Governor OKs new law, paving way for county group

Gov. Jay Inslee on March 25 signed into law a measure letting Island County form an organization of local governments to plan and fund future transportation projects. House Bill 2815 lets the county form a Regional Transportation Planning Organization, or RTPO, to prepare regional transportation plans, ensure local and regional coordination of transportation planning and maintain a six-year regional transportation improvement plan. The bill goes into effect July 1.

“This will help provide some additional certainty toward the planning and funding of transportation projects for growth and development on Island County,” said the bill’s sponsor, Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island, in a prepared release.

“The legislature understood Island County needs to be in the regional-transportation conversation, because our two islands aren’t connected,” said Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson. “I’m excited about this.”

A regional transportation planning organization can cover both urban and rural areas, and receives state funding in support of its planning efforts. Under existing law, they must contain at least one county and have a population of at least 100,000, or contain at least three geographically contiguous counties. Under Hayes’ bill, counties with a population of greater than 75,000 that also contain a state ferry terminal are authorized to form one of the groups.

Island County had been in a 24-year planning organization partnership with Skagit County. But last year, Skagit County voted to separate itself from that regional transportation agreement and form its own group because its population had surpassed 100,000. That left Island County alone and ineligible to form an organization of its own. So earlier this year, the county, along with state, municipal and other organizations, formed the Island Transportation Planning Organization, a group intended to ensure that Island County allocates federal transportation funds most effectively county-wide. Over time, the ITPO will convert to an RTPO, Johnson said.

“The geographical constraints of an island present their own unique challenges when it comes to having an effective infrastructure that creates a smooth-flowing transportation system,” Hayes said. “Planning is a vital part of that process. That’s why this bill is so important for Island County.”

The new law will let Island County “access regional planning dollars, participate in regional planning projects with access to other dollars and work with our neighboring counties in a way we couldn’t as an ITPO,” Johnson said.

Most likely, Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson will lead the new RTPO as chairwoman, and Langley Mayor Tim Callison will serve as vice-chairman, Johnson said.

The new regional transportation planning organization, which meets monthly, at its formation consisted of representatives from Island County, the cities of Langley and Oak Harbor, the Town of Coupeville, the Island County Public Transportation Benefit Corp., the ports of Coupeville and South Whidbey, the state Department of Transportation, the Island County Economic Development Council and Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.