Fixing streets boils down to more money

Four town hall meetings were held to try to get ideas and to discuss options.

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WALLA WALLA - "If I Were a Rich Man" was a popular theme at two community buildings last week.

On Thursday, the last week of performances of "Fiddler on the Roof" took to the stage of Walla Walla High School auditorium.

Across town the same night the last of four town hall meetings on city streets took place, where City Manager Nabiel Shawa considered what staff would do "if we had $1.5 million."

Shawa said, "We are all here because we know there are problems with our streets ... and the reason we are holding the town hall meetings is because we need everybody's ideas about what we can do."

Unlike "Fiddler on the Roof," which drew roughly 350 on Thursday night, about 10 people attended the town hall meeting at the Walla Walla Housing Authority Community Room, and almost half of them were public works staff.

Shawa noted that poor street conditions are not as dramatic a topic as shutting down the Aviary or reducing library hours. But he also cited scientific and informal studies as far back as 1996 that reported poor roads have been and still are the number one concern for Walla Wallans.

"That is what led me to believe there would be better turnout at these town hall meetings," Shawa said.

One of the ironies of poor street conditions at the top of the list of citizen concerns is that when it comes to setting budgets, no street hero is heard.

"Not once did anyone say last year don't mess with the street budget or put more money in the street budgets ... streets just don't have much advocacy," he said.

During his two-hour presentation, Shawa shared center stage with Public Works Director Ki Bealey, but it was Shawa who took the lead to explain why street maintenance funding has dwindled since the 1980s.

The first hit, Shawa said, came when there was a spike in inflation coupled with little or no growth, also know as the stagflation era of the 1980s.

The plot would thicken several years later with the demise of the federal revenue sharing system in 1987.

Then in 1999 came the loss of sales and equalization funding.

But the nefarious leader of them all, the one that city officials still point to as the villain of villains, was I-695.

Washingtonians may recall how the 1999 initiative was supposed to reduce the motor vehicle license tab fee to $30 per year.

What I-695 failed to do was stop surcharges and fees like the $3 filing fee, $10 weight fee, 75-cent computer support fee and the optional $5 public parks fee, which is conveniently tabulated into the license tab fee.

Shawa estimated the total loss of tax revenues over the last three decades could be around $37 million.

"This is a problem that has been decades in the making ... and unless people shower us with dollars, this is going to be decades in the fixing," he said.

City residents are already showering officials with close to $400,000 each year through the recently approved infrastructure program knows as the IRRP.

Both Bealey and Shawa explained, however, that IRRP roadwork improvements can only take place if the sewer or water lines underneath are failing, and ideally if both are failing. In addition, those projects are based on a 93-year replacement schedule, or about 1.5 miles of sewer line, water line and roadwork every year.

With the current conditions of Walla Walla's roads, Shawa said the city needs at least a million dollars to level off and possibly gain on the quickly declining situation.

The city manager said a 2004 street improvement commission studied and rated Walla Walla's roads at 60 percent of optimum.

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

Since the 2004 study, Shawa estimated that Walla Walla's roads have deteriorated to 40 percent of optimum and are quickly declining.

Sounding like a harbinger of doom as he displayed an image of a behemoth road grinding machine that was pulverizing what once had been a paved country road into gravel, Shawa warned that Walla Walla's streets could suffer the same fate.

"This is actually happing in some Midwest communities, where the pavement is degraded so far that it is actually smoother to drive on than asphalt," Shawa said.

"We are taking comments from the town halls and surveys to try to put together a specific plan to take back to citizens after Labor Day with an eye toward a November ballot issue," Shawa said.

The city is also in the process of conducting a scientific survey to determine which of the four options people would support.

The results of the survey will be reviewed by staff over the summer, and some time in August the City Council is expected to approve one of the options.

Other options were brought up, such as voter-approved bonds and new-construction fees.

Shawa explained that bonds had to be tied to specific projects, and were not usually for something as general as street maintenance. He also noted that bonds usually fund construction work and are often required to be completed in three years.

As for new construction fees, those seem to work better in areas that are seeing growth rates closer to double digits, not like Walla Walla, which came in last year with a growth rate under 1 percent, Shawa said.

Relying on grants is also not an option, as both Bealey and Shawa explained that grants for residential streets are usually not available, unless they are major thoroughfares. Grants are also usually for new construction, not for routine maintenance work like chip sealing, which is a key component to maintaining good roads, Shawa added.

Finally, even if the city did get $1.5 million a year for street maintenance, there could still additional money request in the works.

"That is one of the dangers here. $1.5 million a year, if it comes to fruition, is not going to turn our streets silky smooth overnight," Shawa said.

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