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The council has been signaling that it is inclined toward sending a smaller proposal to voters in November: $60 might be likelier than $80 to achieve voter approval in these hard times, and the term for these new fees should not be indefinite but subject to voter approval for renewal after eight years. Very preliminary contours began to emerge in the council’s discussion about what citizens might see if that fee were passed by voters and the money came in on top of the proceeds from the $20 fee already approved. Altogether the total would be about $27 million a year.
Taking account of the proposals in the draft council resolution now at hand, only about a quarter of it, $7 million a year, would be spread across the spectrum of paving needs: more pothole repairs, a little spot re-paving, perhaps a few more miles a year of significant street reinvestment. A bit less than $9 million a year would be spent on projects, strongly favored by Metro Transit, that would help buses move more quickly and reliably through traffic, make existing transit more convenient for people to get to and use, and to improve the trolley network.
These sums would no doubt be spent well on pavement and transit, seemingly the public’s highest priorities. For example, sections of 23rd Avenue E, or Holman Road in Ballard, or Delridge Way, might see paving work in 2013, sooner than in any other case. Yet there are not sufficient funds in either arena really to jump the needle in a positive direction in the problem areas where needs are most acute.
None of the proposals for spending the rest of the money, almost $12 million a year, is devoid of appeal. But the rule of a little something for everyone seems to pinch against hard-nosed prioritization that would drive scarce dollars to most urgent needs. Bicycle facilities would be in for 10 percent of the total pie and pedestrian and neighborhood street fund projects at about twice that share. Even where the council seems to signal skepticism contrasting with the Mayor’s enthusiasm, three quarters of a million dollars a year would be spent probably planning an expensive streetcar line or two for which no ultimate funding plan is on the horizon. Now citizens and the advocates for every manner of special transportation investment will weigh in. The contentiousness of such decisions about prioritization is clearly exacerbated by the current atmosphere of fiscal stress and voter discontent.
The biggest discouragement in all this, of course, is that it is so extraordinarily and disastrously expensive to wait until pavements are really bad to fix them — precisely the course Seattle is on and really won’t correct at the levels of revenue and spending now under consideration at the Council. An excellent recent report from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the San Francisco Bay Area’s counterpart to the Puget Sound Regional Council, suggests that pavement renovation for a roadway still in Fair condition that would cost one dollar, skyrockets to five dollars when the pavement has deteriorated to the bottom of the Poor category. What’s more, timely, lower-cost pavement repairs result in fewer greenhouse gas emissions over the life of the roadway because less asphalt must be used and less roadway work must be done with heavy trucks and construction equipment that major reconstruction requires. Smoother roads actually produce better fuel economy for the vehicles that use them, too.
Clear thinking about pavement and their importance also must reckon with these inconvenient facts, according to the San Francisco report: a single delivery vehicle puts the same stress on pavement as 442 SUV trips; a semi/big rig equals the stress of 4,500 SUVs; a bus equals the stress of 7,774 SUVs; and a garbage truck the stress of 9,343 SUVs.
As is almost always true in crises of deteriorating infrastructure, the problem offers little drama because the build-up of the backlog takes so long. The crisis of Seattle street maintenance has been in view for 25 years or more. In 1983, then Councilmember Norm Rice sponsored a bond issue that would have raised $150 million for street repairs. Today’s streets would not be in their current condition had that kind of investment been made at that time. A majority of voters agreed; but 60 percent was required for passage and the measure failed. A year later a much smaller bond issue passed but with only a paltry $5 million for streets.
In 1992, Mayor Rice and Councilmember Martha Choe with the support of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce relied on new state legislative authorization to push through a street utility tax on property owners. The law went into effect, but then it was thrown out by the State Supreme Court; expectations dried up for addressing what then was said to be a $70 million backlog of work on transportation facilities. Mayor Rice gave it another shot in 1997 for a $90 million bond for streets; more than half the voters approved, but again it fell just short of the required 60 percent. By then the street maintenance backlog was calculated at over $400 million. Finally, in 2006, going the route of a levy to fund improvements pay-as-you-go rather than through an upfront bond sale, Mayor Greg Nickels lined up the votes for Bridging the Gap — though much scaled back from his threshold proposal and therefore another half measure in relation to overall need.
Seattle’s predicament, moreover, is more the norm than the exception among sister cities. Seattle’s own scoring for its arterials ranks it about on par wit San Francisco’s arterials. Portland has almost precisely the same lane miles of arterial streets as Seattle, a similar pothole political storm, and a similar $600 million scale of deferred street maintenance with no funding plan in view. Leave it to Portland to generate Seattle’s envy, however; last year Portland launched its own iPhone app for pothole reporting. Meanwhile, data collected statewide in Washington shows that cities’ arterial pavement conditions dropped from 2006 to 2008 and again from 2008 to 2010. The Washington cities data shows Seattle a bit better than an average dragged down by very low scores from the likes of Aberdeen, Bremerton, Enumclaw, Kirkland, Lynnwood, and Oak Harbor. It rates about the same as Bellevue, better than Tacoma and Vancouver, and not as good as Bellingham, Everett, Olympia, and Spokane.
King County Road Services reports pavement conditions deteriorated markedly from 2007 to 2009, and 110 miles of major and minor arterials have less than ten years of remaining useful life, needing reconstruction at an annual investment of $22 million recurring for a span of 20 years. Preventive maintenance for King County is a bad story: in 2009, 66 percent of its drainage ditches needed to be cleaned, 52 percent of its catch basins were clogged, and gravel shoulders that should be graded every year were on a cycle to be graded every 25 years.
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