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County approves $14 million for roads

But six-year plan may be affected by fuel costs

San Juan County will spend roughly $14 million over the next six years on road improvements, marine access and walking trails under the latest revision of its six-year transportation improvement plan.

The plan, which includes 31 separate projects in various stages of development, was approved July 29 by the County Council in a unanimous decision. State law requires that the plan be reevaluated and updated annually.

The plan calls for $3.3 million in improvement projects next year, about half of which is earmarked for reconstruction of Fisherman Bay Road on Lopez Island and would be financed through state and federal funds. The council will consider whether to endorse the improvements slated for 2009 later this year during budget hearings.

Though the six-year plan outlines how much would be spent on each project, county Engineer John Van Lund cautioned that the plan is in large part a “wish list” and a guide for the Public Works Department in establishing priorities and the Road Fund.

The ability to finance and complete big-ticket projects, Van Lund said, will depend largely on whether Public Works can secure outside funding. In fact, of the $14 million, roughly half, or $6.6 million, is slated to come from either state or federal funding sources.

Unfortunately, he said, transportation funds at the state and the federal level have dwindled as the high cost of fuel reduces the amount people normally drive. The result means that less gas-tax revenue has been flowing into state and federal transportation coffers.

Meanwhile, the cost of construction materials has jumped 10-15 percent annually in recent years, compared to an annual average inflation rate of 3-4 percent for most consumer goods. In addition, he said, the rising cost of fuel has reduced the availability of emulsion, a primary ingredient in the chip-seal process, putting the department’s annual chip-seal program in jeopardy.

“In terms of funding, we’re really headed for a perfect storm,” Van Lund said.

Despite uncertainties over future funding, the plan drew praise from David Dehlendorf, vice chairman of the San Juan Island Trails Committee, for its emphasis on walking paths and non-motorized transportation projects. It contains seven trail projects totaling $2.3 million, $1.5 million of which require outside funding. There are two trail projects each on San Juan and Lopez islands, and three on Orcas.

Still, Dehlendorf noted the absence of two proposed trails whose development the committee supports. He asked that the council consider adding the so-called Pipeline Trail, a proposed path spanning San Juan Valley, as well as the Park-to-Park Trail, which would connect the county and state parks on San Juan Island’s west side, onto the six-year plan in the near future.

To view the six-year plan, click on Public Works/Roads at www.sanjuanco.com

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