Project focuses on leaky pipes, not rocky roads

Any improvement in the streets is just a bonus to the work of the Infrastructure Repair and Replacement Program.

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WALLA WALLA -- When it comes to paying for infrastructure, roads take off in a completely different direction than the water and sewer lines they cover.

In general, our roads are paid for by taxes and fees, whether they come from the feds, the state or the city's general fund.

The one exception is when a new road is built as part of a development and the developer pays to pave the road.

Funds for Walla Walla water and sewer lines, however, are primarily paid for through monthly bills and new construction permit fees charged to offset the cost to hook up to the system.

Think of it as a community business managed by the city that serves 10,000 residential and commercial customers. This type of utility fund management is known as an enterprise fund.

When it comes to determining how much the city will charge its customers, the City Council has final say in setting rates.

In fact, when city officials were first considering sewer and water rate increases in 2009 to fund the Infrastructure Repair and Replacement Plan, Council could have approved them, regardless of what residents felt.

Instead, Council directed staff to hold several town hall-style meetings to explain the program and determine if the public was for or against it.

Attendees turned out to be overwhelmingly in favor of paying more each month to replace failing water and sewer pipes and deteriorating roads.

"I cannot recollect at any of those meetings where somebody stood up and said 'do not raise our rates.' And the comment I heard most was that you are not going far enough fast enough," City Manager Nabiel Shawa reported to Council in early April 2010.

Days later, the Council unanimously approved the IRRP, thus starting a gradual ramp-up of sewer and water rates to about 50 percent by 2015.

Weeks later, construction on the first IRRP work began on Morton Street between Third and Chase avenues, followed by projects on Bryant Avenue and Palouse Street that same year.

Today, all that remains as evidence of the work is the one thing that citizens wanted most from the IRRP: new roads as smooth as shuffleboards.

Ironically, road improvements are only a coincidental benefit of the IRRP.

The only reason IRRP funds could pay for laying down new asphalt on Bryant, Morton and Palouse is that the old asphalt had to be ripped up to get to the lines.

In other words, if the water and sewer lines underneath Whitman, Bonsella and Figueroa streets and Estrella Avenue need to be replaced -- and they are currently being replaced as part of the second year of the IRRP -- then Whitman, Bonsella and Figueroa streets and Estrella Avenue will all get new asphalt.

So the problem of funding roads is solved.

Well, not quite.

By 2015, the IRRP rate increase will only raise about $4.5 million per year for replacement work, which is enough to replace up to two miles of pipes and roads each year. Additional, dedicated tax revenues will contribute $450,000 more.

At that rate it would take 93 years to go through the entire city.

"It is a very modest start; I recognize that," Shawa said.

"But we have to be rate sensitive. And this is a modest start. But at least, at the very least ... we are on the cusp of starting."

Then there are all those other road maintenance projects, like fixing potholes, chip sealing and grind overlays.

These crucial projects cannot be paid for with enterprise funds. And there are a lot of road improvements needed.

According to a 2004 task force study on Walla Walla streets, the city's roads were at 60 percent of optimum.

A new road would be considered 100 percent of optimum, while zero represents total failure.

Since the 2004 study, city officials have estimated Walla Walla's 140 miles of roads have deteriorated to 40 percent of optimum and are quickly declining.

So the question city officials are now faced with is how to pay to fix the No. 1 concern of citizens.

Poor roads.

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