandy Park, 33rd District.

Other Legislature priorities for Kent include:

• Push for the creation of a joint underwriting association by the state to help guarantee Green River Valley businesses can purchase supplemental flood insurance.

• Work with the Washington Cities Insurance Authority to assure liability immunity for good-faith flood response and flood prevention actions taken by the city of Kent and other cities.

• Make sure the state continues to pay streamlined sales tax mitigation funds to Kent and other cities. Kent receives more than $4 million per year through the fund to help replace lost sales tax revenue when the 2007 Legislature changed how taxes were collected. As a distribution center, Kent initially lost out on revenue because the sales tax is collected in the location where products end up rather than where the products originated.

• Get the Legislature to authorize cities to impose a street utility tax to help pay for street maintenance.

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