Cityenlists Senator Murray’s help

Published on Thu, Mar 10, 2005 by ack Kintner

Read More News

City enlists Senator Murray’s help

By Jack Kintner

Almost 50 years ago, when the freeway was put through the middle of town, short-sighted planning left Blaine without any southbound exits past the one almost at the border, meaning that any traffic which didn’t exit immediately after clearing customs had to drive six miles to the next exit and back track.

Not many did. Murray Goff of Goff’s Department Store pointed out recently that when the freeway began carrying traffic, business in Blaine nearly died, “and still hasn’t fully recovered. The freeway traffic that used to go through town might as well be in a tunnel, for all the good it does,” he said.

The mistake is about to be repeated, according to Blaine city manager Gary Tomsic. He’s supported by people from both the Washington State Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

In their push to expand U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities at the Peace Arch crossing, Tomsic says the General Services Administration (GSA) is ignoring warnings from the city as well as from state and federal highway engineers, all of whom have serious concerns over the new facility’s impact on local traffic flow, especially as it affects freeway access into Blaine.

Tomsic said that the “GSA is moving ahead with their building without addressing access issues. The state and federal highway folks are both saying that something different than what the GSA is proposing needs to be done [to continue to have good access into Blaine], but the GSA just says go ahead, you guys build roads, we build buildings and we’re building this new facility. It’s very frustrating.”

Tomsic and Blaine director of public works Steve Banham are going to meet with GSA officials March 10 to address these problems in Senator Patty Murray’s Seattle office, along with some of Senator Maria Cantwell’s staff, people from DOT, FHWA and the Whatcom County council of governments. This is the second time in four months Tomsic has met with GSA officials with Murray’s staff present, and he’s seen little if any movement on their part toward a compromise.

Tomsic maintains that, “replacing the customs building and making the kind of highway improvements that a larger facility will need should be done together in a coordinated way, but the federal agencies haven’t gotten together very well. Until they do, we don’t think they should go ahead with the building until the road issues are addressed.”

Banham added that, “We hope that the staff present from the senators’ offices can help get the process unstuck. The big difficulty has been in making sure that any necessary roadwork is done along with the expansion of the Peace Arch facility. In other words, we don’t want the building to be built leaving an inadequate road, since that would hurt access into Blaine.”

Banham added that as a result of the earlier meeting, the DOT got money to begin design and environmental work on relocating exit 276 to the south. “We’re not sure how the GSA can both move their facility further south and expand it, and not impact the present interchange and, with it, access into Blaine.”

Bill DuBray of the GSA said that “We’re fully aware of Blaine’s concerns. We’re used to dealing with border crossings and keeping the traffic flowing during construction. The issue of the interchange is something new for us but we don’t see that as affecting our project.”
DuBray said that since all their work is being done north of the interchange they feel that they’ll have little if any impact on access into Blaine. “We don’t build highways,” he said, “we build buildings.”

When asked if a higher level of consultation is necessary, DuBray replied “the state highway work on that interchange is very preliminary. We’re not going to slow down now because our project is funded and is on the list to be approved by the president for construction.”

The GSA’s renovation project is scheduled to be finished just a few months before the winter Olympics in February of 2010, seen by many in western Washington and the B.C. lower mainland as a potential economic boon to the whole area.

Tomsic said the worst-case scenario would be the GSA coming up with some kind of “temporary solution,” which in federal parlance can mean anything from a detour lasting a few minutes to temporary roads lasting 20 years.

Tomsic also questions the wisdom of purchasing so many homes adjacent to the facility for a parking lot. “Canada is also renewing its facility,” he said, “and they’re putting their parking underground. If the GSA did that too they might save a neighborhood.”