Approve measure to improve Walla Walla's awful streets

The additional 0.2 percent sales tax will be mandated by law to go only toward improving the city's streets.

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Walla Walla's streets are lousy. The condition of the city's streets are not acceptable by any standard.

Yet, there is simply not enough money in the city budget to make major improvements fast enough to keep ahead of the decline in streets. Last year the city filled 6,700 potholes.

Clearly more needs to be done, and that takes money.

The city is asking voters to approve an additional 0.2 percent sales tax to raise close to $1 million a year to be dedicated to street improvement -- and only street improvement.

Boosting the sales tax even a small amount is difficult, particularly in the wake of the recent sales tax hike of 0.1 percentage points to fund mental health services and 0.3 percentage points for Valley Transit.

Yet, a sales-tax hike is the best of the revenue-generating options the city could legally consider.

Adding the license tab fee was a choice residents rejected. A city survey found 80 percent did not like that option. An increase in property tax was seen as unfair because the streets are also used by people living outside the city limits and visitors to the area.

The sales-tax increase, after thoughtful consideration, was picked by the City Council as the least objectionable revenue option.

But -- and this is a critical but -- the Council wisely established a Transportation Benefit District to serve as the conduit for the tax revenue. By law, the money can be used only for the city's street projects.

Over two decades ago the City Council raised the sales tax with the intent to put more money toward streets. Streets were the priority for a few years, but when the city budget was pinched, the money, which was mixed into the general fund, was eventually diverted to other uses. City officials' original intentions were good but a variety of factors, including the loss of federal revenue sharing in 1987 and passage of Initiative 695 that cut license tab fees to $30, resulted in millions of dollars lost in tax revenue. It is estimated the city collected more than $36 million less over the years.

Nevertheless, we have adamantly opposed any tax increase for streets unless steps were taken to guarantee that every penny would go toward streets.

Establishing the Transportation Benefit District is as close to a guarantee as any government can make. In addition to the mandates in the law, the Council will appoint a citizens' oversight committee to monitor funds and prioritize the projects.

Walla Walla, incorporated 150 years ago, is one of the oldest cities in the Pacific Northwest. So it is hardly a surprise that its streets need work under normal circumstances. The lack of funding over 30 or more years has exacerbated the situation to the point where our streets are an embarrassment. In addition, the potholes and road ruts are creating safety hazards for drivers and expensive problems as cars and trucks are jarred out of alignment and tires are ruined.

We urge voters to take action to improve our streets -- approve Proposition 1.

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