Washington state

Stimulus money paves Interstate pass

SNOQUALMIE PASS – As an excavator tears cracked panels of concrete from a section of Washington state’s most heavily traveled east-west highway, construction worker Jason Antijunti prepares to drive a 16-ton grader over the soon-to-be repaved area.

Antijunti, a 27-year-old employee of Columbia Asphalt and Gravel, once worried he’d be spending the summer “sitting at home on unemployment and not feeding the family.”

“The beginning of the year, I heard it was going to be a tough year. Then all of a sudden we had more work than we could keep up with,” said Antijunti, who lives with his wife and two small children in Naches, northwest of Yakima. “I thought it was going to be Top Ramen and soup this year and it turns out being potatoes and steak.”

Antijunti is one of about 40 workers repaving this five-mile stretch of Interstate 90 between Hyak and Easton, just east of the Snoqualmie Pass summit. The $2.7 million project, which started in early May, is one of several repair jobs on the freeway being paid for with more than $50 million in federal stimulus money.

In all, more than 180 state and local highway projects and several transit and aviation projects throughout Washington are benefiting from the more than $500 million in federal transportation aid the state is receiving.

Since President Barack Obama signed the $787 billion economic recovery plan into law in February, more than $652 million has been spent in Washington state. Altogether, the state is to receive at least $7 billion in stimulus money for projects ranging from public security and emergency preparedness to education and water quality protection.

Aside from the $2 billion for cleanup at south-central Washington’s Hanford nuclear reservation, transportation projects are getting the biggest chunk of the money.

Transportation is an area where the one-time federal money can create long-term benefits for the state, Gov. Chris Gregoire says.

“This is an opportunity for us to seize the crisis and turn lemons into lemonade by building an infrastructure that is in dire need,” she said.

I-90, which connects the ports and large population centers of the Puget Sound area with the farmlands of Eastern Washington, is in particular need of a facelift.

At 3,022-foot Snoqualmie Pass, winter cold, snow and ice — and the chains, studded tires and snowplows to cope with such conditions — have taken their toll on the pavement, traveled by some 27,000 vehicles daily. In the summer, traffic across the pass doubles to more than 58,000 vehicles a day. The road also is critical for trucks hauling about $500 billion worth of freight each year.

“It’s the lifeblood between east and west Washington,” Gregoire said.

So far, the state Department of Transportation has awarded more than $250 million in stimulus money for road projects, and the remaining project contracts will be awarded by March 2010. Construction is expected to continue for several years, which means all those orange traffic cones and barrels dotting Washington’s roads will keep people like Antijunti working.

Transportation Department Secretary Paula Hammond said an estimated 5,000 transportation-related jobs are tied to the stimulus money, a number that is especially important because of the steady increase in the state’s unemployment rate

State unemployment rate has jumped from 5.5 percent in May 2008 to 9.4 percent last month.

“If you get jobs on the road now, and get people working now, it helps build confidence in the economy,” Hammond said.