Increased funding, reduced costs and more efficiencies.
Sounds great, right?
Well that’s the goal for the Lewis Economic Development Council (Lewis EDC). On Wednesday, the quasi-governmental organization hosted a meeting with dozens of municipalities and stakeholders to talk about how a new pilot project is expected to get infrastructure projects in Lewis County more bang for their buck.
Lewis EDC plans to help coordinate matching of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for initiatives related to clean water, infrastructure, road work, sewer and broadband internet. EDC Executive Director Richard DeBolt and Infrastructure Initiatives Program Manager Todd Chaput hope this new program will be a model that’s utilized for many more decades down the road for the county.
“The intention is that this becomes self-sufficient and becomes a tool that all of you are using all the time, and that we’re 10 years ahead, always planning our growth and being able to leverage as much as we can as we move forward,” DeBolt told municipal leaders from all around Lewis County at a meeting at the Veterans Memorial Museum Wednesday. “We know that if we don’t do something to create infrastructure — sewer, water, broadband, roads, all these things — then our community is going to get overwhelmed. This is a great opportunity for us … A lot of positives will come out of this if we do this correctly.”
ARPA is a $1.9 trillion infrastructure plan that was signed into law earlier this year by President Joe Biden. The stimulus act has provided millions of dollars in funds to cities, schools and other governmental groups in Lewis County.
The EDC’s pilot project looks to help municipalities invest those funds in a strategic fashion to ensure they’re getting the largest return on their investments. The real “meat and potatoes” of the work, as Chaput puts it, is packaging the infrastructure projects with a “dig once” mentality and lobbying the Legislature for matching dollars and grants through the capital budget.
It’s a multi-jurisdictional approach the organization is hoping brings a hefty return, and they’re hoping to bring the model forward at the next Legislative session, which will be a short one.
Lewis County and the City of Centralia have both already signed memorandums of understanding with the EDC, handing over more than $330,000 combined to cover costs for the EDC’s work over the next four years. One last MOU the EDC is pursuing is with the City of Chehalis. The City of Chehalis and the Port of Centralia have not come on board.
The EDC will help to direct $10 million in infrastructure, $4 million in mental health and around $10 million in Centralia-specific infrastructure — all funds allocated through ARPA. They’ve identified up to 700 projects that the funds could be utilized for.
DeBolt said the impetus for the pilot program came during a meeting with Lewis County leaders. The county was looking to figure out how it could spend its ARPA funds and didn’t want to take a shotgun approach to distributing the funds.
Then, the discussion with the county turned to culverts, DeBolt said. Lewis County has between 1,300 and 1,400 culverts that it needs to replace as part of a federal injunction a few years ago that says Washington state is responsible for removing culverts that act as barriers for fish passage. DeBolt, who served six years as ranking member on the House Capital Budget Committee, thought back to when state legislators decided to take a “watershed approach” in starting to replace $3.4 billion total in culverts.
“At the time, we said we want everything done in a watershed — from mountain to sea — approach and do it all at once and move the process forward. And that kind of dawned on me when we were sitting at this meeting, is that we could do our county like the culvert approach … Those dollars are federal and state, and they’re there,” DeBolt said.
When it comes to those dollars, DeBolt said, “That’s a lot of roads, that’s a lot of sewer, that’s a lot of broadband that we can put into those areas. It just seemed like a natural fit.”
Chaput, who’s also separately managing the work to construct the United Learning Center project in downtown Centralia and was hired on by the EDC, characterized the pilot project as “smart government.”
“There’s lots of efforts to reduce costs and increase efficiencies. People will see this. Your constituents, the people that live here, the taxpayers — they’re going to see these organizations, these communities, this county working together to maximize opportunities for Lewis County,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re left, right, up, down — you’re efficient and you’re doing smart government. If government’s going to be involved, we might as well make it as smart as we can.”
This process will largely be data-driven, Chaput said, and during the next steps they’ll be working with local municipalities to collect data on projects. He also displayed a project map that he’s hoping will go online sometime next month.
Chaput said prioritizing for capital projects in the Legislature for funding is based on three outcomes: it being multi-jurisdictional, a “last-mile” project and “dig-once.” Those, along with being shovel-ready, increase its attractiveness within the House Capital Budget Committee.
Fred Rider, sales engineer and safety director with ToledoTel, was among the few business representatives at the meeting. He said an investment such as this in Lewis County broadband is important.
“There is a definite need in almost all the rural areas in Lewis County,” he said. “Our goal is to make lives better for everyone in Lewis County, but you have to be willing to invest in your money and ensure your return.”
Rider said the largest hurdle to investing in fiber-optic internet in communities outside Toledo comes down to a simple, two-syllable word: money. The company’s expansion into Winlock, he said, is projected to cost the company around $35 million — almost twice the cost of infrastructure already invested in Toledo.
“For us to do that, we’d never break even. That’s connecting homes and laying fiber. We need those grants and the way we get that is through the county, the EDC, the PUD,” he said.
Despite its hefty price tag, bringing broadband to Winlock is still on the agenda, especially with the large growth it’s experiencing. Rider said ToledoTel is also looking to expand into the Boistfort Valley and east toward Packwood, but that may take years to complete.
“This project, the way that Richard and Todd have put this together, is kind of something that’s been needed for a long time,” Rider said. “This feels like something’s happening.”
Josh Metcalf, Lewis County Public Works director, said his department has put out a bid for a consultant to look at all the water and sewer needs within Lewis County, especially unincorporated areas.
It will also look at existing projects that are in the books.
From there, the county will develop a needs assessment that will be kicked over to the county commissioners for ARPA allocation consideration. Metcalf said he hopes to have a consultant on board next month.
“The (project) is going to be focused on clean water and drinking water, revolving funds that the state has in place. Both of those programs have a huge list of project opportunities, and that’s from consolidation of small systems to upgrading main lines to planning. So, we’ll really be looking in-depth at what projects are out there and how can we tie those together,” he said. “If we can tie two or three projects together and get them built as one, that’ll save us (not only) money but time as well.”