Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Oct. 20, 2020

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Budget shortfall delays city of Vancouver’s Columbia Street bike lanes project

Transportation fund shrinks due to I-976, pandemic’s impact

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:

A controversial project that would see protected bike lanes installed in downtown Vancouver along Columbia Street has been postponed by a year.

The Westside Bike Mobility Project was the source of fierce and sustained debate, led by residents along the roadway who worried how losing street parking in front of their homes and businesses would impact their lives.

But the cause of the delay stems from a much simpler problem: money.

The city of Vancouver’s transportation budget has been stripped to the studs, a combination of coronavirus fallout and last year’s voter-approved restriction on car tab fees, Initiative 976. In the original 2020 budget, Vancouver had planned to spend $37 million on transportation projects. Although the initiative is currently awaiting review by the state Supreme Court, city leaders now expect to spend just $23.2 million on transportation this year. That is a reduction of about 37 percent.

“The passage of I-976 this past fall resulted in approximately a $5.9 million reduction in revenue,” Ryan Lopossa, Vancouver’s streets and transportation manager, told the city council on Monday. “With the anticipated shortfalls stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re projecting as much as a $7.9 million revenue reduction.”

To help make up the difference, the city’s 2020 paving resurfacing project has been postponed until 2021, including the scheduled repaving of Columbia Street that would have coincided with the striping work and barrier installation to create the new bike lanes.

The deferment of all the year’s pavement projects will save the city an estimated $2.4 million, just one piece of the puzzle that will help make up the budgeted shortfall. If the city council had decided to move forward with the project, it would have come at the cost of other lane preservation projects — 48 lane-miles’ worth.

“As we move forward, especially in this first year, we’re going to be making a lot of tough decisions,” Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said.

“I wanted to start Columbia Street,” she continued. “But I cannot take away 48 lane-miles across this city to preserve the asset, because I don’t know what our revenue is going to be.”

Ground to a halt

Vancouver’s transportation budget comes from a handful of different sources: A car tab fee, a real estate excise tax, state fuel tax and the city’s business license surcharge. The city’s streets and transportation department leverages those dollars to gain state and federal grants for capital projects.

Over the last three years, funds collected through Vancouver’s $40 car license fee amounted to around half of the budget for its Transportation Benefit District. The passage of I-976, which removes the authority of cities and counties to collect their own fees on top of the $30 state tabs, effectively eliminated that pot of money.

City leaders were still looking for options to navigate that fallout when COVID-19 hit, which in turn blew a crater in the state’s fuel tax revenue.

“In this last month there’s been at least a 50 percent reduction in the miles driven, so it’s very likely this revenue is going to be diminished,” Natasha Ramras, Vancouver’s chief financial officer, told the city council.

Additionally, pursuant to an emergency order issued last month by City Manager Eric Holmes, Vancouver’s business license surcharges are currently suspended in an attempt to ease some of the virus’ financial impact on local companies.

The only source of transportation funding so far left relatively unscathed is the real estate excise tax. Ramras is not optimistic it will stay that way.

“With such high unemployment numbers, it is likely that there will be negative impacts to that area as well,” Ramras said.

Other projects delayed

Several capital projects and some ongoing maintenance will need to be postponed by at least a year. In addition to pushing the repaving of Columbia Street, the city plans to delay:

• An update to the Transportation Systems Plan ($750,000).

• Two traffic signal sustainability projects: A signal rebuild at St. Johns and 54th Street, and a pedestrian signal at Southeast Columbia Way and Southeast Columbia Shores Boulevard ($449,000).

• A traffic signal replacement at Columbia and 13th streets ($450,000).

• Miscellaneous minor safety improvements ($200,000).

• 2019 contributions to the Traffic Calming Projects fund ($265,000).

• 2020 contributions to the Traffic Calming Projects fund ($270,000).

• Purchasing supplies and equipment, and hiring contractors, for street maintenance ($1.1 million).

• Hiring a contractor for the Sidewalk Management Program ($700,000).

• Hiring a contractor for traffic operations ($300,000).

Some councilors said Monday that they did not feel confident about the possibility of those projects resuming next year.

“Where does money come from in 2021, based on what we’ve heard so far?” Councilor Ty Stober asked.

The full scope of the COVID-19 recession, including how long it might last, remains unknown — Ramras is tentatively planning for a $45 million citywide budget deficit this year. The plan is to draw $15 million from the city’s emergency reserve fund, which would nearly drain it.

“I’m more concerned about savings in year two and three after this,” Councilor Bart Hansen said.

Columbia Street saga

The Westside Bike Mobility Project sprung from a desire to make the city’s streets safer and more convenient for people who travel by modes of transportation other than cars — cyclists and pedestrians, as well as “micro-mobility units” like electric scooters.

The plan established three north-south routes in west Vancouver where protected lanes could be installed. It would mostly eliminate street parking along those roads.

By far the most controversial proposed route was Columbia Street, densely packed on either side with businesses and historic residential neighborhoods. Moving forward with the project would eliminate about 400 parking spaces, from Eighth Street to 45th Street.

In February 2019, residents and business owners along Columbia turned out en masse to a city council meeting to protest the loss of street parking. Councilors decided then to postpone the project, citing an insufficient outreach process.

Almost exactly a year later, after more outreach, the fundamental divide remained. The city council elected to move forward with the project on Feb. 24 despite the controversy – Vancouver has the highest vehicle vs. pedestrian and vehicle vs. bicycle accident rate in the state.

“This, to me, comes down to a choice between safety and parking. When it comes to that, safety is always going to win,” Councilor Erik Paulsen said at the February meeting.

On Monday, the 4-3 vote recanting that decision was a glum one. Councilors Paulsen, Hansen and Sarah Fox, as well as McEnerny-Ogle, voted to postpone the project. Councilors Stober, Laurie Lebowsky and Linda Glover voted to move forward.

“This is the hard part,” McEnerny-Ogle said. “Unfortunately, these are the types of conversations we’re going to be having probably for the next year.”

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