Motorists throughout Spokane County log more than 11 million miles a day, according to regional transportation officials. They do so over roads that they often malign because of potholes, ruts and other signs of deterioration.
With local streets and highways suffering from a maintenance backlog valued at $40 million and growing, it’s time to get serious about creating a countywide transportation benefit district.
Although conversations have been going on for the past two years, elected officials in several of the affected jurisdictions are wary. Fortunately, the issue figures prominently on the agenda for the Council of Governments’ September meeting, and none too soon.
Around the city of Spokane, many neighborhoods are enjoying smooth new asphalt surfaces, thanks to a 10-year bond issue. City officials boast, justifiably, that the projects came in ahead of schedule and under budget.
But how those new streets will be maintained is a concern. Fuel taxes, historically a major source of street and highway funding, are sputtering. Pump prices may rise, but tax revenues go up only if usage does, and cars today need fewer gallons.
Here in Washington, according to the state’s Joint Transportation Committee, per capita gasoline consumption has been on the decline since 1999, and for the first time ever, total consumption in fiscal year 2009 was less than the year before.
Couple this trend with increasingly demanding policies of state and federal agencies that distribute transportation dollars, and it’s easy to see why city and county officials are nervous about finding a reliable way to meet their transportation responsibilities. Cities and counties that want a share of that funding can expect to be required to put more of their own cash on the table. And they’ll fare better if they demonstrate regional consensus in their requests.
Both of those concerns are addressed by a countywide benefit district, which would have the authority to select projects and put tax proposals before voters.
A handful of transportation benefit districts have been formed elsewhere in the state, but so far only by individual cities. If that becomes the outcome here, too, it will be a missed opportunity. A countywide district would show granting entities the regional cooperation they’re looking for.
Under state law, at least nine of the 14 Spokane County governments must support the plan, and they must represent at least 75 percent of the county population. Spokane County is ready to move, and the city of Spokane appears favorable as well. The city of Spokane Valley, without which the countywide district would be nearly impossible, appears to be on the fence.
Of all the responsibilities borne by local governments, transportation most defines the interdependence that ties us together as a region. Working in tandem presents challenges and requires trust, but the potential payoff is good for all.
A transportation benefit district is the most promising answer local governments now have for replacing the diminishing reliability of the gasoline tax. Deferred maintenance costs are mounting, and there’s little time to lose.
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