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A $50 Million Problem 

by Pia K. Hansen


Bump, bang -- there goes the front-end alignment again. Welcome to a casual drive on the rugged streets of Spokane, where potholes the size of small backpacks make any commute feel more like a ride on the outback than in the second-largest city in Washington state.


Last year, city officials said Spokane had a backlog of road repairs worth an estimated $160 million; this year, the total comes in at around $180 million.


"The problem grows exponentially," says Roger Flint, director of the city's public works and utilities department. "It grows very quickly from something that can be fixed easily to something that can't be."


To tackle some of the repairs, the city has proposed a $50 million bond -- it'll be on the ballot on March 12 -- and there's already a lot of head-shaking going on. Not only is this the biggest street repair bond the city has ever asked for, but the last street repair bond to pass was back in 1987. And it's not as if the city hasn't asked voters for money since: this will be the fourth attempt at passing a street repair bond since '87 -- the last one was for $15 million.


Today, even a $50 million bond is just a pebble in the gravel pit.


"This bond won't fix all the streets in Spokane. The $50 million will allow us to start maintaining the streets on an annual basis, so they won't slide any further into disrepair," says Flint. "If we don't get it, I can guarantee you that it won't get any better. That I can absolutely promise you."


Trying to pass a $50 million bond on such short notice is quite a challenge. No grassroots group has stepped forward to support the bond issue, and the city is not allowed to spend any money on campaigning.


"I guess my biggest concern is that voters will look at the list of projects and go: 'There's nothing getting fixed in my neighborhood, so I won't vote for the bond,'" says Flint. "But about 60 percent of the bond will go toward fixing arterials. Those are the streets that we all use the most. I think there's something in it for everyone."


Because the backlog of road repair is so huge, the city has had to pick out only 12 very specific road repair sites. To keep voters informed on road repair progress, it promises quarterly updates.


On the list of guaranteed repairs are nine on the North Side, one downtown and two projects on the South Side -- for instance, Northwest Boulevard from Lindeke to Maple (at $778,000), Wellesley Avenue from G Street to Normandie (at $1,596,000) and Freya Street from 37th Avenue to 12th Avenue (at $1,477,000).


What's somewhat unusual about this bond proposal is that the city council backed it unanimously. There was some talk about dividing the money according to city council districts -- with one-third going to each district -- but in the end, city staff got to pick the projects.


Some voters will likely question whether the bond dollars are going to cover other city expenses -- like bailing out River Park Square -- but the city has an answer ready to that one, too.


"The money can be used for absolutely nothing else," says Flint. "And we'll provide progress reports, so people can know exactly how the money is being spent."


If the bond passes, it will raise property taxes for a $100,000 home by an estimated $72 per year. But the bond still covers only about one-third of the total amount needed to fix the streets -- why not ask for the entire sum once and for all?


"We were afraid that most people wouldn't be able to afford it, if we asked for the full amount at one time," says City Administrator Jack Lynch. "Are we going to come back and ask for more? Yes, we are -- we have to. This bond is only the first increment." Lynch says that passing the bond now is an especially good idea, because interest rates are low.


"We'd be able to borrow the money at only 4 percent," says Lynch. "That's the lowest rate in four years."





Doing it right - In each of the past 10 years, the city has spent about $3.5 million of its budget on fixing city streets, at a cost of somewhere between $18 and $80 a yard. But wear-and-tear alone is estimated at $7 million every year.


Few things feel so good under your tires as a virginal stretch of new, smooth black asphalt -- but how come it doesn't seem to last any longer? Many are questioning if the city really knows what it's doing when its crews are out there fixing potholes.


"We do know how to fix it right," says Flint, looking a little tired of answering that question. "We just don't have the money. We do a lot of Band-Aids that are only designed to last a year or two. The public thinks we've done a completely new road, but in reality we have only done a very large pothole patch." If a stretch of road is completely pockmarked by mini-craters, crews grind up the uppermost layer of the street and then resurface it with new asphalt. That looks and feels great for a while, but underlying ruts, grooves and cracks soon work their way through the new surface. Once water seeps into the cracks, potholes soon start to form. In a few years, we're back where we started.


Sealing cracks in the streets is relatively cheap and it may prolong the road's lifespan by another 10 years.


"We are always looking at how to get the best bang for the public's buck," says Flint. Every option is considered when a street needs repair. For now, since no one knows if the bond is going to pass, Flint says his staff isn't going to spend any more time on potential street-repair projects.


"That would be wasting the taxpayers' money as well," he says.


Street engineers say that cement is by far the most durable material for road construction -- but also the most expensive. According to the Washington Department of Transportation, part of I-90 between Division and Havana is the original concrete freeway that was put down in 1957. Some new intersections, like the one at 17th Avenue and Ray Street, have been built in concrete.


As the streets fall apart, they are being watched closely. That helps to prioritize the repairs when money becomes available.


"[Crews] go out and rate the pavement and put all the data into a database," says Flint. "We know where the bad spots in town are. But we also know where the good spots are. We have a lot of money invested in our infrastructure. We should keep it up."





plan B - Passing the street bond is the only street repair plan put forth by the city at this time. There is no backup, no rainy day scenario, no safety net.


"If the bond doesn't pass, we'd have to continue to do the best we can with about $3 million a year," says Flint.


Some city council members are in favor of a street utility tax, but implementing that requires a change to the state constitution. Bills to that effect are circulating in the legislature, but more focus is on the governor's $14 billion transportation plan.


A gas tax increase is the centerpiece of that plan, and half the proceeds from that would be sent to local municipalities, like cities and counties.


Former Spokane Mayor John Talbott has repeatedly told the city council that it needs to change the city charter and allocate a specific percentage of the budget to road repairs, which is how the parks budget is funded. But it is an option that currently doesn't seem to have any support at city hall.


If the bond passes, the city may be able to get some matching state and federal funds, but administrators are uncertain how much extra funding would be available that way.


Mayor John Powers backs the bond proposal 100 percent, although he realizes the public has to overcome some distrust in the city's government to sign the $50 million check.


"This plan holds the city accountable for delivering what's being promised," said Powers when the plan was unveiled last week. "The repair of Ray Street is a good example of how the city delivers, and we are going to do that over and over again."
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