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Jan. 19, 2020

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Vancouver takes aim at fixing roads

Proposal would generate $7 million in new revenue from several sources

The Columbian
Published:
2 Photos
Heavy traffic whizzes by a pedestrian walking Tuesday on the shoulder of Southeast First Street in east Vancouver. The busy two-lane road eventually will get sidewalks, bike lanes, streetlights and stormwater drainage, but for now, the city lacks the money for the $16.3 million project. (Natalie Behring/ The Columbian)
Heavy traffic whizzes by a pedestrian walking Tuesday on the shoulder of Southeast First Street in east Vancouver. The busy two-lane road eventually will get sidewalks, bike lanes, streetlights and stormwater drainage, but for now, the city lacks the money for the $16.3 million project. (Natalie Behring/ The Columbian) Photo Gallery

After months of study, the city of Vancouver’s Commission on Street Funding has come up with a plan to generate about $7 million a year in desperately needed new revenue for street maintenance, repairs, replacement and capital projects.

The new funding stream would come from a mix of vehicle tab fees, a business license surcharge hike, a utility tax increase, new state gas tax revenue and funds from retired debt service on past road projects. The money would be in addition to existing street funding, which comes from the general fund, the gas tax, business license surcharges and real estate excise taxes.

“There wasn’t a precooked solution. We spent quite a bit of time debating,” said street funding commission member Tim Schauer, board chair of the Columbia River Economic Development Council. “There is a great sense of urgency. … We believe the city is at a tipping point.”

The commission attempted to land upon the “most equitable, broadly spread set of revenues,” he told the Vancouver City Council at a Monday workshop.

Here’s the breakdown of the proposal:

The city council would form a Transportation Benefit District that would impose an annual $20 car tab surcharge, payable when drivers renew their licenses. After two years, the council would raise the car tab to $40.

“This is a user tax,” Schauer said. “If you’re driving the roads in Vancouver, if you live in Vancouver, you pay a fee.”

The council also would increase the business license surcharge, currently at $50 per employee, to $60 per employee. After two years, the surcharge would increase another $10, for a total of $70 per employee. (The cap is 400 employees, and businesses with less than $12,000 annual gross receipts are exempt.)

A 1.5 percent utility tax hike for all customers of city water, sewer, stormwater and garbage utilities would provide the largest funding component. It would cost the typical household an additional $1.64 a month, or about $20 a year, city staff said. The utility tax currently is 20 percent.

This year, the Legislature raised the gas tax, increasing Vancouver’s revenue by an estimated $200,000 next year and rising to $450,000 in 2018, where it will stay through 2031.

Lastly, as previous loans for road construction are paid off, that money would be used for street funding.

“Nothing is pain-free, but this is the best of the alternatives,” Councilor Jack Burkman said at the council workshop.

The commission, composed of representatives from the city council, community, businesses and neighborhoods, formed in April to consider sustainable street funding and review public feedback. The city launched an online interactive tool in May to gather public opinions about street funding for six weeks. Based on the responses received, the community wants action taken to improve Vancouver’s street system, the commission’s Oct. 1 report to the council said.

Other potential funding sources the commission considered included a sales tax hike and a property tax increase, which would require a public vote. But the commission recommended against that, feeling it was the city council’s responsibility to maintain the city’s assets, Schauer said.

The commission recommends the city’s financially enhanced street program should:

• Maintain streets and medians at pre-recession service levels (mowing, weeding, watering, street sweeping.)

• Gradually improve pavement condition from “fair” to “good” over a 20-year period.

• Start a replacement program for outdated or worn streetlights, traffic signals and bridges.

• Expand mobility, safety and accessibility programs (add bike lanes, sidewalks, wheelchair ramps, traffic-calming devices.)

• Upgrade substandard arterial streets, leveraging local dollars with state and federal grant sources.

According to a recent study, at the city’s current funding level of $22.6 million a year, overall street conditions will decline, and costs will skyrocket through 2035. This year, the amount of street work that should be done but is being deferred totals about $130 million. In 20 years, the amount of deferred maintenance will soar to $250 million at current funding levels. Currently, there’s no money for new projects, not even money that could be used to match grants.

The city’s growth has outpaced its street budget. Vancouver added 17.6 square miles and 58,000 residents overnight in a massive annexation in 1997. Since 2004, the city has annexed another 2,300 acres and brought more than 1,900 residents into the city limits. The street system sprawled, adding miles of asphalt to the city’s care. Now that Vancouver is almost built out, the city maintains about 580 miles of centerline paved streets, 235 traffic signals, 17,500 streetlights, 10 bridges and 103 acres of city-maintained rights of way and medians.

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Of the $22.6 million the city has budgeted annually for streets for the 2015-16 biennium, $10.7 million is going toward operations/maintenance, $6.8 million is for pavement management, $4.9 million is for debt payments and $200,000 is for replacing assets such as bridges, signals and street lights.

Construction on several projects on the city’s roster can’t be started due to lack of identified funding.

Monday, Mayor Tim Leavitt said the poor condition of the roads is “very obvious when folks tour our community.”

“If we aren’t willing to invest in ourselves,” he said, “why would others want to invest here?”

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