ELLENSBURG, Wash. — The state’s roads need work and if they don’t get it soon, farmers trying to move their crops to market will definitely notice.
Asking for urgency, Gov. Jay Inslee called Tuesday for the Legislature to pass legislation that would fix the state’s ailing roads and bridges.
“I’m here to report to you that we are in deep, deep trouble,” Inslee said in his keynote address to the annual Economic Outlook Conference at Central Washington University.
Later in the day in Yakima, Inslee said in an interview that he will meet with legislators today in Olympia to see if an agreement can be reached on a transportation package.
Inslee said he has not made a decision about whether to call a special session next month. He has repeatedly said he will only call it if he has the votes to pass the legislation, which would have to include a revenue source such as a gas-tax hike.
“There has to be some source of revenues,” he said. “Hopefully, we get together and figure that out.”
In Ellensburg, Inslee headlined a collection of elected officials, economists and industry representatives discussing the future of the state’s economy. About 160 people attended at the conference, hosted by the university’s College of Business.
Inslee said the collapse several months ago of an Interstate 5 bridge in Skagit County, along with cuts to bus service across the state, will put more drivers on the road. It’s one example of the need for a bipartisan transportation funding package for maintenance, he said.
“It’s going to hit the ag industry next year,” he predicted.
Inslee also talked up his other initiatives to improve the economy and boost job creation. Among them: an increased emphasis on science and technology education in schools; improving the business environment through continually improving the permitting and tax processes; encouraging all areas of the state to find a role in the aerospace industry; and investing in green energy.
“We know what we can do in this state when we embrace innovation,” he said.
Other speakers touched on the state and national economy, as well as trends affecting agriculture.
Washington apple growers will need to develop bigger markets for their fruit in the coming years, said Todd Fryhover, the president of the Washington Apple Commission, as part of a panel addressing farming trends.
Fryhover said big apple crops are coming from the East Coast and Mexico, among other places. That will squeeze local growers.
“It’s going to be a scary marketplace,” Fryhover said.
Building relationships with large markets such as China and with consumers who use technology to make food-purchasing decisions is essential, he said.
Hay growers, too, must confront the importance of a rapidly diversifying global market, said Loren Lentz, president of the Washington State Hay Growers Association.
Japan used to be virtually the sole destination for Washington hay, but China, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have been increasing their purchases, finding it cheaper to import hay for cattle, horse and camel feed than grow it themselves, Lentz said
John Mitchell, a Portland economic consultant who speaks every year at the conference, delivered cautiously optimistic news that the U.S. economy is improving five years after the recession.
“It’s growing, but it’s growing slow,” he said.
Same goes for the state economy, said Steve Lerch, executive director and chief economist of the Washington State Economic Forecast and Revenue Council.
With construction leading the way, employment is rising in most Washington industries, he said, and state revenue collections have returned to pre-recession levels.
After the conference, Inslee headed to Manastash Creek, where he heralded a project to restore flows to an area that dries up.
Construction started last month on the $3.8 million project to convert several miles of Yakima River diversion ditches to pressurized pipe, conserving water that will be used for farming and to make the creek passable for migrating salmon, steelhead and other fish.
The Manastash Creek improvements have been planned for 12 years but are heralded as the first construction project of the 30-year Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan.
“I’m proud this is the first bill I passed as governor of Washington,” he said.
The bill set aside $132 million, mostly for the purchase of private timberland in upper Kittitas County.
Overall, the plan calls for up to $5 billion in improvements.
Inslee was joined at the podium — and in autographing a section of blue pipe — by irrigation district officials and Johnson Meninick, cultural resources program manager for the Yakama Nation.
Meninick opened the ceremony with a prayer in the Yakama language, a song and bell ringing.
“Everything is important on this land,” Meninick said. “Nothing is unimportant.”
Farmers, too, shared in the excitement about Manastash Creek.
“I don’t look at it as a victory, I look at it as an accomplishment,” said Clarence Harrell, a hay and Sudan grass grower.
And he’s excited for the future. His sons and a grandson, the fourth and fifth generations since the family settled the land, are already taking over much of his business.
“When we’d leave here we’d like to have something we did right,” he said.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the pricetag of the Manastash project.
• Rafael Guerrero contributed to this report.
• Ross Courtney can be reached at 509-930-8798 or firstname.lastname@example.org.