By Oliver Lazenby
A last-minute switch that took funding from a long-awaited Blaine interchange improvement and redirected it to projects in Ferndale and Lynden was apparently the work of state senator Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale). The improvement would have added an exit and on-ramp to exit 274 and had been slated to get $45 million from the state in previous versions of the budget.
However, the senate removed the project from its supplemental transportation budget and instead directed funds to two projects that weren’t previously in the budget. About $40 million will go toward upgrades to improvements on State Route 539 in Lynden and $19 million will go toward work on Thornton Road in Ferndale. The amended budget was passed by the state house of representatives on March 9.
Ericksen proposed the amendment that transferred funding and said the Thornton Road and SR 539 projects had been left out of the previous budget by mistake.
“There was actually an error for last year’s projects in terms of the project list,” he said. “They used the wrong lists in the final budget, unfortunately.”
The Blaine improvements would have made the 274 interchange a fully functioning interchange, with on-ramps and exits in both directions. Currently, there is only a southbound on-ramp and a northbound off-ramp.
The upgrade would have allowed southbound I-5 traffic to exit into Blaine near Blaine Road. Currently, southbound drivers who miss exit 276, the only other southbound exit in Blaine, have to continue 8 miles to exit 270 in Custer before they can turn around.
Blaine mayor Harry Robinson said the lack of off-ramps in town hinders economic growth and makes new businesses reluctant to set up in south Blaine because of the limited access. The city hoped the project could also alleviate truck congestion on northbound SR 543 by giving trucks an alternate route.
City officials have been pushing for the project since 2009, when the city completed an Interchange Justification Report, a document that the Federal Highway Administration and the Washington State Department of Transportation require of new interstate access points.
The interchange project has also been on the Whatcom Council of Government’s list of priority projects for years, but isn’t one of its top four priority projects.
That list is just one of many data points that lawmakers use to distribute transportation funding. (Another Blaine project, relocating the Vehicle Cargo and Inspections System, is one of the council’s top four, but it also didn’t get state funds.)
The project in Lynden that got state money is the third phase of a project that was partially funded in 2003, said state representative Luanne Van Werven (R-Lynden).
The improvements will add at least two more lanes to the Guide Meridian between Birch Bay-Lynden Road and West Badger Road.
The Ferndale project involves connecting Thornton Street to a nearby roundabout by a bridge crossing over railroad tracks.
The project is meant to relieve congestion on the city’s Main Street and improve access to neighborhoods.
The budget switch frustrated Blaine City Council which directed mayor Harry Robinson to write Ericksen protesting
“It is of critical importance to the economic viability of the City of Blaine to provide exits and on-ramps into our city,” Robinson said in a March 7 letter. “What other city in Whatcom County has Interstate 5 running directly through its city center with only one north and one southbound interchange?”
In his letter, Robinson asked for Ericksen’s support in amending the budget. However, the state House of Representatives passed the supplemental transportation budget two days later.
Ericksen said funding the Blaine interchange project would be a priority next year.
“We’re not going to eliminate that project, we’re going to delay it until we can find some funding,” he said.
The City of Blaine may seek a less expensive option for improving the interchange – adding a southbound exit, but not a northbound on-ramp, said assistant public works director Bill Bullock.
That would accomplish most of what the city wants: Southbound traffic would have another exit in Blaine and trucks could get to Blaine’s industrial corridor easier, Bullock said.
“If it can accomplish those two things, it accomplishes 90 percent of what we want out of an update to the interchange,” Bullock said. “That would be cheaper, but we don’t know how