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Cities still lag in road maintenance

Cities still lag in road maintenance

Washington cities continue to suffer from a road maintenance and preservation shortfall of $1 billion annually according to local government officials and advocates testifying at a June 22 meeting of the Joint Transportation Committee (JTC); the issue was initially revealed in a report released almost two years ago.

Although city elected officials seek expanded or extended local revenue options, they also hope to secure additional funding from the state via a new transportation package.

Washington’s 281 cities not only include 65 percent of the state’s population but also 25,000 miles of roads and 750 bridges – a total of 26 percent of all statewide travel lanes. To fund road maintenance, preservation, and improvements, cities use a variety of revenue options including a local sales tax, vehicle fees, utility tax, impact fees, and transportation benefit districts (TBDs). That local funding accounts for 79 percent of city transportation spending, with 13 percent coming from the state and eight percent from federal funding.

A city can also fund road needs through its general fund. However, overall, cities appropriate just 11 percent of budget spending on local transportation.

“There are a lot of competing needs and not much in the way of dedicated funding for transportation within cities,” Association of Washington Cities Government Relations Director Candice Bock told the JTC. “It’s competing with the rest of that pie. Not surprisingly, we’re not keeping up.”

Bock noted that on top of maintenance, cities are also trying to improve infrastructure to keep up with population growth. But that only adds to the transportation demands. While maintaining a mile of pavement costs $1 million, adding a mile in an urban setting costs $16 million dude to other things that include utility infrastructure.

“It’s more than just pavement,” Bock said.

While the state has an estimated $925 million shortfall in road maintenance and preservation, Tacoma City Councilmember Kristina Walker told JTC that Tacoma alone has a $348 million shortfall in deferred maintenance, adding that the $17.5 million generated for transportation by local revenue sources “seem like a drop in the bucket” compared to the actual needs. The typical city already dedicates 37 percent of its transportation spending on road maintenance and preservation.

“Much of what we have in our general fund is dedicated already to preexisting projects and regulatory compliance issues,” Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle told the JTC. “We have a backlog of everything. Due to Covid we delayed a lot of work because were unsure of the funding opportunity. That is true of every city in the state.”

She added that as the city continues to grow there is additional need for sidewalks, raised crosswalks, and bike lanes. Vancouver currently funds local transportation with its share of the state real estate excise tax (REET), a TBD, impact fees, and a business license surcharge.

Tacoma also hopes to expand its local multimodal system. But Walker said at the current funding rate, that will take 140 years to accomplish.

McEnerny-Ogle told JTC members that the new transportation package should include not only local revenue options for cities but also dedicated funding for maintenance. That package is also anticipated to pay for the replacement of the I-5 Bridge that crosses Vancouver into Portland – another local priority.

“We want to be able to get the freight over the I-5 bridge, off I-5, into our port,” McEnerny-Ogle said. “That’s a challenge.”

During the 2020 legislative session, Local Government Committee Vice Chair Davina Duerr (D-1), sponsored HB 2804 which would have increased the state’s contribution to the Local Revitalization Financing (LRF) program. Created by the legislature in 2009, the program permits cities and counties to pay for improvement projects within certain areas with the new tax revenue generated inside it. The bill failed to clear the legislature.

Also during this year’s legislative session, Rep. Bob McCaslin (R-4) introduced HB 1137 which adds resiliency to the state’s transportation system policy goals. The bill cleared the legislature and was signed by Governor Jay Inslee. It takes effect on July 25.

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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