Improved I-405, other local road projects top Renton's legislative agenda

If there’s a rallying cry for Renton officials for the 2011 legislative session, it’s “fix the worst first.”

That “worst” is Renton’s constant companion – Interstate 405 – and the most-congested interchange in the state, I-405 and State Route 167.

Doing something about I-405, and finding a way to pay for that something, is at the top of the City of Renton’s wish list for the 2011 session of the state Legislature, which opens Monday.

Right now, the state has identified about $1.5 billion in projects for I-405 between Renton and Bellevue, that still rates as one of the most congested stretches of freeway in the state even with millions of dollars in already-completed projects.

But the city is realistic, too. It understands that with a multibillion-dollar hole in state revenues, there’s going to be little money available for the city from the state.

In turn, the city doesn’t want legislators to impose any new “unfunded mandates,” those state requirements that come with no state money to pay for them.

“We don’t have the money, either,” said Mayor Denis Law.

Cities have cut their budgets “to the bone,” Law said, and cannot afford to assume the responsibilities of the state and counties.

The City of Renton formally spells out its wish list and policy statements in an annual state legislative agenda that takes months to prepare, in consultation with city department heads, the City Council and other community stakeholders such as the Chamber of Commerce and the environmental community.

Typically, the city keeps its agenda to five top issues, followed by a longer list of policy statements. Those statements make clear the city’s positions on such issues as changing the regulations regarding traffic cameras (don’t do it) to allowing wine tasting at farmers markets (OK with us).

But the city takes pride in picking just five priorities upon which to focus its lobbying efforts in Olympia, according to Suzanne Dale Estey, the city’s economic development director, who plays a key role in developing and managing the city’s legislative agenda.

The idea, she said, is to play some offense for Renton.

“I really try to get us focused on our highest priorities and where can we work with our delegation and make something happen,” Dale Estey said.

Those top priorities include:

1. A new investment package for I-405 improvements, including new toll lanes to help pay for such things as an improved I-405-SR 167 interchange. The city views that troubled interchange as a “key economic development issue,” said Dale Estey. Important local needs include millions of dollars for Northeast Sunset Boulevard and extension of Southwest 27th Street in south Renton.

Just this week, a national experts released a recommendation that tolls are a “viable” way to pay for I-405 improvements.

2. Protection of revenues the state shares with cities, including criminal justice funds, the streamlined sales tax and money to verify sex-offender addresses.

3. State support to improve the system of Green River levees, which protect one of the largest warehouse, industrial and retail areas in the nation from potential Green River flooding.

4. State support to revitalize the Sunset area in the Highlands and to assist with revitalizing Skyway/West Hill. Millions of dollars are needed to improve infrastructure if Renton is to annex West Hill.

5. Renton will support any legislation that allows Boeing and other aerospace companies to thrive.

The key to making those priorities a reality is developing a relationship with Renton’s legislative delegation in the months leading up to the session, say Law and Dale Estey.

“I think, like anything else, it’s the relationships and collaborations that make a difference,” Law said. Tending those relationships with the city’s 15-member delegation also means regular contact with them in Olympia.

Representatives from Renton, including Law, City Council members and community leaders, will visit Olympia on Feb. 15 to meet with members of the delegation.

A professional lobbyist, Doug Levy, also watches out for the city’s interests in the Legislature. The city pays the long-time lobbyist $50,000 a year, said Dale Estey.

“He knows the city well,” said Dale Estey, who speaks with Levy daily during the legislative session. He also prepares weekly reports for city officials and administrators.

While the city plays offense, it also plays defense, searching out other cities and organizations with similar problems and viewpoints to form coalitions – and bring their collective lobbying power to Olympia.

Law also has some fears regarding this upcoming session. Continuing cuts in state support for human services could affect the local cities, if those with mental health issues no longer receive medications, he said.

Now is the beginning of a time when the public will have to step up and assist where it can, Law said. That’s already happening, through efforts by the religious community and such service groups as the Renton Rotary Club.

“It’s going to become more important that those who have the resources help those who don’t,” Law said.

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