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Road funds drive debate

Sat., May 21, 2011

Valley City Council struggles to find money to do street preservation work

The Spokane Valley City Council spent some time Tuesday discussing road projects and, as usual, the discussion quickly turned to the city’s inability to fully fund street preservation.

The council was presented with a draft six-year Transportation Improvement Plan. Each city is required by Washington state law to approve annually a plan outlining all the street projects the city plans to do over the next six years. The plan can be altered frequently, with projects added and deleted at the will of the council.

Councilwoman Brenda Grassel suggested that unfunded projects should be postponed and the money used for street preservation instead. “The ones that are in there as funded we should probably leave alone,” she said.

Public Works Director Neil Kersten said that about 80 percent of the projects listed as unfunded would be eligible for grants. He also noted that the city has a page-long list of additional unfunded projects that were not included in the six-year TIP.

“There is preservation work being done,” said City Manager Mike Jackson. “Maybe we can show that better.” The city is building very few completely new streets, he said. Most projects involve reconstruction instead.

An example is last year’s project to improve Broadway Avenue between Moore and Flora roads. While the road was widened, the existing deteriorating two-lane roadway was repaved. That can be counted as partially a street preservation project, Kersten said.

Grassel said that other cities have street preservation as a line item in their budget and Spokane Valley should do the same. Councilman Bill Gothmann replied that many other cities that do that have an revenue stream dedicated to that purpose, such as a utility tax on phones, electricity, garbage and other items. “We just do the phone (tax),” he said. “We run a very slim budget.”

Some of the funded items could be removed to free up money to spend on street preservation, Grassel said. She pointed in particular to an item listed on the TIP for 2012, a study to determine whether an I-90 overpass is needed at University Road. “I would like to see some reprioritizing in the TIP,” she said.

That overpass study is funded by a $250,000 federal grant. The city’s share of the project is only $34,000 in matching funds, so the city would only save $34,000 by eliminating the project.

Kersten said the city uses its limited money to provide matching funds for grants, which usually pay from 75 to 80 percent of all construction costs. “We could cut half the projects off here and we still couldn’t fund (street preservation),” he said. “I could cut the entire TIP off and you’d only get $800,000 a year.”

Gothmann said using the money as matching funds gives the city more bang for its buck. “For every dollar you spend on capital, you get three or four more dollars back,” he said. The bottom line is that there is no revenue stream to pay for street preservation and the city can’t afford to pay for expensive road projects entirely out of the general fund, he said. “It’s just not sustainable.”

Kersten said the city is doing some street preservation projects, but there is a shortfall between what the city is spending and what the city should be spending. Several projects included in the TIP could be considered street preservation, such as resurfacing Sprague Avenue from Evergreen Road to Sullivan Road or reconstructing Mission Avenue from Flora Road to Barker Road. “We’re doing some of it,” he said. “We’re just not doing it all.”

“I think it’s good to keep all these projects in front of us,” said Jackson. “If we take them off the list, we’d have to have a second list and then remember what’s on the second list.”

A public hearing on the six-year plan is scheduled for the next council meeting.

In other business, the council also discussed additional projects that have been suggested and how they might be paid for. Kersten prepared estimates of the cost of each project and Finance Director Ken Thompson outlined where the money might come from.

The suggested projects include $120,000 for a city entryway at Thierman Road and Appleway, $640,000 for landscaping along Appleway between Dora and University roads, $150,000 for improvements to the Mission Avenue trailhead, $100,000 for landscaping along University Road where Appleway dead-ends and $907,000 for railroad quiet zones on the Union Pacific line at Park and Vista roads.

“These numbers in here are rough estimates,” Thompson said. “We do have some money we can spend on these projects. You need to make sure these are your top priorities,” he said.

Thompson identified $1,476,000 in available funding for those projects in addition to the estimated $4.2 million needed this year for street preservation. It includes $350,000 the city should receive in Community Development Block Grant funds and the $1.1 million the council has set aside so far for street preservation.

The council could also choose to use money that isn’t available right now, Thompson said, including the $5.4 million Service Level Stabilization Fund that is the city’s emergency reserves and the $3 million Civic Facilities Fund that holds money set aside for a future city hall.

Councilman Dean Grafos said he favors doing the beautification projects along Appleway. “I think these projects would pay big dividends to us as a city,” he said. “You’re basically dressing up the main door to the city. I think it’s very, very important.”

Gothmann noted that the pavement on Sprague and Appleway is in poor condition. “So we’d be putting lovely perfect bonnets on an ugly statue if we don’t fix the roads,” he said.

The council also has the option of using $630,000 in storm water funds to install drainage swales along Sprague between Thierman and Park roads, Kersten said. “Then we could add some landscaping and trees,” he said.

The council made no decisions, but members said the issue would be discussed further at the council’s daylong budget workshop scheduled for June 14.

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