City's plan to repair, replace infrastructure gets solid start

If the progress made in the next five years is embraced, it will be far easier to convince the public to accept higher rates to speed up the process.

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A tax or fee increase of any kind generally draws protest.

Yet, last week's decision by the Walla Walla City Council to approve an Infrastructure Repair and Replacement Plan to be paid for with increases in utility rates and $8.8 million in municipal bonds was embraced. The only complaints heard at the Council meeting were from those who thought the plan to replace 1.5 miles of deteriorating roads and underground pipes per year was not ambitious enough.

Frankly, we would have to agree with those who want the streets and pipes fixed faster.

However, given where the city has been, we are pleased this project is moving forward.

It is obvious to anyone that Walla Walla's streets are in need of significant repair. But what's under those streets is also a mess, and understandably so.

Walla Walla is one of the older cities in the Pacific Northwest. Our sewer and water system was in place before most of the state's cities were cities. The standards for sewer and water pipes a century ago were far different than today.

It's estimated the city is losing 1 billion gallons of clean, drinkable water every year because the underground pipes are broken or too small. The leaks in the sewer system are likely comparable.

City Manager Nabiel Shawa, who has been on the job since October, reached out to the community to explain what needed to be fixed and how much those fixes would cost. The various options were presented to the public.

City staff and our elected officials did a good job of listening to the public. It's clear people want to see this work done, and done right.

The utility rate increases are expected to kick in around the first of June, with the average combined sewer and water bill hikes up about $5.50 a month. Over the next five years the rate increases will continue, leaving the combined increase at $36.50 a month.

If the timeline for fixing the streets and pipes were put on the fast track, those rate increases would be far higher -- and perhaps not as tolerable to most ratepayers.

"It is a very modest start; I recognize that," Shawa said last week in response to those who wanted more aggressive repairs. "But we have to be rate sensitive. ... But at least, at the very least ... we are on the cusp of starting."

Over the next five years, if the progress made is embraced, it will be far easier to convince the public to accept higher rates.

This project is a long-term investment in the community -- a marathon, not a sprint. Given that, five years is barely out of the starting gate.

The city appears to have gotten a great start.

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