While everyone seems to enjoy the photos and stories that document the week to week progress to reopen the North Cascades Highway every spring - there are questions about the costs that come up every year. This year is no different so I'm sharing some of the details and the rationale and we welcome your comments.
Here's an example - we have three pieces of equipment with operators coming to work to help us for the next couple of weeks to clear the tall snow accumulations at the foot of the avalanche chutes from Cutthroat Ridge to the "Big 4" at Liberty Bell Mountain, just below Washington Pass. We have a giant Bombardier Snow Cat , a D-6 and a D-8 Caterpillar that we contracted with Lloyd Logging of Twisp to provide. We budget for it every spring, because it's cheaper than buying Caterpillars to use for 2 weeks a year. We got bids from 3 contractors, this year, and Lloyd's was lowest. That was fine with us, since they've gotten the contract before and have experienced operators.
At the same time that I'm answering questions about why we're spending gas tax money, renting equipment to reopen the North Cascades quickly, I'm answering questions about why we're not investing more resources into reopening SR 542, the Mount Baker Highway to Artist's Point or SR 504, the Mount Saint Helens Highway to the Coldwater Visitor Center.
Here's the answer: WSDOT does indeed have to do a cost benefit determination on our work to reopen highways to places that aren't "connectors". In the case, for instance, of the North Cascades -it connects the Skagit and Methow Valleys and (SR 410) Chinook Pass connects Enumclaw, Mt. Rainier and the Yakima Valley. The economic impact of those highway openings easily justifies the effort and surprisingly low costs to do the work. Reopening the highway to Artist's Point and the St. Helens Visitor Center is certainly a priority, but putting a Kodiak from Stevens Pass (if it's even available when they'd need it) onto a low boy and trucking it to Bellingham or Toledo for a couple days work is an expensive proposition, when using the equipment they've already got just means it's going to take a couple more days to get it open. Two or three days versus several thousand dollars may not pencil out well and we are required to be good stewards of the gas tax money we all pay.
In a related note, there's an assumption that use of WSDOT equipment is somehow "free". Here's the real story: Because we have to replace every vehicle when it wears out - part of each shed's maintenance budget (every day) goes to an Equipment Fund. HQ charges, by the hour, for each plow truck, loader, grader, excavator, snow blower, pickup or car whenever it's in use. When we surplus and sell a vehicle that has hit it's predetermined "useful life" - there's money in that account to buy the replacement. (This system beats the doors off the old program where we had to go to the legislature every two years and pray they would replace the used-up vehicles - which sometimes, they didn't - and we'd be stuck with junk that could no longer do the job.)
Is this how you'd do it?
Note: I want to make sure writing credits go to Jeff Adamson who handles the weekly progress updates via the Web site and via e-mail update (look for the mailing list link on the North Cascades page to sign up).