A Derek Kilmer roundtable discussion

6th District congressman champions a fix for Gorst interchange mess, help for distressed communities and funding fish culverts

PORT ORCHARD — U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, the Democrat representing the 6th Congressional District in Congress, sat down Aug. 20 for a roundtable discussion with reporters from the Port Orchard Independent and Kitsap Daily News centering on issues of local and regional importance, including a solution to the Gorst traffic mess and federal funding to aid Washington state’s court-mandated fix of salmon blocking culverts.

The congressman also spoke in-depth of the heartbreaking morass of refugees attempting to flee the onrushing Taliban conquerers in Afghanistan and the Biden administration’s decision to leave that troubled country. A summary of Kilmer’s comments on that topic will appear in next week’s Independent.

Here is a condensed summary of Kilmer’s answers to questions from reporters, edited for clarity and brevity:

You’ve been at the front of a coalition of local and regional government leaders and business people advocating for a solution to fixing the Gorst Corridor congestion. With a price tag nearing a half-billion dollars, it seems likely the federal government will need to provide much of the funding for the project, alongside money provided by a state transportation funding package.

Kilmer: The Invest in America Act, which was the House version of the surface transportation bill that passed last month, included some big wins for our region … In that bill is some funding to start the ball rolling on the Gorst project and get some pre-design done so that we can see that interchange get fixed. We’ve helped develop this community coalition to focus on addressing the challenges at Gorst. You’ve got local government, the ports, the business community, the chambers of commerce, the Navy and the Tribes. Everybody’s at the table trying to figure out how we can get this done.

What’s been inspiring and exciting was that early on, there’s been a lot of years of study over this, and basically they’ve said, ‘Well, there’s a short-term answer, a mid-term answer and a long-term answer.’ What we all agreed on immediately is that the long-term answer needs to happen now. It doesn’t make sense for taxpayers and for our region to ducktape this when we should just get it done, particularly if the federal government can step up and the state government can step up with an infrastructure package. Let’s get this done.

Has the Navy weighed in on the project?

Kilmer: There’s a lot of things at play here. Any worker who sat in traffic and has been late to work because of that interchange wants to see this get done. The Navy really wants to see this get done, because when we sat down with Navy leadership, one of the things they said was that they were less concerned with traffic and more concerned with resilience. That is the main corridor to the West Coast’s only shipyard that can maintain carriers. God forbid that we have an earthquake or tsunami. There’s real concern about that.

How does the state fit into the funding equation?

Kilmer: I think the state has been reticent to pass additional transportation funding without knowing what’s coming from the federal government. So if and when the federal government — I hope it’s a ‘when’ and not an ‘if’ — passes an infrastructure bill, there will be greater clarity around how much is coming to the state of Washington. At that point, they can say, ‘We need to put more into the pot,’ or ‘are we getting enough from the federal government?’

It is good news, and I give Sen. Emily Randall [26th Legislative District state senator] a lot of credit for elevating this in Olympia and getting it into the transportation package, if they pass one. It’s on the list and it’s a real testament to her hard work in getting it on that list. But we’ve got to get it across the finish line.

What’s the latest on the federal infrastructure bill?

Kilmer: I’m hoping we see that infrastructure bill make it across by the end of the month. But stay tuned. Washington D.C. is a funky place sometimes. I think the majority of Congress and the President want to see it pass. I think it’s more likely than not that Congress will pass an infrastructure bill.

The Navy has identified a need to upgrade the nation’s four shipyards to meet its needs in the future.

Kilmer: The Navy has substantial infrastructure needs, particularly at the shipyard. There’s a substantial need for a new drydock so that they can maintain the next generation of carrier. That becomes a real issue in the beginning and middle of the next decade. That is why the Navy has identified this shipyard infrastructure optimization program and plans to invest in the four public shipyards around the country, including Puget. It is certainly a priority for me to ensure that they’re able to execute on that program, in part, because those investments are needed for them to be able to conduct their mission.

If you care about jobs in Kitsap County, you’ve got to care about the work that happens at the shipyard and in making sure they can continue to do that vital work. That means we’ve got to make the investments in that infrastructure.

You were a sponsor of The Recompete (The Rebuilding Economies and Creating Opportunities for More People Everywhere to Excel) Act, which would establish a federal block grant program to assist perennially distressed communities with grants to meet their economic development needs. What was your motivation in sponsoring this bill?

Kilmer: The RECOMPETE Act is a big bipartisan bill that we’ve introduced that is focused on trying to help communities that are getting left behind economically. We’ve seen a huge concentration of job creation happening in a very small handful of communities around the country. Ninety percent of the job creation is happening in 10% of the zip codes in our country. You’ve got one in six Americans living in zip codes that have fallen behind not just where they were pre-pandemic, but behind where they were in the year 2000. Those communities are all over the country, but there’s a large concentration of them in the district I represent.

The proposal we put together is for some flexible long-term, 10-year support to communities that have faced persistent economic challenges. I represent a lot of areas, including areas of Kitsap County, that have consistently struggled. And so the rationale behind this bill is, OK, let’s give them some help.

I grew up in Port Angeles. The mill where my brother worked shut in 1997 and still is a derelict site behind a chainlink fence. So they’ve got brownfield cleanup to do and they’ve got workforce issues. If you’re out in Forks, they have issues — they need internet access. So, different communities have different needs.

You spoke some about the Invest in America Act. What other regional projects will it help fund?

Kilmer: One of the biggest wins for our region was the culvert fund — a billion dollars for the culverts. These are predominantly under roads and they’re blocking fish passage. The fact that we got funding in the Invest Act, the fact that every member of the Washington delegation supported that effort, and the fact that Sen. Cantwell secured it on the Senate side, is a really good sign that we’re getting something across the finish line. For me, this is about helping salmon recover, which is important for our economy, it’s important for tribal rights, but it’s also important for taxpayers because this is an obligation they lost from a lawsuit that asked the federal government to step up and be a partner in addressing this culvert problem. I think this is a big deal.

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer says a coordinated approach to funding a fix for the Gorst interchange congestion will take a cooperative approach by federal and state government leaders. (Bob Smith | Kitsap Daily News)

U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer says a coordinated approach to funding a fix for the Gorst interchange congestion will take a cooperative approach by federal and state government leaders. (Bob Smith | Kitsap Daily News)