By Jennifer Henion
Triplicate staff writer
The news was not good from U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson yesterday as he delivered a short speech and answered questions from local officials and businessowners.
The congressman informed his audience that federal budget problems currently cost the U.S. $1 billion per day in interest on the country's national debt. And it's a problem that will affect Del Norte County and every other community.
"Any light at the end of the tunnel has been dampened by unrealistic expectations," Thompson said, referring to the Bush administration's spending policies and the cost of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Still, Dewayne Reichlin, President of Snoozie Shavings trucking company and Hambro Forest Products, asked Thompson how Del Norte can get the $105 million it needs to improve Highway 199 to allow commercial traffic and improve the economy here.
Kara Miller of Dalstrom and Watt lily bulb producers also emphasized the need to improve Highway 199, Del Norte's only link to California's Interstate-5 corridor.
"We need to find a way to get trucks in here economically, so we can get our products out," Miller told Thompson.
Susan Morrison, director of the Local Transportation Commission also underlined the importance of getting repair money from the federal government for the highway, as did Del Norte County Supervisor Chuck Blackburn.
Thompson, who was recently added to the congressional committee for transportation, said there is no way to get that much money for one project that would only help northern Californians.
"The reality is, the money is not there," he said.
Each congressional district in the country will get about $20 million each for transportation. Thompson's district runs from the Oregon border to Sacramento.
He said even if Southern Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Springfield) promised his district's $20 million allocation, another $80 million would still be needed to fix the problems of the highway.
Thompson did say that Highway 199 repairs and dredging of the Crescent City Harbor are on the top of his list.
But, he said, in light of the costly military actions in the Middle East, finding other sources of revenue for the country is the top priority now of the U.S. Congress.
Leading the list of ideas is another hike in gasoline tax, he said, and a halt on tax cuts.
"An increase in gas tax is a popular idea right now and it has bipartisan support. It makes it tough to support when we live in an area with the highest gas prices," Thompson said.
He said the country is now spending $4 billion on the war effort. That money was not budgeted for, he said, and it is uncertain how much more will be spent.
Thompson did agree to help the county improve the local airport.
Upon the urging of Del Norte County Supervisor David Finigan, Thompson agreed to work with U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer with legislation to exempt Del Norte and other small counties from paying a 10 percent match for Federal Aviation Administration grant funds.
Currently, Del Norte County is eligible for $10 million from the FAA to improve the Crescent City Airport. But because the county is required to match the funds with 10 percent of the total, the county has not collected the millions.
After the short meeting at the Washington Boulevard fire station, Thompson was taken to Gasquet, riding with Hambro truck driver Tim Reichlin through the narrowest sections of Highway 199.
Reichlin showed Thompson three areas of rock wall along the serpentine roadway that, if cut back, could make the road safe enough for the 70-foot trucks needed to allow more commercial hauling between Crescent City and the I-5 corridor.
Currently, 63-foot-long trucks are the longest vehicles allowed there.
Dewayne Reichlin said the shorter trucks can't haul as much as 70-footers and, so, can't compete with other companies in Grants Pass and other cities on Interstate 5.