Vancouver can't afford to tend streets

Council receives audit on shortfall for building, maintaining its largest asset

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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photoLooking south on Northeast 138th Avenue from Northeast 36th Street, crews continue working on what will be one of the city's last large road projects in the foreseeable future, as there's no money for capital improvement projects beyond the 2014-15 biennium.

(/The Columbian)

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If you're unhappy with the city's improvements on Northeast 137th/138th Avenue from Northeast 28th to 49th streets, take heart: The city doesn't have any money to continue the project from 49th Street north to Fourth Plain Road.

The city also doesn't have money for four other high-priority capital improvement projects:

• Northeast 18th Street from Four Seasons Lane to Northeast 137th Avenue.

• Southeast First Street from Southeast 164th to 192nd avenues.

• Northeast 18th Street from Northeast 107th to 97th/98th avenues.

• Jefferson Street/Kauffman Avenue between Evergreen and W. Fourth Plain boulevards.

All together, the five projects would cost $46.1 million.

The Vancouver City Council was presented with a grim confirmation Monday of what it knew, that it is millions of dollars short on its goals of reconstructing streets, including ones that were built to a rural standard (such as Southeast First Street) and can't handle urban traffic.

The councilors didn't make any policy decisions Monday. They are scheduled to set a policy by mid-to-late November on how to best manage long-term transportation needs, including how those needs should be financed.

The city paid consultants $55,000 for a performance audit of how it manages its streets, plus a six-year forecast of needs and revenues.

Consultant Kathy Scanlan told the council Monday that in addition to the shortfall for capital projects, the city also doesn't have revenue to keep up with pavement management, which includes operation and maintenance costs; or preservation, which includes rebuilding streets that need more than just a touch-up and replacing signals.

If the city wants to enhance its pavement management program, it will be $2.8 million short for 2015-20, Scanlan said, although that's less than 3 percent of projected expenditures and can be reasonably reconciled in the budgeting process.

She said there's no funding for a preservation program, creating a $22.8 million shortfall over the six years.

The consultants' recommendations are a starting point on the city's estimated $120 million backlog of deferred street maintenance, said Matt Ransom, the city's policy manager.

The city has approximately 1,800 lane-miles of streets, 10 city-owned bridges, 234 traffic signals, 17,000 street lights and tens of thousands of street signs.

In all, the streets represent the city's largest asset, City Manager Eric Holmes told councilors at the start of Monday's workshop.

Streets a priority

Several people have emailed The Columbian about the addition of medians and roundabouts on Northeast 137th/138th Avenue, which they don't see as improvements.

Public works spokeswoman Loretta Callahan said they were installed in response to residents' input when design work started in 2007, because drivers were tired of having to wait on the street to make left turns -- or while a driver ahead turned left -- during times of heavy traffic.

Generally, though, people want the city to improve streets.

In a 2012 community survey, residents listed "streets" as a top priority for improvement, Ransom said.

The number of residents in the survey who said they were willing to accept reductions in street improvements and maintenance dropped by more than half from a 2010 survey, Ransom said.

On Aug. 5, the city council approved plans for a Vancouver Housing Authority apartment complex on Southeast First Street and 166th Avenue. Residents packed the council chambers to protest the location. They said First Street, which Callahan said was built as a "farm-to-market rural road," can't handle additional traffic.

At that meeting, Councilor Jack Burkman said that over the years of shrinking budgets the city has placed a priority on public safety services, paid for out of the city's general fund, which includes property tax and sales tax revenue. So police and fire services, he said, have been funded at the expense of streets.

The general fund provides approximately one-third of all street funding, Ransom said. Other sources include gas taxes, business license surcharge fees, real estate excise taxes, transportation impact fees, developer contributions and state and federal grants.

Most revenue sources, he said, are restricted to either capital or operations expenses and cannot be used for preservation.

Scanlan mentioned a few ways the city could collect more money for capital projects, but none was discussed in depth. By law, the city could create a transportation benefit district and impose a commercial parking tax or a $20 license fee tab. Voters could approve a two-tenths of a percentage point sales tax increase, or a license fee tab increase of up to $100, Scanlan said.

Heard it before

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt said at the close of the workshop that he's "sensing the ghost" of former Transportation Policy Director Thayer Rorabaugh, who repeatedly warned councilors about the multimillion-dollar annual shortfalls.

"We've heard all of this information before," Leavitt said, adding that he wants input from the community about how best to proceed.

The streets are a need, not a want, if the city wants to attract employers and keep existing ones, Leavitt said.

"We need a more robust transportation system," Leavitt said.


Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.