It’s the rallying cry of every critic of anything in Spokane city government: Why don’t they just fix the streets?
Suing Monsanto? Why don’t they fix the streets? Passing a resolution to support marriage equality? Why don’t they fix the streets? Banning elephant hooks? Why don’t they just fix the streets? Give raises to the City Council? Why don’t they fix the streets?
This is a woefully out-of-touch view. The city of Spokane’s government has been steadily working on the streets for years now, making major – if not absolute – progress. The city has just opened construction season for the year, and among the tens of millions of dollars in work that will go on all over the city is more than $32 million in street projects. For the past 12 years, the city has made great strides on fixing city streets and attempting to catch up on years of neglect – neglect that stemmed from a lot of factors, including the fact that Spokane citizens had not ponied up to pay for streets compared to other cities.
The turnaround started with the street bond proposed by former Mayor Jim West and others and passed by voters in 2004. That 10-year bond raised property taxes by about $5.67 a month for $100,000 of home value; it raised $117 million and repaired 110 miles of city streets, including about one-third of arterials.
The work was needed and important and not enough. It caught up on roughly half of the city’s backlog of needed street repairs. Voters wisely reupped the street program in 2014 with a tax levy.
All told, it is one of the most successful and positive efforts to emerge from the city government in recent years. It is the perfect expression of what government naysayers often say nay to: We taxed ourselves to fix a problem.
If you haven’t seen the fruits of this labor around town – or encountered the temporary inconveniences that come with them – you simply aren’t looking.
In this year alone, street work is going forward all over town, spread over several projects. This includes major work on Monroe Street on the lower South Hill; 37th Avenue between Regal and Custer; Martin Luther King Jr. Way between Sherman and Erie; and Rowan Avenue between Alberta and Monroe. Other projects include work on First Avenue, Pettet Drive and chip-seal and grind-and-overlay projects throughout the city. There is also more than $4 million in sidewalk and trail work – a welcome addition in a town that is not welcoming to walkers in many areas.
There is, quite literally, street work going on all over the city right this minute.
I’m not saying that there don’t remain bumpy streets, poorly patched avenues and potholes around town. But the days when this was a central part of our identity – marmots! potholes! buffets! – are passing us by, and they have been for quite a while.
If you don’t believe me, avail yourself of the street project information at the city’s website: https://my.spokanecity.org/projects/construction. There is a detailed accounting of projects available to anyone with a sincere interesting in knowing.
The most recent spur to action for the Why don’t they fix the streets? brigade has been the proposal to raise City Council salaries by 44 percent. Nothing brings out the pitchforks like a raise for a politician or city employee, though such outcries usually expose the criers’ tendency to see their own side’s raises as justified and the other side’s raises as horrific violations of all that is holy. It has been interesting to watch steadfast defenders of six-figure salaries in the seventh-floor offices at City Hall turn budget hawks on the comparatively puny salaries for council members.
These were not raises sought by council members. The Salary Review Commission – whose authority to set the pay for elected officials was approved by voters – studied other cities and concluded council members were underpaid, just as it earlier studied other cities and concluded the mayor was overpaid. A petition drive has been started to put a stop to the raises, and start a larger conversation about the council’s scope.
The fact that this raise has attracted criticism should come as a surprise to no one. Some number of people will always consider public employees and elected officials overpaid, and some raises in the public sector – even if they are deserved – will strike people in the private sector, where raises have become scarce, as simply excessive and tone-deaf. I think a 44 percent raise fits pretty comfortably into that category.
But some perspective is also required: These raises will add up to $85,000 a year.
If that money could somehow be directed toward street repair, it would pay for 221 feet of arterial street reconstruction, or 590 feet of residential street grind-and-overlay repair work, according to city cost estimates. It’s not nothing, but in the context of the work the city is already doing, it’s not much: 0.2 percent of this year’s budget for street and sidewalk work.
So, sure, focus on the raises if you like. Rail and stamp. But if you find yourself asking, in the context of these raises, why they don’t fix the streets, it might be that you’re not looking hard enough for the answer.
Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.
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