Local streets show the effects of tax rollbacks

  • Bill Sheets<br>For the Enterprise
  • Monday, March 3, 2008 6:39am

EDMONDS — Kirsten Foot of Edmonds is afraid to walk at certain times of the day.

If it’s rush hour, the traffic on 76th Avenue W. makes it dangerous to walk north of Meadowdale Beach Road, where the sidewalk ends, she said.

When they walk, “my husband and I wear reflective tags and try to be safe,” Foot said.

She and many neighbors have complained to Edmonds officials, asking that the city extend the sidewalk. The city responds that it can’t afford sidewalks on that street, or most others.

Nor can it afford to repave streets that need it, officials said. New traffic signals, bicycle and walkway projects, and traffic control devices such as islands also have to wait anywhere from an extra year to indefinitely.

Help could be on the way for cities such as Edmonds that have had trouble paying for street improvements after the passage of several tax-cutting initiatives.

A bill introduced in the state Senate is aimed at giving cities and counties ways to raise money, including a version of the local option vehicle license fee eliminated by Initiative 776 in 2002. Cities used money from that fee to maintain streets and build sidewalks.

Other measures the bill would authorize include a fee based on vehicle weight, a street utility fund in which residents and businesses are charged by area, and raising local gas taxes.

Senate Bill 6016 has been approved by the Transportation Committee and awaits action in the Rules Committee, the last stop before a vote on the Senate floor. A companion bill in the House of Representatives did not survive.

In Edmonds, the road is rockier than in many other Snohomish County cities.

Mountlake Terrace has been able to use gambling tax money from its two casinos to fill its potholes, city manager Connie Fessler said. But she described the city’s street maintenance as “basic.”

Mukilteo has mostly newer streets, city administrator Rich Leahy said.

And Mill Creek paid off the debt on some other projects around the time I-776 hit, Mayor Terry Ryan said.

But those officials say stopgap measures will catch up to them if more money doesn’t materialize soon.

It’s already starting to catch up with Lynnwood, public works director Bill Franz said.

The city has been spending reserves to keep up streets the past few years, he said. While the city is richer than others its size because of its sales tax base, it needs more to maintain its nearly 150 miles of streets, many of which are among the busiest in the county.

For 2005, no money is budgeted for street repaving, new sidewalks or traffic signal replacement, Franz said.

Meanwhile, Edmonds, the county’s oldest city and second-largest in population, is struggling to maintain its 138 miles of streets. The city sends out a form letter to residents who complain about roads and sidewalks, explaining the situation.

“It’s really frustrating, that it’s come down to a form letter,” city traffic engineer Darrell Smith said.

Edmonds lost nearly half its street funding with the passage of I-776, officials said. At the end of 2001, Edmonds had $1.5 million in its street fund, Smith said. At the end of 2006, it is projected to have $14,000.

Edmonds has been using the money it does have as matching funds for large projects, such as the $4.6 million widening of 220th Street SW, Smith said.

No money is set aside for repaving in 2005 or 2006, except for streets that have to be dug up for pipelines to be replaced, he said.

The ideal schedule for repaving a street is every 20 to 30 years, officials said. At the current pace, each city street will be repaved only every 60 to 70 years, Smith said. If not repaved after 40 to 50 years, streets often have to be entirely rebuilt, increasing costs, officials said.

Other tax-limiting initiatives also have sliced cities’ revenue since 2000, and officials say they’re increasingly forced to choose between essential services. A proposal in Edmonds last summer to use city parks money for sidewalks was opposed by many residents and rejected by the City Council.

“Anybody that finds a way to fix the streets has sacrificed somewhere else,” Edmonds Mayor Gary Haakenson said.

Bill Sheets is a reporter for The Herald in Everett.

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