There are 234 miles of arterials and 612 miles of residential streets in Spokane, and, yes, most of them are slowly crumbling away under cars, buses and trucks every day. By the latest estimate, the city needs about $200 million to fix the backlog of street repair. That's up $20 million since 2002.
The city does not have $200 million, so it's going to have to find a way of raising it sooner than later. It's estimated that every year that passes with minimal road maintenance and repair, another $7 million worth of just plain wear-and-tear damage is added to the streets.
There are only so many places where the city can look for funding. The state is fairly broke, and the federal government isn't looking too flush either. The city does receive about $2.9 million in gas tax revenues from the state and about $1.3 million from the state excise tax, but that doesn't even take it halfway toward paying for wear and tear. A statewide gas tax initiative failed, and it probably won't have a lot of support today, considering that gas is hitting $2 a gallon.
"The bottom line is that the residential streets are crumbling," says Brian Murray, state senator and policy research advisor for Mayor Jim West. "There is no federal funding for residential streets, and we don't want to do a B & amp;O tax. That would make it so much harder for us to compete with Post Falls and North Idaho for business."
A street utility tax was brought up last year, but that was deemed unconstitutional according to the state's constitution.
"It could potentially work out," says Murray, "but it still has to go through the legislature. The problem is that for us to fix all the street problems with such a tax, the tax amount would be unbearable for some businesses." He adds that a street utility tax could work for ongoing maintenance funding later, after the city has gotten rid of the backlog of repairs that's currently there.
So what's left? You guessed it: a street bond.
Last week, Mayor West said voters can anticipate a street repair bond on one of the special ballots in early 2005. That would make it possible to float the bonds and get some of the repairs done over next summer.
But it's going to be a hard sell. To help prepare an initiative voters may be willing to support, Murray has taken the leadership for yet another street committee: The Citizens Advisory Committee for Street Repair.
"At our meeting last week, we talked a lot about public outreach. There's a perception that the street department isn't managing its money well enough, but the truth is that they do a lot with very little money," says Murray. "We have to rebuild citizens' trust in our ability to do a good job and be accountable for what we do."
Marilyn Akerhielm is a member of the committee who lives in the Rockwood neighborhood and has quite a history with Spokane's street issues. "I've been on the street committee before this and the one before that as well," she says. "That's where we came up with the street utility that didn't work out. Right now, we are focused on a bond issue for spring of 2005. I know the other bond issues haven't done well, so I'm just hoping the third time is the charm."
Akerhielm lives near 29th Avenue, and for her, traffic-calming devices such as speed bumps are high on the wish list.
"I have 'traffic-calming' written across my forehead," she says with a little laugh. "I figure that if we set out to really fix up the streets, we might as well do traffic-calming at the same time. Most importantly, we need money to make better streets. It's that simple."
But street bonds traditionally haven't done well in Spokane. Former Mayor John Powers proposed a $50 million bond in March 2002. The measure was soundly defeated by voters.
That led to the city council issuing $15 million in councilmanic bonds last year, earmarked for street repair. That money is paying for the current repair of the Freya Bridge and also will pay for the total refurbishing of Third Avenue in conjunction with the installment of a new water main.
Murray hesitates to name a dollar amount for the new street bond.
"Part of that depends on how much bonding capacity the city has left," he says. "Currently, we're looking at $140 million to $150 million left in bonding capacity. Perhaps we should ask for $100 million and say give us $10 million a year and we'll show everyone what we are doing for it."
For now, the citizens' committee is working on forming a public outreach campaign, or perhaps surveying citizens to find out what they'd really like to see done to the streets.
"We need to put forth a long-range plan, explaining how we are going to spend the money," says Murray. "Doing about $10 million worth of repairs every year is about as much as we can do without clogging traffic up completely. Developing a long-term vision will also help citizens see what they get and make it clear where the money is going."
Murray is optimistic that a street bond, if developed this way, could gain voter support. "Aside from standing on the corner with a hat, there isn't anything else we can do," he says.
The citizens' committee holds its next meeting on Wednesday, June 2, at 4:30 pm in the Downtown Library auditorium.