PORT ORCHARD — U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, Kitsap County’s 6th District congressman, had the welcome mat rolled out for him March 1 by Mayor Rob Putaansuu and Mark Dorsey, the city’s public works director, so he could get an in-progress look at what soon will become Port Orchard’s gateway to the city: a newly widened, accentuated Tremont Street.
Putaansuu and Dorsey gave Kilmer a rolling tour through what has been one of the city’s three high-volume arterials that connect to SR 16. Tremont Street, usually a congested connector road carrying commuters from the state highway to Port Orchard Boulevard and Bethel Avenue, is now a zig-zag of trenches, dirt, utility pipes and construction machinery.
It’s undergoing a $22 million revitalization, during which it will be widened to four lanes and updated with new utilities, sidewalks, transit stops and landscaping.
When the Tremont project is completed early next year, it not only should ease commuter congestion but will provide the city an attractive, inviting “welcome mat” to visitors and residents entering Port Orchard.
Putaansuu calls Tremont a “gateway project.” Kilmer, who spent a decade working in the economic development field, prefers to call transportation entryways such as Tremont “front porches.”
“You’re trying to attract new residents and businesses by having a front porch that’s welcoming,” he said. “It matters.”
The mayor and public works director drove Kilmer and Kate Irwin, the congressman’s district representative, on a weaving detour to Tremont’s construction ground zero between the intersections at Pottery Avenue and South Kitsap Boulevard.
Looking like a roadwork battleground, the area bears little resemblance to its former two-lane configuration. The asphalt road has been ripped away so that utility trenches can be dug into the bare ground before the new surface is laid above it.
After the officials stopped to inspect the site, Dorsey described the complicated funding formula the city had to cobble together so the Tremont project could become a reality.
“We received $3 million in federal grant funding at the beginning, then another $1.7 million (from the Kitsap Regional Coordinating Council funding program) to begin the construction,” Dorsey said. “We got the biggest funding ever from the TIB ($8 million from the Washington State Transportation Improvement Board).”
Putaansuu noted that the city obtained $6 million in bond funding to complete the project’s financial package.
The mayor, City Council members and Dorsey all carry battle scars from the funding wars fought over the past several years. The federal infusion of money in 2005 was used to pay for designs, environmental review studies and right-of-way acquisition. But, as is the case with money from the feds, there were strings attached.
If the city wasn’t able to complete its funding package and begin construction last year, Putaansuu said the federal government would have required Port Orchard to repay the $3 million in already-spent funds.
Port Orchard’s commitment to the Tremont project with obligating a large chunk of its debt capacity through bonding was instrumental in convincing the state TIB why the city needed such a large contribution.
“This took all of our horsepower. Believe me, we didn’t leave any stone unturned. We made sure that we put all the tools in play that were available to us,” Putaansuu said.
“And there were tough decisions. We imposed impact fees. We imposed the car (tab fee) tool, which was available to us. We put those into play because we had to tell a story (to the TIB) that we’ve done everything we could, and we needed their help.
“And it worked out.”
Dorsey said the TIB’s $8 million contribution to the project was that agency’s largest-ever to a municipality.
“We’re limiting ourselves greatly on what we can do (through debt capacity),” he said, “because we didn’t want to have to pay the money back to the feds, and this was one of the top needs of our community.”
Dorsey said the city’s financial commitment was a tipping point in convincing TIB to contribute funds to the Port Orchard project.
“That was the one thing, in my opinion, that took Port Orchard rising to the top of that funding cycle,” he said.
“This is a sign that the city no longer has its head in the sand, but is stepping up to the table. We’re now to be reckoned with. The TIB awarding $8 million to Port Orchard is huge.”
While the federal funding contribution was critical to the project getting off the ground, the public works director said he was cognizant that any project misstep could hamper the fed’s future participation in future projects.
“With a project like this, we can prove that we can perform. That will help us in dealing with (a future) Bethel or Sedgwick (project) because, you know, you can be invited back to the big table. If you botch a federal project, you’re done. That’s the reality.”
Kilmer said the Tremont work is “a big project for a little town like Port Orchard.” The congressman said his agenda is to ensure that communities in the 6th District he represents benefit from federal transportation funds that are made available.
While President Trump’s administration says it wants to introduce an initiative to improve the nation’s infrastructure through a massive projects bill, Kilmer said it’s uncertain Congress will take up the issue.
“There’s some doubt whether Congress is going to do an infrastructure bill,” Kilmer said.
“I think there’s a strong appetite for it because we have a lot of failing infrastructure in this country … It’s something that Democrats and Republicans largely agree on, that you have to have roads and bridges that work, you got to have sewers and have plans for improving capacity, and you have to have rural broadband.
“The specifics get more challenging … it’s still challenged by the fact that Congress just isn’t a legislative juggernaut these days. My agenda is to make sure that if Congress takes up this issue — and I hope it does — that the communities I represent benefit from it. It doesn’t do us any good if it’s just mega-projects.”
Kilmer said there’s “anxiety” among some legislators that the president’s aim is to change the formula for how the federal government would budget its funding contribution to states and localities. He said the feds may look to become a smaller contributor as a way to leverage state and local investment.
“That works in states and localities that have a lot of debt capacity, where you have a lot of financial resources,” Kilmer said.
He said this “carrot on a string” approach wouldn’t work, however, for small towns and cities, and areas that have been bypassed by the prosperity experienced by cities such as Seattle.
The congressman said he had a discussion prior to the tour with the mayor about some of the other economic development projects Putaansuu is pursuing.
“I think it’s really exciting,” he said. “I take the old Russell Wilson Super Bowl-year slogan, ‘Why not us?’ There’s a real opportunity here, and I think the city has done some really smart planning and some smart investment to prime that pump.”