Street upgrades off to a good start

The incremental approach will let citizens see exactly what they are getting for the tax increase they approved.

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This week the City Council began the long journey of fixing the city’s lousy streets.

And the Council embarked in the right direction when it approved — unanimously — adding $200,000 to the budget to improve Rose Street. That’s a great place to start. That road, which connects Walla Walla to College Place and U.S. Highway 12, is a mess.

The incremental approach taken is wise as it will let citizens see exactly what they are getting for the 0.2 percent sales tax increase they approved in February,

The additional $200,000 being used for Rose Street is the first three months of the sale tax that has been collected. The tax is expected to bring in about $1 million a year.

City officials picked Rose Street to begin upgrading streets because it was one of the top improvement requests on a recent city survey. The project will take about two years, with the first focusing on Rose Street between 13th Avenue and Myra Road.

The need to fix local streets was clear, which is why 61 percent of voters approved the tax hike even in the midst of the Great Recession.

Even so, getting voters to approve the tax wasn’t easy.

More than 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 less in tax revenue. It is estimated the city lost more than $36 million over the years.

Nevertheless, it irked folks that the sales tax increase didn’t result in better streets.

This time around the Council promised oversight. The Council wisely established a Transportation Benefit District to serve as the conduit for the tax revenue. This is as close to a guarantee as any government can make. In addition to the mandates in the law, there is also a citizens’ oversight committee to monitor funds and prioritize the projects.

The public can also focus on this important project. The quest to upgrade streets is off to a good start.

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