In Our View: Governments Can Be Nimble

In Vancouver, suspending traffic impact fees is an experiment worth trying

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During both economic booms and busts, wise families and successful businesses continually reassess their policies and procedures. They remain nimble, families ready to change spending habits overnight, businesses poised to adjust production or staffing levels.We would like to see governments maintain that same dexterity. Public officials too often take a policy or procedure and — perhaps because it took so long to study, adopt and implement — consider it etched in stone. But government’s “bosses” (taxpayers) deserve the same quick efficiencies that guide families and businesses.

One example of how this can be done was displayed by the Vancouver City Council at its Monday meeting. The councilors are considering an 18-month suspension of the Traffic Impact Fee Program. To do this carries risk: Revenue for the cash-strapped city could be curtailed, especially if there’s a surge in new development. But suspending the fee also carries a great potential benefit, stimulating much-needed development during this lingering national economic crisis.

We say it’s worth a try. If the worst-case scenario unfolds, chalk up the experience as a failure and reinstitute the Traffic Impact Fee in 18 months. (And if this happens, we’ll try to remember not to editorially excoriate the councilors for the failed experiment that we had supported).

In fact, we wish the council were even more quick on its feet, that a decision to suspend the fee could be made even more swiftly. The Clark County Board of Commissioners — which works with the city to manage the Traffic Impact Fee Program — will consider a TIF waiver next month. Vancouver city councilors could decide by June 18.

Moreover, in a perfect world, the bureaucrats wouldn’t need 18 months to determine if the experiment is working. Alas, the wheels of government grind slowly, so at least give Vancouver’s leaders credit for moving toward the change.

Transportation Planning Manager Matt Ransom deserves praise for bringing the suggestion to councilors. His explanation of the importance of timing was astute: “If you need to retool the assembly line, you want to retool when the number of orders is low.” And it’s low now. In the city’s case, traffic impact feel collections have plunged from $2.7 million citywide in 2007 to just $361,720 in 2011.

Three city councilors also made cogent points. Larry Smith said: “I think it is healthy to review; to me nothing is concrete.” Jeanne Stewart pointed out that revenue lost from traffic impact fees could be offset by new sales tax revenue. She added: “All councilors hear about (traffic impact fees) — the impact fees make development difficult.” Jack Burkman said: “There is great benefit in this as economic stimulus. Let’s be honest about this and say we’re doing this because we think it’s going to help business.”

All three councilors are correct, as we see it. And if Clark County commissioners reach the same conclusion, the community could see more construction jobs and many other economic advancements in the next year and a half.