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I-976 puts Vancouver’s street projects in jeopardy

City council weighs three options to preserve improvement plans

By , Columbian staff writer
Published: November 16, 2019, 6:01am
2 Photos
Cars navigate a traffic circle June 7 on Northeast 18th Street a few blocks past the site of proposed improvements in Vancouver. The city has allocated $1 million in Transportation Benefit District funds to fixing an awkward gap on Northeast 18th Street. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian)
Cars navigate a traffic circle June 7 on Northeast 18th Street a few blocks past the site of proposed improvements in Vancouver. The city has allocated $1 million in Transportation Benefit District funds to fixing an awkward gap on Northeast 18th Street. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Vancouver’s $40 annual vehicle license fee raised $3.82 million in 2018, which the city leveraged to match state and federal transportation grants, bringing in an additional $8.4 million.

That funding, combined with the $4.23 million that the city brings in through other taxes and surcharges, paid for more than $11 million in pavement management — resurfacing and preserving roads. Around $3 million has been earmarked for upgrading Southeast First Street, where a two-lane rural road needs sidewalks, bike lanes, street lights and sound walls. Another half-million went toward bike and pedestrian safety projects around the city, such as signaled crosswalks.

The passage of Initiative 976, which caps car tabs at $30 statewide and prohibits cities from tacking on extra fees, means the road-work schedule in Vancouver might look very different next year.

The Vancouver City Council will have to decide whether to scale back roadwork or find a different pot of money to finance it.

“The council now will need to figure out: Do we find new revenue? Do we cut those new programs, and where do we make those cuts? Because money doesn’t grow on trees,” said Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle.

A crash course on I-976

Initiative 976 was sponsored by Tim Eyman, a Washington activist who’s spent the last few decades shepherding tax-cutting initiatives onto voter ballots. On his website, Eyman wrote that the initiative “prohibits state and local govts. from imposing dishonest vehicle taxes.”

The initiative caps Washington vehicle tabs at $30 across the state, eliminating the authority of local governments to collect revenue by tacking additional fees onto car tabs.

The passage of I-976, if implemented, is expected to slash the state’s transportation budget by $4 billion over the next decade.

Washington voters approved the initiative by 53 percent to 47 percent. In Clark County, that margin was wider: 60.8 percent in favor to 39.2 percent against.

Back in August, the Vancouver City Council formally announced its opposition to the initiative. Taking an official stance on a state ballot issue was a rarity for the nonpartisan body — the city council hadn’t taken a similar action since 2010, when they urged against liquor privatization.

I-976 effectively eliminates Vancouver’s Transportation Benefit District, which was paid for by the city’s $40 car-tab fee. That district went into effect in 2017 and was designed to restore the city’s roads to their pre-recession condition, catching up on deferred maintenance and implementing a plan to better preserve streets in the future.

Now, McEnerny-Ogle said, the city effectively has three options:

• eliminate the district and resume a bare-bones road maintenance schedule;

• revise A Stronger Vancouver — a sweeping, multimillion-dollar package of new programs and capital projects currently under consideration by the city council — to encompass and fund the district;

• or temporarily rely on Stronger Vancouver funds as a bridge to keep the district going, in hopes that a court challenge to I-976 in King County will be successful and the city will be able to reinstate its vehicle license fee.

The city council hasn’t decided which course to take. It will be a topic of discussion when the group meets on Monday, for the first time since the election.

McEnerny-Ogle said she’s partial to the third option, because it continues the street-improving momentum of the last couple years.

“Economic development is tied so deeply to the good condition of roads,” she said. “We would love to keep these roads in good repair and keep moving forward. I suspect the council wants to keep the momentum, and at this point, that bridging is something that I would like my colleagues to consider.”

Current projects

Ryan Lopossa, the city’s streets and transportation manager, told The Columbian in an email that his department is “very sensitive” to the fact that multiple scheduled road projects in the coming years hinge on grant funding, and that those grants had been awarded based on the promise of local matching funds.

That especially applies to a planned project on Southeast First Street in east Vancouver, from 164th Avenue to 194th Avenue. The total estimated cost is $10 million — $9 million in outside funding contingent on $1 million in local funds. That local match is supposed to come out of the Transportation Benefit District.

“We’re still planning to move ahead with the project on Southeast First Street. There are state and federal grant funds that are earmarked for that project, and we do not want to put those funds in jeopardy by delaying the project,” Lopossa said in his email.

The first phase of the work is still scheduled for summer 2020, and the second phase is still scheduled for summer 2021.

“Depending on the direction we take with respect to the (district), those dates could change,” Lopossa said.

The general tenor surrounding the affect of I-976 is one of uncertainty.

On the day after the election, Gov. Jay Inslee directed the Washington State Department of Transportation to postpone projects “not yet underway.” The following day, King County and the city of Seattle announced they were filing a lawsuit to block I-976 from going into effect.

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