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Snohomish County roadwork budget runs on empty

Faced with tight budgets, Snohomish County officials are considering creating special taxing districts.

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By Noah Haglund
Herald Writer
LAKE STEVENS — The city of Lake Stevens was banking on Snohomish County paying for tens of millions of dollars in road improvements when it annexed the area around 20th Street SE nearly a year ago.
The congested east-west corridor on Cavalero Hill is a crucial traffic route to U.S. 2 and Highway 9. More than that, it figures big in Lake Stevens’ long-term economic plans. The county lists the stretch of road as in “poor and failing condition.”
So it came as a shock when city officials saw that the county’s latest transportation plan leaves most of the $30 million project unfunded. The roadway is one of many where motorists could see improvements delayed or dropped as traditional sources of road funding dwindle.
“They allowed growth without the infrastructure,” Lake Stevens city administrator Jan Berg said of county officials. “We end up inheriting these big messes and big-ticket items.”
Folks in other parts of the county might share Lake Stevens’ reaction as the county revisits transportation plans in light of the new economic reality. Revenues from gas taxes, grants, real-estate transactions and other sources have declined, leaving county leaders scrambling to pay for road projects in the years ahead.
The County Council is looking at imposing a possible $20 car-tab fee as part of the solution.
The 2011 budget which County Executive Aaron Reardon recommended in September includes a transportation improvement program, a six-year funding plan that’s updated each year.
Last year’s transportation plan set aside more than $8 million for new lanes, sidewalks and lights on 20th Street SE, among other improvements. In the executive’s new proposal, 20th Street funding all but vanishes, leaving just $76,000 plus a $4 million grant.
The work is west of the $39 million improvement project to 20th Street, completed this year between Highway 9 and South Lake Stevens Road.
Reardon hasn’t proposed increasing car-tab fees.
His office says it’s trying to work with the money it has in hand because raising taxes to pay for roads is a “very tough sell in this economic climate.”
“We plan projects around the funding that’s authorized by the County Council, the state and the federal governments,” county Deputy Executive Gary Haakenson said. “If we had unlimited resources, we could deliver a plan with unlimited projects.”
In contrast to past years, County Council members have been generally complimentary of Reardon’s proposed 2011 operating budget. The executive’s $201.8 spending plan calls for eliminating about 170 jobs. While most of those lost jobs are currently vacant, as many as 10 sheriff’s deputies could get pink slips.
Council members are much less confident about Reardon’s proposals for long-term capital projects, including roads.
“When it really becomes a problem is in 2015,” Council Chairman Dave Gossett said of roads funding. “That’s why I’d like to start now. If we wait until then, we’re really in crisis mode.”
Absent more money to spend, the county is left with three options: dipping into cash reserves for road projects, learning to live with more traffic congestion or changing land-use planning. One option may be restricting development to urban areas that already have good transportation infrastructure, rather than allowing growth in rural areas where such infrastructure often is lacking.
“We need to start having the conversation with the public so they have a chance to weigh in,” Gossett said.
Part of the conversation about the county’s roads begins at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday. That’s when the council has scheduled a hearing on forming a transportation benefit district, a special taxing district allowed under state law. Revenue from the district covering unincorporated areas would be used to pay for specific road improvements deemed necessary to relieve traffic congestion.
“Frankly, the transportation benefit district doesn’t solve the problem by any means, but it’s a good first step,” Gossett said.
The district would be governed by the County Council. Once in place, the council could vote to impose a car-tab fee of up to $20 per year. The council might consider that option early next year, Gossett said.
Voters must agree to any fee increases above $20.
The cities of Lynnwood, Edmonds and Snohomish have formed their own transportation benefit districts. Of those cities, only Edmonds has imposed a $20 car-tab fee. Edmonds voters on Nov. 2 overwhelmingly rejected a ballot proposal to tack on another $40.
On 20th Street, the proposed second phase of improvements would widen the arterial to four plus lanes between U.S. 2 and 91st Avenue SE.
The city of Lake Stevens signed an agreement earlier this year to pick up $3 million of the $30 million project. The county also has a $4 million grant for some of the work, but that still leaves funding more than $20 million short.
“In the short term, we just don’t have the money,” said Dave Somers, the county councilman for the area. “But we’d definitely like to work with the city to find a strategy to make it happen.”
That’s bound to take time, he said.
Roads aren’t the only part of the capital budget causing county leaders heartburn. Another is an upgrade to the 911 communications system used by sheriff’s deputies and other emergency personnel. It would cost an estimated $1.7 million over five years, but the executive has budgeted $50,000.
The county’s current capital budget also provides little funding for regular maintenance on county facilities, such as new roofs or heating and cooling systems.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465;
Snohomish County 2011 budget
Today, Snohomish County Council Chairman Dave Gossett is expected to release his version of the budget.
On Wednesday, the County Council has scheduled a 10:30 a.m. hearing on forming a transportation benefit district in unincorporated areas. The location is the eighth floor of the County Administrative Building East, 3000 Rockefeller Ave., Everett.
At 10:30 a.m. Nov. 22, the County Council has scheduled a hearing to vote on the county’s 2011 budget. After the vote, the budget goes to the county executive for consideration.
Story tags » Lake StevensTaxesCounty CouncilCounty executiveTraffic

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