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The Columbian: Road Spending Starts To Stall For SW Washington

The Columbian | Nov. 7, 2013 2:21 a.m. | Updated: Nov. 7, 2013 10:30 a.m. | Vancouver, Washington

Contributed By:

Erin Middlewood / Columbian staff writer

A replacement Interstate 5 Bridge across the Columbia River isn’t on the agenda for the special legislative session that kicks off in Olympia Thursday. And while that project may grab the most attention, it’s hardly Clark County’s only road-related concern.

Legislators will try to reach a deal on a $10 billion transportation package, which local officials hope includes a little something for Southwest Washington.

Road funding is erratic. Just look at a graph of the last 10 years of city, county and state transportation spending. It’s as bumpy as a potholed road, while the number of licensed drivers steadily rises.

State highways in Clark County have seen a boom of improvement projects in the last decade, thanks to two state gas tax packages approved in 2003 and 2005. These packages helped pay for 19 projects in Clark County. But transportation officials intentionally front-loaded the work schedule, with debt payments continuing after the work is completed.

Just two of the 19 projects remain: widening of state Highway 502 and an interchange project on I-205. After that, there are no other projects in the pipeline, said Brian McMullen, a state transportation program manager.

“We’re not designing anything,” he said.

New construction aside, the state is falling short on money to maintain and preserve existing roads, officials said.

The state’s spending in Clark County is expected to plummet from $94.4 million in 2012 to $45.2 million in 2014.

Clark County’s legislators are angling to include local projects in the state package. Among the possibilities are new interchanges on I-5 and Highway 500.

Local governments also are eyeing the Legislature’s transportation deal. Unlike counties, cities don’t have the option of collecting property taxes for a separate road fund. So the city of Vancouver’s road spending must compete with public safety and everything else in the general fund.

Clark County receives a steady stream of earmarked property taxes for its road fund. Even then, the county’s road budget, like the city’s, is prone to peaks and valleys because big projects rely on grants.

“A large portion of our revenue comes from grants, and grants vary,” said Lori Pearce, Clark County’s public works administrative services manager. “For now, we’re probably fine. Our primary revenue stream is property taxes. Because we have money, for the moment, we are able to get grants.”

Vancouver’s transportation officials, however, worry the city won’t have enough road money to secure grants, which typically require a $1 local match for every $3 of grant money.

Then there’s the cost of preserving $1 billion in pavement, the city’s biggest asset, said Matt Ransom, a Vancouver transportation policy manager. That’s not something grants cover. The city has an estimated $120 million backlog of deferred street maintenance.

“Maintaining things is not as sexy,” he said.

Barring unexpected salvation from a state transportation deal, the city is considering other possible sources of road dollars.

By law, the city could charge a $20 license tab fee, create a transportation benefit district or impose a commercial parking tax. The city could ask voters to approve a two-tenths of a percentage point sales tax increase, or a license tab fee increase of as much as $100.

Ransom said the Vancouver City Council expects to set a policy by the end of the year on how to best manage long-term transportation needs, including how those needs should be financed.

Erin Middlewood: 360-735-4516; http://www.twitter.com/emiddlewood; erin.middlewood@columbian.com.

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