Finding the cash for new off-ramp won’t be easy

Published on Thu, Feb 14, 2002 by Meg Olson

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Finding the cash for new off-ramp won’t be easy

By Meg Olson

From the half-dozen federal agencies that monitor what goes across the border, to highway engineers and Blaine city council members, several dozen people answered a General Services Administration (GSA) invitation to get a first hand look at the problems they face squeezing a bigger border station into a tight spot.

“This is just an option, not a solution,” cautioned GSA project manager Kelly Sarver-Lendernick. Caught between a park and a highway, a railroad and a neighborhood, the GSA has spent the last several years looking for a way to expand the Peace Arch border facility. “The federal inspection services have needed to expand their port in order to accomplish their mission,” she said. “Following September 11, the port may need to get even larger due to increased staff and possible entry and exit requirements.”

The GSA is now completing a draft environmental site assessment that would look at which directions the facility could grow and what the impacts would be. “We’re looking at impacts to residential areas, impacts to the park, impacts to the railway, and all plans impact exits into Blaine,” Sarver-Lendernick said.

Initial plans for expanding the facility bit into the park and sparked such a public outcry that the GSA looked elsewhere for room to grow. “I think the preferred option now is to move into the railroad right-of-way.

Burlington Northern said they feel the rail spur can be relocated to Swift,” Sarver-Lendernick said, referring to the rail marker between Blaine and Custer. “Our attempts were to minimize impacts to the park and in order to do that we needed to move south.” New parking would be built in what now is a residential area just east of the existing facility.

Moving the border facility any further south would shorten the first Blaine off-ramp to such an extent that it would no longer meet federal highways regulations, so GSA is proposing a new Blaine interchange on the other side of the D Street overpass. Vehicles would enter and exit the freeway from Third Street.

The catch is that GSA only has a mandate to fund buildings, not roads. “We’re partnering with federal, local and state agencies to find the funding we need for this project,” Sarver-Lendernick said. “Congress gives the GSA authority to build the station but they look to the state for road improvements.”

Given the state’s transportation dollar crunch, few who attended the tour seemed optimistic funding for a new interchange was feasible in the short-term. We don’t have any projects in the 20-year plan for this interchange,” said Todd Harrison of the state department of transportation (DOT). “We’ll try and get it into the plan to accommodate any federal dollars that become available but, as for as the priorities go, for the state to put funds towards this project, chances are extremely low.” Harrison said that, if the new interchange was funded, his department would undertake a full study of access to I-5 and other options, such as an on-ramp from H Street as suggested by city planning director Terry Galvin, would be considered.

The GSA had hoped to get initial funding for design of the new facility and site acquisition in 2004 so construction could proceed in 2006/2008. Sarver-Lendernick said expanding into the park was the least favored option but could not be eliminated until it was determined how feasible a new interchange would be.

“The hope is the further this moves up on the priority list the more funds will become available,” said John Kvistad, regional administrator for the GSA. “With the city what it is, how do we facilitate a flow that works for residents, for commerce, for the downtown?”

Blaine mayor Dieter Schugt wondered if, with a strategy of North American perimeter security, an expanded border would be necessary.
“Would it in a sense mean we don’t need this facility?” he asked. “We don’t know what the two countries’ agencies will be like in five or 10 years so it’s difficult to plan for it,” said U.S. Customs representative Debbie Engels. “There will continue to be some separate functions.”

Sarver-Lendernick said a joint U.S. Canada facility had been deemed unfeasible because it would need to straddle the border – running right through the Peace Arch. An international plaza was also an option but her agency felt putting such a facility in White Rock or in Blaine would limit access to those communities. There would have to be no way on or off the highway leading to the plaza and no way to access it without inspection. “If we were to do that in Peace Arch Park it would become a port facility, not a park,” she said.

Once the GSA draft environmental assessment is complete and options for the new facility refined, Sarver-Lendernick said there would be formal public hearings in Blaine prior to the expansion going ahead..

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