City forges ahead with infrastructure fixes

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Morton Street extensions in front of Garrison Middle School have just been finished. July 10, 2010

A quarter-mile of asphalt was laid over new water and sewer pipes along Morton Street between Third and Chase avenues as the first Infrastructure Repair and Replacement Plan project reached completion.

The final cost for the project will be $513,000, which includes $65,000 added after construction crews discovered another 600 feet of water and sewer line that needed replacing, said City Engineering Associate Mike Laughery.

Two other IRRP projects also slated to be completed this year include the current $488,000 Bryant Avenue infrastructure replacement project from Howard Street west to where Bryant Avenue dead ends, and the $777,000 Palouse Street work between East Birch and Newell streets.

After the work is completed, the three sections of streets will be under a five-year moratorium of asphalt cuts, which is a first for the city in an attempt to cut down on road deterioration, Laughery explained.

The IRRP was approved by City Council members this spring with a goal to replace up to two miles of city streets and underground pipes each year.

The plan included controversial funding that involved ramping up sewer and water rates 40-50 percent over the next five years to pay for the work. The first of those increases happened in May.

But even though many people objected to the IRRP rate increases, Council members said they heard far more from supporters who were tired of deteriorating roads in Walla Walla.

For Dominick Elia, who has been on the City Council since the early '90s, the show of support was almost a complete flip from the lack of support for previous attempts to raise money for infrastructure repair.

"Every time we got to the point where we had to get down to the money issue, I think we heard more from people on the negative side that we were raising rates too much too fast. And so the Council backed down as a whole," Elia said.

The other IRRP criticism Council members heard in months prior to passing the plan was the question as to why the city waited so long to get the work done?

Elia and other senior Council members found themselves objecting repeatedly to this question, pointing out there had been attempts to raise funds in years past.

Those attempts included two failed voter bonds, but also the passing of a street utility fee in 1995. But that fee was later struck down by the Washington State Supreme Court.

"I think the people, when you explained the situation to them, they showed their support, but that was a real letdown," Elia said of the denied utility fee.

But the biggest blow to infrastructure repair, city staff and Council members said as they pushed for IRRP support, was not the failed bonds or denied utility fee, but the drastic reduction of the state's motor vehicle excise tax after Initiative 695 passed in 1999.

"For a couple years the state backfilled, one year completely then the next 60 to 70 percent," Elia noted. But that was almost 10 years ago, and Elia noted that chip-seal and other street work have deteriorated ever since.

Part of the work that will take place in current and future IRRP projects includes the installation of federally required ADA ramps, Laughery said.

Other work that might occur includes the addition of bulb curbs - oversized curbs that extend into the street to slow traffic and reduce crossing distance. They were installed in the Morton Street project to increase pedestrian safety for the nearby Garrison Middle School.

In addition, improvements such as street lights and sidewalks might be added if neighbors agree to pay for those extras by forming a Local Improvement District, Laughery said.

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