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Tuesday, February 27, 2024
Feb. 27, 2024

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Bus tour gives Vancouver councilors close look at streets

'Mobile workshop' lets them see issues with road projects in three dimensions

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The Vancouver City Council and city employees take a look at the underside of the 1947 Fruit Valley Road bridge, which doesn't meet current seismic requirements, during a four-hour tour Friday of infrastructure needs.
The Vancouver City Council and city employees take a look at the underside of the 1947 Fruit Valley Road bridge, which doesn't meet current seismic requirements, during a four-hour tour Friday of infrastructure needs. Photo Gallery

On the Web

For more information on city of Vancouver street funding, go to www.cityofvancouver.us/betterstreets

With big decisions ahead on how to improve and maintain Vancouver’s single largest asset — its streets — members of the city council met Friday morning at City Hall.

Instead of staying and listening to a PowerPoint presentation from employees, however, the group boarded a C-Tran bus for a four-hour tour.

City Manager Eric Holmes said prior to departure that the “mobile workshop” would cover less than 10 percent of the city’s street system. Still, it was a chance for elected policymakers to see some potential projects before they start setting priorities and discussing funding strategies next year.

On the Web

For more information on city of Vancouver street funding, go to <a href="http://www.cityofvancouver.us/betterstreets">www.cityofvancouver.us/betterstreets</a>

According to a 2013 report from the city’s public works department, it would cost $400 million to bring streets up to urban standards. That’s in addition to the $120 million needed to fix deteriorating streets, plus annual maintenance costs.

Holmes said it’s too soon to predict how big a funding package the council will want, or whether voters will be asked for a new revenue source such as a sales tax increase, an auto license tab fee or a special levy.

In the past 15 years, the city has issued more than $78 million in bond debt to pay for infrastructure improvements such as Southeast 192nd Avenue and Mill Plain Boulevard extensions; the bonds won’t be paid off until 2035. But the city council has adopted a “pay-as-you-go” policy, so issuing additional bonds hasn’t been mentioned.

The city will start community outreach next year, talking with neighborhood associations and other groups about what improvements they want to see.

There will also be a way to give input online, Holmes said.

Holmes emphasized the need to be transparent with residents about the need for money.

It’s also important to be realistic, he added, and give priority to projects that will benefit the most people.

Friday’s tour started with an example of a project that might not meet that definition, the 1947 two-lane Fruit Valley Road bridge that spans the BNSF Railway tracks.

Holmes said the stop at the bridge was to show the council that seemingly simple solutions aren’t always simple.

Earlier this year, Councilor Bart Hansen and Mayor Tim Leavitt asked why tractor-trailers use two-lane West 39th Street to get from Interstate 5 to the Port of Vancouver — much to the chagrin of people who live along 39th Street — instead of four-lane Northwest 78th Street.

As the council piled off the bus, the answer was apparent. Big rigs that take 78th Street have to cross the narrow Fruit Valley Road bridge to get to the industrial areas. Aside from the fact truck drivers don’t like the 6 percent grade on the county-owned 78th Street, overweight tractor-trailers aren’t allowed on the “functionally obsolete” bridge.

A new bridge would cost at least $10 million, said Bill Whitcomb, an asset manager in the city’s public works department, adding the project would be complex because of environmental requirements triggered by Burnt Bridge Creek. For now, the bridge, which does not meet current seismic requirements, can likely last another 20 years.

So will a replacement rate high on a priority list? Doubtful, Holmes said.

From the city’s west side, the tour headed east to 192nd Avenue. In between, highlights included the former Kaiser shipyard site along the Columbia River that holds potentially lucrative industrial space but lacks sufficient access roads. The bus bumped along Old Evergreen Highway, which draws frequent complaints from residents. Brian Carlson, the city’s director of public works, said rebuilding the concrete road would cost as much as $40 million, but the city has been trying different techniques to achieve a smoother surface.

As the bus turned north onto Southeast 192nd Avenue from state Highway 14, Chad Eiken, Vancouver’s director of community and economic development, talked about a mixed-use development, Riverview Gateway, scheduled to be built in the area.

He made no mention of a proposal for a four-lane bridge that would extend south over Government Island and end at Northeast Airport Way in Portland.

While Clark County Commissioner David Madore has advocated for a third river crossing, and November’s ballot will include an advisory vote on whether the idea should be pursued, a majority of city councilors don’t support the idea and say they wouldn’t vote to issue the necessary permits.

During the tour, public works employees took turns giving examples of poor pavement conditions, the need for widening once-rural roads such as Southeast First Street, and potential for pedestrian improvements. Successful projects, such as the addition of medians and roundabouts on Northeast 137th/138th Avenue, were pointed out, as were quirks such as the occasional traffic backups caused by so many vehicles waiting to go through the drive-thru at Dutch Bros. Coffee on Mill Plain Boulevard near Southeast 105th Avenue.

After the bus made it back to City Hall, Leavitt said he enjoyed visiting areas of the city with the six councilors.

The tour helps establish a point from which the council can start to discuss how to best invest in the city’s infrastructure, he said. Every member of the council has different levels of familiarity with sections of the city depending on where they live, and it was nice to see places as a group that they’ve been hearing about in workshops.

As the council has heard over the past two years, the city’s street woes stem from a combination of rapid growth and decreased spending.

With an estimated 165,000 residents, Vancouver, the fourth-largest city in the state, experienced tremendous growth in the 1990s and 2000s. Between 1989 and 2012, the number of lane miles the city has to maintain has more than tripled, from 577 to 1,806.

While adding population plumped up the city’s tax base, statewide initiatives 695 and 747 limited revenues by replacing the motor vehicle excise tax with a $30 license tab fee and capping annual property tax levy increases at 1 percent.

A third revenue source, the city’s business and occupation tax, was eliminated in the 1990s to make annexation more attractive.

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