GSA to unveil plans for park-friendly border facility
By Meg Olson
The latest options for a new border facility leave Peace Arch State Park largely unscathed, taking a chunk from the railway and highways instead.
At a public meeting planned for April, U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) designers will present three new design alternatives for the new facility. All of these will work for the border; what we need now is public input, said GSA executive director Bill DuBray. Current proposals would see the border facility grow from 35,219 gross square footage to 95,000 square feet.
City staff got an advance look at the designs during a February 23 meeting with GSA. They plan to present those options to the public at a community meeting scheduled for March 13 at 7 p.m. at city hall.
Rather than building the new structure towards the park, GSA staff are now proposing a new facility built to the south, with secondary inspection areas replacing the existing parking lot. The railway spur would be relocated to make room for extra primary inspection lanes. A new parking area would be built in what is now a residential area east of the freeway. DuBray said it was important for people considering the design proposals remember nothing is definite. These are just ideas, he said. A lot could change, the parking lots could disappear after the public scoping process.
Perhaps the biggest impact for Blaine would be highway changes, specifically moving the downtown southbound interchange. Proposals range from leaving the exit where it is, which would bring it closer to the port-of-entry, to moving it south.
City manager Gary Tomsic said the early favorite was option 1B, which replaced the downtown Blaine exit with an interchange at Third Street between G and H Streets. The option of changing the access point for Blaine seems to have some benefits, he said. It gives people a little more time to decide to come into town.
Tomsic pointed out that option 1A, which leaves the off-ramp where it is, would shorten the decision time for visitors. I wouldnt think that would be the preferred alternative, but with other options exposure for businesses like the Subway would be less. Tomsic said he also would like to hear from the Port of Bellingham about the impact closing the existing ramps would have on its Marine Drive properties.
The final option is unlikely to gain popular support, DuBray said, because it has a greater impact on Peace Arch State Park. In late 1999, initial proposals that would have cut into Peace Arch State Park drew widespread public opposition. GSA went back to the drawing board to come up with more park-friendly proposals.
An advantage of moving downtown freeway access, Tomsic said, was to draw travellers into the heart of town. It open up the area for new business opportunities, he said. The new ramps could be built mostly on city-owned property, with the closed Gull gas station likely to be the only private property impacted. Another question, according to Tomsic, would be who would pay for the new ramps. My understanding is that it has to be funded separately from the facility, he said. I assume the state highway department would have to get the funding, design it and build it like any other state road project, though hopefully with some federal assistance.
Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) area director Paul Johnson said he had been working with GSA about the feasibility of relocating the interchange. We ask two questions, he said. Does it benefit the users of the state highway system and is there funding available? Without federal funding, Johnson said it was an unlikely project for WSDOT. Our current facility is working now, he said. A new interchange may be part of a 20-year plan but the funds arent available now.
Tomsic outlined the proposals at the March 7 chamber of commerce meeting. I want to get some feedback about what people want and if one of these alternatives is preferred, he said. At the very minimum Id like Blaine to go into the April meeting educated. At best Id like us to go in with a preference as a community
Richard Sturgill of Drayton Harbor Maritime asked if the design options included access improvements for bikes and pedestrians to accommodate increased traffic with the completion of the Coast Millennium Trail system. We talked about thinking multimodally, incorporating pedestrians, bikes and park and ride to access public transit, Tomsic said. Right now theyre just thinking about cars.