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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Getting There: Airway Heights will ask voters to increase sales tax to pay for roads

There will be a vote in Airway Heights in November to raise the local sales tax from 0.2% to 0.3% to pay for road improvements.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

Airway Heights will ask residents in November to increase the amount they and commuters are taxed on retail sales in order to pay for work to improve safety on roads made busier by a booming growth in population and commuting workers.

“It is the fairest way to share the cost of safety,” said Albert Tripp, administrator for the city on the West Plains.

Proposition 1 on the Airway Heights ballot will ask voters to approve a 10-year, three-tenths of 1% sales tax on goods and services sold within city limits, dedicated specifically for road construction. Airway Heights, which nearly doubled in size from 6,100 residents in the 2010 census to 10,757 in 2020, is one of 55 cities statewide that funds what’s known as a transportation benefit district through a portion of the sales tax, according to the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington.

The state Legislature permitted local governments to establish transportation benefit districts in 1987. The law permits county or city governments to set up a dedicated account to collect money, either through sales taxes or vehicle registration fees, to support road construction that eases congestion or improves safety.

Airway Heights established a transportation benefit district taxing residents at two-tenths of 1% in November 2013, then the maximum allowed under state law. A massive transportation package passed by the state Legislature this year increased the cap to three-tenths of 1%, which is what Airway Heights will ask voters to approve on the ballot.

Tripp said that amount “keeps pace with the cost of transportation projects” that the community has identified as necessary to reduce stress on the road system. The city has already built pedestrian crossing improvements at Ninth Avenue and Hayford Road with money from the tax, as well as reconstruction of the roadway at Russell Street and Sprague Avenue, which serves as an access point to the Airway Heights Correctional Facility and a Spokane County off-road vehicle park.

Approval of the tax will raise an estimated $935,000 a year, which will be used as matching funds for state and federal grants to improve east-west connectivity in Airway Heights, Tripp said. Many of the questions that he has fielded from community groups are about how the money would be used, and Tripp said it’s important to note state and federal agencies often require a matching amount from cities in order to receive grants.

“Based on our track record of receiving grants, for every dollar we collect locally, we’re going to take it and grow it to $2.26,” Tripp said. Without those matching funds, he said, such projects would not be attractive for other agencies to support.

Among the contemplated projects that the city would seek funding for are dedicated pedestrian and bicycle paths along U.S. Highway 2, North and South Hayford roads and 12th Avenue. Also on tap is what Tripp described as “more of a boulevard setting” along Sixth, 10th and 12th avenues that would serve as alternate east-west connectors and provide multimodal transportation.

The city of Spokane is the only other local entity actively collecting money for a transportation benefit district. City residents pay $20 into the fund when renewing their registration, funds that city law dictates must be used for road maintenance, though some have argued recent funding decisions have strayed from that original intent. In 2018, the City Council approved the use of $330,000 from its fund to pave an undeveloped road leading down to the Spokane River from Kendall Yards.

Airway Heights prefers the sales tax method because it spreads the burden not just on city residents, but on the many motorists who stop for gas or other items while traveling along Interstate 90 or to and from businesses along U.S. 2, Tripp said. The city says 70% of vehicles traveling along the highway stop to make purchases within city limits, and that over the past decade, 75 cents of every dollar raised by the district has come from visitors, not residents.

If voters approve the proposition, the new tax would take effect Jan. 1, 2024. Ballots will be mailed in Spokane County beginning Oct. 19. Election Day is Nov. 8.

Work to watch for

Illinois Avenue between Perry Place and Market Street is closed for a $1.8 million grind-and-overlay project that’s scheduled to be complete by the end of November.

Broadway and College avenues remain closed at Monroe Street for a paving and sidewalk improvement project. The construction is scheduled to be complete Oct. 17.

The intersection of Hartson Avenue and Freya Street will close Monday for continuing work on the Thor/Freya couplet reconstruction. On Wednesday, Freya Street between Sprague and Third avenues will reopen.

Strong Road between Five Mile Road and Nettleton Lane will be closed with a detour Wednesday and Thursday for a paving project.

The two left lanes of Interstate 90 eastbound between Maple Street and Altamont through downtown will close overnight through Wednesday for drain-cleaning and bridge work.

In the county, County Homes Boulevard from Wall to Division streets will have lane closures this month beginning Monday for paving and pedestrian improvements. Motorists should watch for flaggers.