Island, Skagit consider splitting regional transportation management

Motorists cross the Deception Pass bridge

Skagit County leaders are looking at separating or revising the regional transportation agreement with Island County.

In a series of recent meetings, elected officials from both areas discussed the future of the Skagit-Island Regional Transportation Planning Organization (SIRTPO), and another meeting will be held Jan. 28 to explore options. While there’s an “overwhelming sense” that Skagit leaders want to make transportation decisions on a county level, Island County leaders said they believe there are advantages to keeping the regional agreement in place.

“I’m a big proponent of the different regions and organizations working together in any way we can to better the services we provide to our communities,” Island County Commissioner Rick Hannold said. “There’s strength in numbers.”

Established in 1991, the SIRTPO was created to assist the two counties in planning regionally for transportation needs, prioritizing projects and distributing state money.

While a course of action has yet to be hammered out, most agree that the organization is outdated, contains redundancies and needs to be revised or eliminated.

“We do need to update it, at a minimum,” said Kevin Murphy, executive director of the Skagit Council of Governments. “(The SIRTPO) needs to be modified. They want to continue to plan together, but the format of how that’s done may change.”

Murphy said Skagit’s conversation started last summer after a series of law changes and the establishment of a Metropolitan Planning Organization. The additional transportation planning board is not currently recognized within the scope of the SIRTPO.

To add to this redundancy, a sub-RTPO board exists in both counties, creating a system where construction projects are approved both on a county level and a regional level, Murphy said.

“There’s three governing boards and there’s some overlapping,” Murphy said. “They make decisions two times, so there is an efficiency concern.”

As the smaller of the two counties, Island County commissioners are in favor of retaining their connection with Skagit, but are open to changes to SIRTPO operations.

“Updating methodologies, that seems easy enough to do,” Hannold said.

In addition to the SIRTPO, Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said the two counties share more than just transportation, such as the commercial and employment interests as well as agencies like the Northwest Agricultural Business Center.

“It’s those relationships that may not be project related,” Price Johnson said. “I know an awful lot more about my entire region because of RTPO so I can do my job better.”

Price Johnson also stressed that the SIRTPO carries more clout with Olympia and state agencies as a regional organization.

Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson pointed out that the connection between the two counties has been mutually beneficial historically.

When the SIRTPO was first created, Skagit County did not meet the 100,000 population threshold and needed Island County’s additional residents to become eligible for the funding, Johnson said. Since that time, Skagit County’s population has risen to 118,837, according to 2013 U.S. Census projections, and Island County has 78,801.

“When Skagit County didn’t have 100,000 we were a pretty fine looking dance partner,” Johnson said. “Now that you have 100,000 people apparently we look good sitting on the wall.”

Lisa Janicki, a newly-elected Skagit County commissioner, said she’s heard anecdotally that SIRTPO board members from Skagit often “don’t know enough about an Oak Harbor-based project to make an intelligent decision” and vice versa.

Todd Carlson, the region’s planning and operations manager for Washington Department of Transportation, said the SIRTPO can be restructured to address both local and regional concerns.

“In my own view, 90 percent of things that happen are not that interrelated,” Carlson said. “It’s about planning, it’s about working on things that have regional significance.”

The Island County Sub-RTPO will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 28, in the Commissioners Hearing Room in Coupeville.