In Our View: Sending SOS for Streets

City, taxpayers must come to grips with Vancouver's ailing infrastructure

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An example of the nation's desperate need to invest in infrastructure has landed on Vancouver's doorstep. The city is millions of dollars short on its goals for reconstructing streets; two city-owned bridges are expected to fail within 20 years; and there is an estimated $120 million backlog of deferred street maintenance.

That was the word from a city council work session Monday, as council members heard from a consultant who had been hired to assess the condition of the city's streets. The news was grim.

Among the stark-but-not-surprising revelations was the fact that Vancouver doesn't have enough money to carry out five high-priority capital improvement projects, including Northeast 137th/138th Avenue from 49th Street north to Fourth Plain Road; and Southeast First Street from Southeast 164th to 192nd avenues.

Most of the desired projects are in east Vancouver, where roads originally built for a rural area are ill-equipped for the urban growth that has taken place. Combine that with shrinking budgets over the past several years, and the city's streets appear headed for pothole-filled gridlock.

Aside from providing basic public-safety services such as police and fire protection, perhaps the most important function of government is the construction and maintenance of roads. The flow of transportation is crucial to the commerce and lifestyle concerns of a community, serving as a basic need for a productive society.

Yet Vancouver's situation is all too understandable and all too common. President Barack Obama recently has returned to the nation's aging infrastructure as a point of emphasis, saying among other things, "We know strong infrastructure is a key ingredient to a thriving economy. Unfortunately, over the past few years, too many folks have been cutting these investments in Washington (D.C.)."

In Southwest Washington, the proposed Columbia River Crossing has received the lion's share of attention surrounding infrastructure in recent years, but that hasn't diminished the importance of city streets and bridges. For Vancouver's part, limited city budgets have been focused on police and fire protection, forcing roads to be left as an afterthought.

The money simply hasn't been there, and a close examination of payrolls, benefits, and pensions is in order before the city seeks assistance from taxpayers for street improvement. But taxpayers might be facing some harsh realities, as well.

Matt Ransom, the city's policy manager, told Columbian reporter Stephanie Rice that about one-third of the money for roads comes out of the city's general fund. Other sources include gas taxes, business license surcharge fees, real estate excise taxes, transportation impact fees, developer contributions, and state and federal grants.

Kathy Scanlan, the consultant hired by the city, suggested additional ways in which funds could be raised, among them a license fee tab increase up to $100. Given the mood of the public these days, that is about as likely as pigs taking flight.

Yet the situation points out the conundrum facing Vancouver officials. In addition to the shortfall for capital improvements to roads, the city doesn't have the revenue to keep up with basic street maintenance or to carry out what is deemed a preservation program — rebuilding streets that require more than a quick fix.

Sometime in the near future, Vancouver residents are going to need to dig deep and make a large investment in the city's infrastructure. It's probably going to be sooner rather than later.