Emergency loan proposal garners unanimous Senate support

Emergency loan proposal garners unanimous Senate support
A Senate proposal would create an emergency revolving loan for rural counties to repair or replace infrastructure damaged by a natural or manmade disaster. Photo: freepik.com

Five years after the Oso landslide killed 43 people in Snohomish County, state lawmakers are considering an emergency revolving loan program to help repair rural county infrastructure damaged by similar natural disasters. SB 5923 sponsored by Senate Transportation Chair Steve Hobbs (D-44) received unanimous support from the state Senate on Mar. 8.

The proposal would direct the County Road Administration Board (CRAB) to create a loan program similar to that used by the Public Works Board to fund local infrastructure projects. However, the Public Works Board has struggled to meet existing demand due to raids of the account by the legislature. CRAB is run by a nine-member board consisting of six county commissioners or councilmembers and three county engineers.

Currently, CRAB offers funds for emergency projects through the Rural Arterial Trust Account, though the project must meet certain requirements and be the result of a natural or manmade disaster.

At a Mar. 21 public hearing of House Transportation, CRAB Executive Director John Koster told committee members that “the frequency of these emergencies seems to be increasing.” So far, requests for the current biennium is $2.7 million. The problem with using the existing account is that “we have to keep a larger balance, so fewer dollars go out to projects.”

Under SB 5923, CRAB would create the Emergency Loan Account, but the bill provides no specific appropriations for it.

Speaking in support of the bill at the Mar. 21 public hearing was Paul Parker, deputy director for the Washington State Transportation Commission (WSTC). The commission made a similar recommendation in its Transportation 2040 plan.

In addition to earthquakes and tsunamis, “there’s a lot of water in this state, and it often comes at the wrong time or in larger quantities than we’re able to handle,” he said. “There should be accounts for cities and for counties to quickly access and repair infrastructure damage.”

However, one way the bill differs from the commission’s recommendations is that it applies to counties, and only those with a population of 800,000 or less. According to the latest population figures, of the 39 counties in the state, all but King, Snohomish and Pierce counties would qualify. According to the Washington Association of Counties, county roads are paid for mostly by property taxes and other miscellaneous taxes. For every dollar spent, $.22 comes from the state or grants, while federal grants make up $.11.

SB 5923’s companion bill is HB 1951 sponsored by Jim Walsh (R-19), the Assistant Ranking Minority Member for the Senate Transportation Committee. The bill has been referred to the Rules Committee for consideration.

No further action is yet scheduled for SB 5923.

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