Opinion

Put the cash where the road should go

At least some members of the City Council believe the city would be wise to impose a $20 fee on vehicle owners when they buy new tabs, then use the money to help fund road improvements that have lagged in recent years. Dangerous stretches at Rockaway Beach, Wing Point and North Madison need immediate attention, as do a number of storm-damaged roads around the island. The city is scrambling these days to come up with the money needed to fund all of the capital projects it has committed to, but that doesn’t seem to leave quite enough money to pay for some basics such as safe roads. So who do you turn to?

The idea is for islanders to pony up $20 for each vehicle over the next 15 or 20 years in order to help for maintenance. You drive the roads, hey, you should help pay for them. Right? The concept certainly is tempting to a city that has experienced a revenue shortfall during the first quarter of 2008.

The State Legislature passed a bill last year that allows cities and counties to create entities called local transportation benefit districts, which can levy local vehicle registration fees to fund only local transportation projects. The district boards have the authority to collect a fee of up to $20 per vehicle without voter approval and up to $100 if approved by voters.

No city or county has established a district yet, but it’s probably only a matter of time since roads seldom fix themselves. Bremerton has been considering formation of a district, but a member of the city council’s finance committee said this week that the city has decided against it for now. He said the council would reconsider it in six months because the city’s roads are deteriorating rapidly. The council had discussed going to voters for approval and probably would use the money collected from vehicle owners to directly fund needed road projects.

The Bainbridge City Council, however, would probably go about it a different way. Council members and staff have talked about issuing an estimated $6 million in city bonds to improve island roads and then using the vehicle fees to pay off the bonds over a 20-year period. Of course, as long as the fees didn’t exceed $20 island residents would not have a say in the matter. By the way, if the city decides to form the district, $1 million of the funding could be used to pave Winslow Way after the underground utility repairs are finished.

Currently, there are approximately 22,160 vehicles that are qualified for the fees, which adds up to about $443,000 annually if the transportation district collected $20 for each vehicle. And the city could begin collecting the fees as soon as the state approved formation of the transportation benefit district.

All of which begs the question: Could the city have avoided this call of help to its residents by practicing better fiscal responsibility? Perhaps. There seems to be a move toward such accountability among the council now that the revenue is decidedly less than the spending expected during the rest of the year. Is this council only capable of plugging holes and correcting mistakes? Hopefully not. But where was the leadership when it counted?

Surely, on this so-called island of plenty, we can expect more. You know, like making sure there are enough reserves for a rainy day or to fix a gaping hole in a road that runs precariously close to Puget Sound.

Community Events, April 2014

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