Voters may be asked to weigh in on road funding

Without the amount of funding needed to fix the roads that have deteriorated beyond repair, the City Council is entertaining the idea of going to the voters to bail them out of the mess that years of poor maintenance has created.

“We don’t have any money to do anything,” said Councilor Bob Scales recently. “If we don’t get the money, here is what is going to happen: we shut down roads.”

In order to present a case to the voters, the council discussed hiring a consultant, using the contingency funds set aside in the budget for emergencies and analyzing the roads to determine the cost of long-term solutions for the failing arterials. Once enough data was collected, the council would make a case to the voters to get a bond to complete the major construction projects like Rockaway Beach, Fort Ward Hill and Gertie Johnson Road.

“We understand nobody likes the idea of using a consultant, but we are in crisis with the roads and the staff is not able to make those kinds of decisions with everything that is on their plate,” said Mayor Kirsten Hytopoulos. “But these roads are going to cost huge amounts of money and so it will make sense to put it all on the table at the same time and figure out a way to tackle it.”

In order to hire a consultant, complete an analysis and report the findings, both Hytopoulos and Scales agreed that the council would not be prepared to go to the voters for at least a year. They do think, however, that it’s important to speed-up the education process for both the city and the community. With the administration’s agenda full for the year, a consultant would be able to provide the information without taking time away from staff and the other projects scheduled for this year.

Several island roads are already an imminent threat to parts of the community and the city does not have the funds to address a solution. The engineering design team for the wave-eroded portion of Rockaway Beach Road estimated it would cost about $2 million to stabilize it.

A 200-foot-long crack on the downslope of Gertie Johnson Road is just one of the problems that threatens the future of the narrow road, which has crumbled with a lack of city maintenance over the years. It led, in part, to a landslide that kept residents evacuated from their homes for three weeks this winter.

“It’s not just Gertie Johnson, it’s not just Rockaway Beach,” said Interim City Manager Brenda Bauer. “We have to take a look at a lot of different places in the island to understand the engineering that needs to happen.”

Bauer said there are numerous places on the island where roads are starting to slump and safety concerns are mounting. A full analysis of the total problem is necessary to understand how the city can tackle the problem. A decision on how to handle the Gertie Johnson Road situation is a council one, Bauer said, and no decisions will be made until an analysis is completed.

In the budgeting process, the city set aside $400,000 for the annual roads program to complete routine chip-seal and overlay work. The maintenance program was neglected for the last several years due to budget cuts.

According to the recent road network analysis presented by city staff, the roads need an estimated $1 million to $1.3 million in annual maintenance just to maintain roads in the current condition; not including any major reconstruction project work.

Councilor Bill Knobloch expressed his concern over asking citizens to pay additional monies through a bond when they are already tapped through property taxes and the state-wide gas tax that every driver pays at the pump.

“The people are getting taxed over and over and over again, but we are just paying the staffing costs and the supplies and materials. What is left over is just $400,000 for maintenance,” said Knobloch. “Where is the money going to come from if we are using the street fund as a slush fund for public works?”

Knobloch said the emergency situations at Rockaway and Gertie Johnson illustrate what happens when a city can’t provide basic services and routine maintenance to protect the island’s infrastructure.

The island road crisis is far from unique in the state.

According to a recent 2011 Association of Washington Cities report, most  cities throughout the state say deferred maintenance is the greatest problem facing their transportation infrastructure, and 68 percent said a reduction in general fund resources is complicating the problem.

Gas tax revenues throughout the state are falling because fewer people are driving and efficient cars are decreasing trips to the pump. Grant funding is less of an option as state budgets shrink and competition increases.

Hytopoulos said the council will continue to discuss the possibility of a consultant as the capital facilities program continues to be a top priority during the next few months.

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