Steps forward, steps back

Nature and cash both have thrown up obstacles in the quest for smooth roads in Walla Walla



After the ruinous flood came a time of rebuilding, and this street scene from the late 1940s shows a snazzy, smooth Main Street ...


Alder Street had more the look of the Mill Creek channel in the spring of 1931. But that's because Alder Street was the Mill Creek channel, as were other streets inundated by the historic flood.


... But the bully days for Walla Walla's streets ran out by the late 1950s. This parade on Alder Street in 1958 is reflective of the widespread, decrepit pavement that spurred one of the city's periodic renaissances in street care and feeding. That era gave way to the one in which we find ourselves now, with an unquestionable lack of dedicated funding to effectively repair and keep up the city's roadways.


Birch Street shows the cataclysmic effects of the spring 1931 flood in this historical photo taken near the Birchway Apartments.


A paving crew works to build an asphalt roadway on Rose Street around 1909.


The flood that led to a tighter hold on Mill Creek left many streets in the city in ruins. West Poplar Street is a broken mess in this photo, but if you look carefully, you can also see how thin the top layers of streets are.


Trolley crew members pose by their rolling workplace with the Odd Fellows Temple in the background.

WALLA WALLA - Street work in Walla Walla progressed into the 1920s with pavement spreading into residential areas farther from the central business district, accommodating motorized buses that took the place of electric street cars on Jan. 1, 1926.

But modernization hit a major roadblock on March 31, 1931.

Mill Creek overflowed its banks and many adjacent streets became its bed during the massive flood.

Photos taken at the time reveal the devastating aftermath. The most fortunate roadways survived as slabs of displaced concrete; the unluckiest were reduced to rubble.

The city lost water and gas service. One person drowned.

An account was published in a 1981 book about John G. Kelly, who was an early owner of the Walla Walla Bulletin newspaper. The book was edited by Alfred McVay. One passage recounted the catastrophe:

"When the rampaging creek receded to its channel through the city, the scene the flood waters left behind was almost unbelievable.

"It looked as though the wild stream had gouged out all the gravel and stumps between the foothills and the city and deposited them along the stricken streets. Gravel, boulders, stumps, mud and other debris were left two to three feet deep in some places. ...

"The cleanup and street repairs were a six-month undertaking. The cost to the city was about $100,000 - a sizable sum in that pre-inflation depression."

By the 1940s paved streets were the rule and more-modern standards of quality were employed. But the city was learning that even well-applied asphalt didn't last forever. Unless streets were maintained and eventually resurfaced, as several in the downtown area were in 1947, they would start to deteriorate.

But there was not - and never has been - an ongoing, sufficient source of public funding to keep up with needed maintenance and repairs on city streets.

Ground continued to be lost until the early 1960s, when the problem became dire. As a result, through sheer willpower and citizen involvement, by the end of the decade the city engaged in its largest street improvement program, according to articles published in the Union-Bulletin.

In 1961, local governments started receiving a share of state-collected arterial gas-tax collections. For Walla Walla, the half-cent tax on each gallon of gas sold amounted to about $70,000 a year.

Alder Street from Palouse Street to Ninth Avenue received a three-inch lift of asphaltic concrete in 1962. The $50,000 cost was paid from the gas-tax fund, according to an annual city report to citizens. Complete widening and reconstruction of Roosevelt Street from Alder to University streets was planned for 1963 under the same program.

But the report - published about 50 years ago - also contained the following warning, a somber refrain that continues playing even today:

"Many city thoroughfares are badly in need of extensive repairs and in numerous instances complete reconstruction is called for."

Already, too little money and lack of planning were starting to take their toll.

The street maintenance budget for 1962 was $187,000, which the annual report called "insufficient and grossly inadequate to cope with the heavy burden of maintenance created by too-lax street construction standards in past years."

Oiling or patching was looked upon as money wasted at that point, so additional funding was sought through LIDs and other sources.

In the end, citizens came through with a $1.5 million bond issue, which was parlayed into $6 million in improvements.


The era of better roads came and went due to lack of sufficient, permanent, dedicated funding. Rough winters, narrow strip patching that leads to settling of pavement sections, increased numbers of vehicles and inadequate maintenance again took their toll.

Add all that to the sour economy of the 1980s and the loss of federal revenue sharing funds, and the result was a deteriorating street infrastructure that was at the beginning of no return.

And despite repeated attempts to persuade voters to dig deeper into their pocketbooks, the requests fell on deaf ears.

By the 1980s, city officials estimated it would cost $24 million to restore all streets to top condition - $130,000 to rebuild the roadway of just one city block. In 1986, voters rejected raising that amount, which was pitched through an elaborate plan that included tax hikes and a bond issue. A less-ambitious $1 million bond measure to start the process also was defeated at the polls in 1988.

In answer, the City Council took action of its own. The council started earmarking about $500,000 a year - including $400,000 from a 1988 half-cent sales-tax hike - to try to patch and overlay some of the worst streets. In addition, local improvement districts were formed for work along Country Club Road, Dalles Military Road and part of University Street.

Various funding schemes to complement gas tax and general tax revenues were patched together in ensuing years. However sufficient money never surfaced, being stymied either by other spending priorities, voter refusal, constitutional law or Council hesitancy to raise taxes further.

By the mid-1990s the annual street repair budget increased to $1.4 million, however a portion of the sales tax set aside for that purpose was diverted. Council supplanted it in 1995 by imposing a $2-a-month per household street utility fee to generate about $300,000.

But that revenue source, too, soon went by the wayside after the state Supreme Court ruled a similar charge levied in Seattle was unconstitutional in that it amounted to a property tax.

Meanwhile, as the estimated cost to repair all 135 miles of city streets had climbed to $35 million as the century neared its end, money earmarked for major street repair and reconstruction had dwindled to $100,000.

In 1998, Council again floated a bond measure - a $3.8 million proposal - only to have it, like its predecessors, shot down by voters. Then, as current City Manager Nabiel Shawa pointed out to the Union-Bulletin this year, Walla Walla and other cities in the state lost equalization tax funding in 1999, the same year that statewide passage of I-695 reduced the annual motor vehicle license tab fee to $30.

Council again asked for relief from local voters. A ballot measure to raise private utility taxes to restore public service levels - including additional funds for street repair - was proposed in 2000. It would have raised a total of $775,000. It failed.

A frustrated Council continued scraping together enough through grants and by robbing from other projects to overlay the worst streets, including Melrose and Clinton, and repair Second and Ninth avenues. But instead of spending about $1 million a year as some thought was required to make any headway, annual street maintenance budgets hovered around a quarter to half of that.

A 13-member task force was formed in 2002 to come up with a long-term maintenance plan, explore funding options and prioritize where street improvements should be made. Since there wasn't enough money to get much started and no one knew exactly how bad our streets were, a Gig Harbor firm was hired to develop a pavement management plan.

The results were sobering and disheartening.

Walla Walla's streets were some of the worst the firm had encountered and were continuing to deteriorate swiftly. The city would have to spend about $1.5 million a year just to stay at the current level.

The late Carl Schmitt, who was a member of the task force, said at the time, "If left at the current budget, we'll have Cow Town status very quickly."

Main Street from Palouse Street to Second Avenue got attention in 2003 and 2004 because of sewer and water line replacements, but most roadways continued to languish.

Mid-decade, the city manager, Duane Cole, proposed raising the property tax by 38 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation to patch together a semblance of a solution. A skittish Council said no to that amount.

Viable options to fill holes in the budget were running out as cracks visibly widened in the streets. "It's not just a Walla Walla problem," Cole said. "It's a statewide problem. There's just not enough money to maintain streets from the tax sources available to us."

Portions of Isaacs Avenue were rebuilt during this period by cobbling together various public and private funds.

And residential streets started getting a little more attention after the Council in 2006 acquiesced to raising the city's share of property tax 10 cents per $1,000 by tapping into its banked levy capacity. That generated about $150,000 a year to lay some asphalt on a few roads not covered by the existing $1.2 million street fund.

But it wasn't until the Infrastructure Repair and Replacement Plan, funded by substantial water and sewer rate hikes, went into effect last year that one long-term fix was found.

The problem though, some say, is that it's too long term, generating roughly $400,000 a year. The money can only be used to replace streets and underground pipes of which both the water and sewer lines are failing. The replacement schedule spans 93 years and only a few blocks are slated for reconstruction annually.

Shawa estimates the total loss of other revenue for streets in the past three decades amounts to $37 million, an amount that could have repaired and resurfaced most of our rugged roadways.

As it's turned out, the city's largest tangible asset - valued at well over $120 million - has become seriously compromised through lack of money for maintenance.

Of the 140 miles of roadways and underground pipes, about 115 are of failing status.

So now, Council may head back to the voting well to try to pump more funds for further and faster street repairs.

One possibility to acquire about $1 million a year is to ask voters in February to approve a 0.2 percent hike in the sales tax, which Council decided to pursue. Other options include proposals to increase property tax rates or to impose a $50 additional vehicle license tab annual renewal fee.

Or, of course, the city could chop money from other already-struggling programs in the general fund.

Just as forefathers discovered when Walla Walla was born, street maintenance costs a lot of money for which we've never sufficiently budgeted.

And now we'll either pay more to rebuild and fix them or settle in for an increasingly bumpy ride.


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