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Wednesday, October 28, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

City making changes to program that ties property development to traffic costs

A cycling family leaving Kendall Yards in 2015. The city’s transportation impact fee, which is being updated, is recognition that new development affects the transportation system, and gives discounts to projects that encourage transportation other than the personal automobile. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
A cycling family leaving Kendall Yards in 2015. The city’s transportation impact fee, which is being updated, is recognition that new development affects the transportation system, and gives discounts to projects that encourage transportation other than the personal automobile. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

When Target was built on Spokane’s South Hill, Regal Street changed. Much like how Kendall Yards altered the many West Central Neighborhood roads that come to and from the housing and retail development, and how the Amazon warehouse on the West Plains is transforming the routes that feed it.

What happens on a property, in other words, has an effect on the surrounding transportation system. The city of Spokane is updating its transportation impact fee program, the city initiative that ties land use decisions to transportation. Amendments to the program, approved by the city Plan Commission, are headed to a City Council vote on Monday.

The program, instituted in 2008, collects fees for each type of new development that can occur in the city. It’s an attempt to recover what the city pays to build and maintain the street system that serves the development. Everything from apartment complexes to pharmacies to “multiplex movie theaters” are subject to the one-time fee. For instance, a single family home built on the South Hill will pay a one-time fee of $1,160.64, and a supermarket built in Hillyard would be charged $2.33 per square foot.

Among the changes, developers who provide covered bicycle parking or improve transit stops at their new projects can get a discount on the fees. The update also will amend the program’s boundaries to include the West Plains district, which was annexed by the city after the fee was adopted; add in new definitions for developments of mini-storage, veterinary clinic, “fast casual” restaurants and low-income housing; and tie increases of the fee to the National Highway Construction Cost Index published by the Federal Highway Administration.

The amendments also changes the recommendation that the City Council review the program “every two years” to “every four to six years,” and lengthens the allowed time the city can spend the collected fees from six years to 10 years.

“It helps development because it gives consistency, predictability and, really, it’ll go a lot faster,” said City Council President Ben Stuckart, who helped guide the changes through City Hall over the past three years and is the prime sponsor of the update. “One of the questions we asked, the mayor and I, was, ‘Isn’t it better not to have impact fees?’ The answer was a resounding no. Impact fees are much better and much more predictable.”

There is some complexity to the program, with different rates for different parts of town. But in general it gives developers a way to forecast how much they’ll have to pay.

Ann Winkler, a traffic engineer who has worked in the Spokane area since 1994 and owns Sunburst Engineering, said the program creates fairness and allows developers to “cost out what their development is going to be.”

“It allows them to know what their costs are, so makes it easier for their projects to move forward,” Winkler said.

Winkler described a situation in which a growing part of town sees development after development, each contributing to a increasingly congested intersection or road. Finally, a developer proposes a new project and does a traffic study that shows his development would create an unacceptable level of service on the street. The city requires him to build a new signal, while the previous developments are left off the hook.

“Then that developer is stuck with building a signal, and he’s the last one in the door. He has to pay the full freight,” she said. “So it’s a matter of fairness. By having these fees, everyone pays and the infrastructure that needs to get put in is put in and everybody pays their fair share.”

In a larger sense, the program is a recognition that development and land use decisions affect the city’s transportation system. It also recognizes that some developments have bigger impacts on the city’s roads. A fast food restaurant, for instance, leaves a larger mark than a furniture store.

Inga Note, a senior traffic planning engineer with the city who was central in the three-year process to update the fee program, said the varying costs for different developments are based on a “trip generation manual, which traffic engineers use every time we review development.” The manual draws from studies done on projects all over the country that show how certain projects create more traffic than others. If a development will create a lot of traffic, it will pay more in fees.

But the update has built in discounts for projects that include elements that encourage people to get around without using a car.

“We might give them a discount if they’re providing multimodal opportunities to get to and from the site because it minimizes impact to the roads,” she said, noting that the fee can be reduced by $1,000 if covered or protected bike parking is supplied.

Though the program is not required under the state Growth Management Act, it is authorized under the act because it helps meet the state law’s requirements to plan for future growth and provide the necessary infrastructure. This allows Spokane to use the fees for citywide system improvements that provide service to the “community at large” that are “reasonably related to the new development,” according to state law. In other words, the fees don’t have to be used for improvements on the site where the fees are collected.

Projects that have been partially funded by the fees include a railroad overpass on Havana Street, traffic signal improvements on Hamilton Street, paving and re-striping on Indian Trail Road and reconstruction of 37th Avenue.

A citywide project list funded by the program has $45.7 million worth of projects. Ten of the projects are expected to be built within the next six years. They include a $216,000 project to convert Ash Street to a two-way street for better southbound access to the Maple Street Bridge, the $1 million installation of a traffic signal at the intersection of Wellesley Avenue and Assembly Street and a $4.58 million project to improve Hamilton Street intersections between Desmet and Foothill avenues.

The remaining 29 projects are on the city’s 20-year plan.

In 2018, the City Council set aside $1 million to pay the fees for certain developments in the West Plains Public Development Authority and Northeast Public Development Authority in order to spur development. The money is available on a first-come, first-served basis, and applies to manufacturing and production facilities; warehouses; freight facilities; hotels and motels; office buildings; and housing.

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