Get used to Spokane’s rough roads because they aren’t likely to be a smooth ride any time soon.
“What we need is money,” said Phil Williams, the city’s director of engineering and planning.
Lots and lots of money.
City officials say they need about $50 million - nearly half the city’s $112 million general government budget - to get the road system in good shape. And they need another $6 million a year for a resurfacing program to keep it that way.
City Council members are reluctant to ask voters to raise their property taxes to come up with the cash but say that may be the only way to attack the backlog.
“The only logical way is through a bond issue,” said Mayor Jack Geraghty. “We may have to take another try at asking people to come forward.”
“It may be the only answer,” said Councilman Orville Barnes. “But it’s not a very good answer.”
Time and time again, city officials have looked to outside sources to rescue streets from their current condition.
An increase in local gasoline taxes. An added license fee. A generous state Legislature or federal government.
Time and time again, those sources haven’t come through.
Meanwhile, heightened attention to public safety has squeezed more dollars from the city’s general fund for police and firefighters, sometimes at the expense of streets.
City officials recently have hinted at reversing that trend possibly siphoning money from other departments to find cash for roads. They warn such a shift won’t be easy.
“That means some other service won’t get done,” City Manager Bill Pupo said.
“Do we want to cut back on fire protection? Police protection?” said Geraghty. “I don’t think so.”
A decision about how to tackle the street crisis could be made during the next few months, city leaders said. Ideas abound about how to raise small pots of money, but there’s no specific plan in place.
“It isn’t that we haven’t been talking about it. We’ve been developing strategies,” Geraghty said, adding the council wanted to wait for the recent legislative session to wrap up before deciding what to do.
Legislators discussed increasing gas taxes and sending part of the revenue to local governments for roads, but dumped the plan before adjourning last month.
“The Legislature failed to take action this time,” Geraghty said, adding that Gov. Gary Locke has promised to make streets a priority next session.
South Hill resident Holly Shamburger would like to see a little more urgency on the city’s part. She smashed the oil pan on her red Nissan Quest minivan in a pothole on Regal in February.
“I’d be willing to pay more in taxes to get the roads fixed,” Shamburger said. “They need to do something. Soon.”
Bruce Steele doesn’t like to think about the 65 miles of main streets that need resurfacing and in some cases rebuilding.
“There’s just so much,” said the city’s transportation director. “I don’t have any idea how we can get to our backlog.”
City leaders are hoping voters are feeling more generous than last fall, when they rejected a proposed $37.3 million street bond last fall. And while the council is leery of trying another one, it’s one of the few options available for raising that kind of cash.
“That’s certainly on the plate,” Geraghty said.
He added the next bond issue would need to be voter-driven, not council-driven like last September’s failed bond. That’s the way a 1987 bond won voter approval, Geraghty said.
Councilwoman Roberta Greene said she thinks voters are ready to increase their taxes to fix the roads.
“I don’t know of any other year where there’s been so much discussion about potholes, to the point where people are stepping up and saying, ‘Let’s do something,”’ Greene said.
Barnes said he hates raising property taxes to pay for streets, but thinks it may be the only way to raise such a large sum.
“It puts the burden in the wrong place when it should be on the user,” Barnes said. “I’m a user-tax person.”
Before the Legislature bowed out on streets last month, council members talked about issuing bonds that don’t need voter approval. They planned to use the increased tax money to pay off the bonds.
Unless another reliable dollar source is found to pay them off, council-approved bonds aren’t a good option, said Pete Fortin, deputy city manager. “I wouldn’t recommend it.”
The city could try to win voter approval of a local business-and-occupation tax, said Williams, but history makes that unlikely. Voters repeatedly rejected the tax in the past, the last time in 1993 to hire new cops.
“That seems like a long shot,” he said, quickly adding that these are desperate times.
“What’s worrying me more than the condition of our streets now is the condition if the situation doesn’t change,” Williams said.
“You can always patch them if you spend enough time and enough money. But we’re spending precious maintenance dollars patching streets for the third time in the same spot.”
Smaller pots of money
City officials are considering at least four ways to come up with smaller sums of cash for streets.
These dollars could be used to pay off council-approved bonds or get rolling on a smaller resurfacing program.
The first two options - a 2.3-cent-per-gallon local gas tax and a $15 increase in the vehicle registration tax - need the blessing of voters or at least county commissioners.
Together they would raise from $2.5 million to $3 million each year for city streets - about half what is needed for ongoing repaving once the current problems are fixed.
The two taxes must be enacted countywide, so county roads also would get a boost.
While the gas tax requires a public vote, county commissioners can enact the motor vehicle tax without voter approval. That $15 fee would be added to the state’s motor vehicle excise tax paid each year by motorists when they renew their registrations. None of the current excise tax revenue goes to local governments for streets, but instead is spent on criminal justice and the state’s general fund.
Earlier attempts to put the two local taxes in place failed, with commissioners approving and then quickly rescinding the vehicle tax in 1991, and voters crushing the gas tax in 1993.
Commissioner Kate McCaslin recently said she wouldn’t support either tax without a public vote.
County Engineer Bill Johns asked commissioners last month to consider putting at least one of the taxes on this fall’s ballot. Council members and commissioners plan a meeting later this month to talk about the proposal.
Williams recently suggested two other ways to increase city spending on streets: Squeeze an extra $1 million a year from other city services, or set aside any new city revenues like increases in sales or utility tax receipts.
While council members won’t commit to that proposal, several members admitted it might be time to shift some spending priorities.
“Up until now … our priority has been public safety and our roads have suffered,” said Councilman Jeff Colliton.
“The people now are outraged about our streets,” Barnes said. “Maybe they would accept some changes.”
Timing is everything
During the next few weeks, council members must decide how to approach voters - chase the big dollars of a property tax bond or go after the smaller sums that a gas or motor vehicle tax would yield.
“You can’t throw a bond at people and also throw a gas tax,” Geraghty said. “It just won’t work.”
Gonzaga University law student Matthew Krigbaum hopes officials make some decisions and fast. He damaged his 1996 Infiniti when he hit a pothole on Monroe and he’s ready to pay higher taxes as long as they quickly improve the streets.
“I used to go up Monroe to miss the traffic on Division,” Krigbaum said. “Now I go up Division to miss Monroe.”
Meanwhile, taxpayer dollars are patching together crumbling streets. Crews are spreading thin overlays on some of the roughest spots, a method that smooths out a road’s washboard surface but only lasts about a year.
“That’s a short-term strategy, but no one’s ever going to remember we told them it wouldn’t last long,” Williams said.
City officials have a wish list of the streets they’d attack first if some money rolled their way.
One stretch of Monroe Street - which tops the list - will be rebuilt this summer from the downtown bridge north to Sinto Avenue with federal money for the Lincoln Street bridge project.
The next top tire-grabbers - Grand, Thor/Freya, Hamilton - must wait for more cash.
“We’re kind of at a point where we’ll take anything we can get,” Williams said.