by Pia K. Hansen

By now we've all heard City Hall's edition of the street repair story: if we don't approve the $50 million street repair bond when the special election rolls around on March 12, the streets are just going to fall apart, that's all, and we'll all be commuting in tractors.

Public officials all seem to have their own version of how much money the city is already spending on streets. Mayor John Powers says we're spending about $7 million on the roads every year. Public works director Roger Flint -- and the city's newly published street bond flier -- says we're spending $3.5 million. But if you look in the city's budget, you'll find that the street fund totals more than $14 million a year. So who's right?

Of all the general fund services, which are paid for by taxes and court fines, streets come in as the fourth-largest expenditure after the police department, the fire department and the allocation to the parks in the city's budget. This budget year, that allocation consists of $7,871,823 from the general fund going to the street fund.

"Yes, that does cover repair but it also covers a lot of other areas of street maintenance," says Richard G. Cook, director of finance for the city of Spokane. "It covers signs and markers, snow removal and sweeping and street lights and things like that."

But wait a minute -- the street fund totals $14,790,956 this year, so where does the other $7 million come from? "Most of that is from the state," says Cook. Specifically, the street fund gets about $2.9 million per year in gas tax revenues from the state. It also gets an injection of $1.3 million from the excise tax.

If you look into the city budget a little deeper, you'll find a hefty line item called the "arterial street fund." While the street fund is for maintenance only, the "arterial" street fund is for capital projects such as the construction of entirely new streets, or the renovation of the Monroe Street Bridge. In 2001, the city's arterial street fund received $6.6 million from the state, says Cook. It totals just around $20 million, $11.8 million of which consist of indirect federal grants for highway construction. And no, this money cannot be used to fix potholes.

"The best way to distinguish between the two is to remember that the street fund would provide for maintenance-type expenditures, like road maintenance [potholes], street lighting and parking meters," says Cook. "The arterial street fund is a capital projects fund that provides for construction-type projects."

In other words, according to the city, there is only $3.5 million available for pothole repair, and that simply doesn't go nearly far enough. An estimated $180 million worth of cracks, potholes, worn-out and crumbling asphalt has clogs up Spokane's 234 miles of arterial and 612 miles of residential streets. And it's these repairs that Flint must fix with $3.5 million a year. Meanwhile, he is telling City Hall that wear-and-tear alone adds up to $7 million every year. Clearly, Flint's pothole crews are fighting a losing battle.

The big question is who is going to foot the bill for the repairs? The state is fairly broke, as Olympia is calculating the newest estimate of the budget deficit. The tabulations currently end somewhere around $1.4 billion. Just this week, Gary Locke and other governors pleaded with President George W. Bush to restore some of the cuts he is proposing to the federal government's share of transportation funding. So where does the famous buck stop? If city officials get their way, it stops with property taxpayers, right here in Spokane.

The city council unanimously backed the proposed $50 million, 10-year bond issue. This bond would add approximately $72 per $100,000 assessed property value to a homeowner's annual property taxes. If the bond passes, the city would be able to spend $10 million a year over the next five years on road repairs -- and not on anything else.

The city has already identified 12 major repair projects that would account for $15 million of the coveted funds. The rest of the money would be allocated to other repairs on an ongoing basis.

"The money can be used for absolutely nothing else," Flint told The Inlander two weeks ago. "And we'll provide progress reports so people can know exactly how the money is being spent." The $50 million is by no means enough to fix all the streets -- it's just enough to get started -- but it'll stem the worst decay. And city administrators say they'll have to come back and ask for more once this money is spent.

On any public funding vote, the city cannot spend any money campaigning, but the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce has come out in support of the funding. So has U.S. Senator Patty Murray.

"Transportation funding is not just about quality of life and reducing traffic congestion, it's also about promoting safety and creating jobs," Murray said during her visit to Spokane last week. "I'm pleased to see Spokane committed to transportation funding by moving forward with the city's $50 million bond measure. Good roads and good jobs go hand in hand."

There's also a grassroots group called Save Our Streets that's promoting the bond issue in direct mailings to voters, but that's all the organized support the bond issue has generated.

The special city of Spokane street repair bond election is Tuesday, March 12, 7 am-8 pm at your usual polling place.

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