GSA decision slowed by state interchange concerns
officials have been nervous about the negative effect
a new customs facility being built at the Peace Arch
would have on Blaine’s ability to draw southbound
traffic off the freeway. It hasn’t always been easy
to make their voice heard by the General Services Administration
(GSA) but they’ve found an ally in the Washington
State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).
“Here we have the only full interchange on the only freeway that passes through one of the busiest border crossing towns in the country,” said WSDOT engineer Todd Carlson. “We need to keep it working well and to maintain the best possible access to Blaine,” something the GSA project could significantly if inadvertently compromise, he continued.
In a January 17 letter, WSDOT’s assistant regional administrator Todd Harrison pointed out to GSA’s environmental impact statement (EIS) project manager Michael Levine that there are problems with the GSA’s proposed designs that affect traffic flow both on the freeway and going into Blaine.
In short, none of the three proposed alternatives will work, not without modifications, or “mitigations” as Harrison called the changes he’d like to see.
Pressed for space to build the project, the GSA wants to build on the parts of the highway right-of-way (R/W), giving the two transportation agencies, WSDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), a kind of trump card over the project. Their approval depends upon satisfying three basic conditions: it’s determined that the right-of-way (R/W) land isn’t needed by the WSDOT in the foreseeable future, that enough is left in place for WSDOT’s facility to function properly and that “neither the federal-aid highway facility nor the traffic thereon” is adversely affected.
None of these conditions are currently being met, the letter states, and while Harrison says he’s “hopeful that our continuing coordination will resolve these issues, at this time we cannot approve [giving the] R/W [to the GSA] without mitigation to the transportation system.”
In a meeting last Thursday at the Blaine Senior Center, the GSA’s project manager Mark Howard, instead of revealing the GSA’s final choice among three designs as planned, instead announced a one to two month delay in their decision due to the concerns raised by WSDOT, “the most substantial that we have received” on how traffic flows will be affected by the new facility.
The primary problem is one of getting enough space to construct the kind of facility that the GSA’s client, the Department of Homeland Security, wants. The GSA initially sought to expand the present two-acre site to 15 acres, but constraints on all four sides of the site have prevented that. Harrison pointed out that federal law precludes approving “any project which requires use of any public park,” putting Peace Arch State Park off limits. The railroad and Semiahmoo Bay are barriers to the west.
To the east, the GSA still plans to acquire about two square blocks of residential property, the area west of 2nd Street, north of C Street, south of Peace Arch State Park and east of the freeway. Much of last week’s meeting was devoted to a review of that process.
To the south the GSA is up against an already crowded interchange 276. After reviewing the plans Harrison said they do not “ensure the functionality of Interstate 5 and access to the city of Blaine” because they don’t provide enough room for the exit to work properly unless the whole customs complex is shifted “approximately 200 feet to the north. This does not appear to be a viable option for GSA due to other constraints (most notably Peace Arch State Park).”
The key seems to be finding a way to fit exit 276 into the over-all design, something both highway agencies, the city of Blaine and the GSA are working together to try to find.
The most likely solution, according to Blaine’s public works director Steve Banham, would be to change the current exit 276 configuration by replacing the lighted five-way intersections where the on- and off-ramps meet D Street with roundabouts. “The WSDOT loves roundabouts,” said Blaine city manager Gary Tomsic.
Carlson said that’s because they save money by eliminating traffic signals, allow more traffic capacity and are safer. “These are fairly low-speed intersections, but even here when cars collide it would be at a narrow angle, not a ‘T-bone.’ They even make it possible to do a u-turn,” Carlson said, adding that it’s a design solution for this situation that’s emerged in just the last few weeks. “We had thought about moving the interchange south, but that would cost up to $30 million, $5 million more than the GSA’s cost to build their entire project,” he said.
WSDOT’s traffic signal operations engineer Pat Armijo said that the railroad crossing on Marine Drive may make roundabouts difficult, since “right now we have the traffic signals set to keep auto and train traffic safely separated. Roundabouts may not work.” The signals and controllers at each intersection, he said, are worth about $150,000.
Banham said a roundabout on Peace Portal Way could also help delineate Blaine’s Marine Drive, helping it draw traffic while giving it a more attractive entrance than the present short stretch of poorly paved road.
Carlson also pointed out that in the three alternate designs included in the DEIS there’s only room for three lanes on the bridge that carries the northbound lanes over the partially buried CBP buildings underneath. “They need five lanes, including the northbound freeway on-ramp and the return-to-Canada lane plus two freeway lanes and the nexus lane,” Carlson said, “and it could even be a deal-breaker if they can’t do this within their budget.”
Another local project, the renovation of Highway 543, the Pacific Highway truck route, is on hold due to appropriated funds not matching bids that have been submitted, according to Armijo.
Other problems Harrison cited in the GSA’s EIS include incompatibilities pertaining to design speeds on the on-ramps (15 mph) as opposed to that on the freeway itself (45 mph at that point), not including Blaine and the WSDOT in approving work zone detour plans while construction is under way and inadequate consultation with the state historic preservation officer and local Indian tribes. The report states that there appears to be “no reporting of archaeological surveys, no report of walking the site, no shovel test holes, etc. If this activity was not warranted, please explain because it appears to not be a fully good faith effort to follow up on literature work.”
The GSA said at a meeting last December that it had scheduled the historical and archaeological activities to begin this month.
Howard said, having seen Harrison’s letter, that the GSA’s decision to do further studies geared to the stated concerns does not delay the over-all process, since they’re not required to identify their design choice until the EIS is final, though they wanted to make a choice “as soon as we can so the public has the benefit of that knowledge as soon as possible.”
Presumably that includes both the WSDOT and the FHWA, as Carlson pointed out that they’ve had federal funds in hand for well over a year to begin addressing these concerns “but we weren’t getting specifics from the GSA in terms of a footprint, where the thing was actually going to be built.”
GSA spokesman Bill Lesh was quoted saying the same thing, that until the January 17 letter the GSA didn’t have anything to go on from the state officials. Carlson said that much of this can be chalked up to two different systems working side by side, “and we’re working together well now,” he added, “because if we finish on time that’s still just one month before the Vancouver Winter Olympics, so the fewer delays we have the better.”
Howard said he’s sticking to the current timetable that calls for a final EIS to be ready by the end of this month and published by the end of March. Following a 30-day public comment period, which Levine inadvertently referred to as a “cooling off period” at the senior center meeting, the EIS would become final near the end of April, leading to condemnation of property where needed and site preparation for construction to begin next winter.
The next informal review of the GSA’s plans is tentatively set for February 23 at the Blaine Senior Center.