The last time Tacoma voters approved money specifically for road repairs was in 1968 — a year before man walked on the moon.
Today, many of Tacoma’s roads resemble the surface of it.
“It’s embarrassing for me as a city manager when people come and visit you,” Tacoma City Manager T.C. Broadnax said at a recent community meeting. “I’ve heard it from my parents. ‘What’s going on with these streets?’ I tell them, ‘Put your seat belts on, we are going to get there.’ ”
For years the city has struggled to find enough money to fix its broken streets. The backlog for repairs to residential streets surpassed $800 million as of 2006, the same year the city stopped estimating what the repairs would cost. In four of the last five years, the city has spent less than $5 million per year on repaving and pothole repairs.
To raise more money for that work, the City Council placed Tacoma Proposition 1 on the ballot – the second time in six years that the city has asked voters to approve more funding for street improvement. A property tax proposal in 2006 narrowly failed.
If passed, Proposition 1 would raise up to $11 million annually for road repairs and improvements. The money would come from a 2 percent tax on utility company earnings. If the expense were passed along to utility customers, they would pay about $2 more for every $100 in electric, natural gas and telephone service charges.
Broadnax says households can expect to pay less than $5 more per month.
The measure has faced opposition from some business groups that say their increased utility costs would put them at a competitive disadvantage, and from outlying communities whose residents could end up paying for the tax increase through their Tacoma Power bills.
In addition to repairing 510 residential blocks in the next five years, the proposition would improve 46 school zones and fix traffic signal timing at 70 intersections.
One of the blocks slated for repairs is near the intersection of South Madison and Wright streets in South Tacoma.
During a recent tour of Tacoma’s worst streets, a 100-foot stretch of South Madison had pothole on top of pothole, blocking driveways and jarring the shocks of cars that passed by.
Interim Public Works Director Kurtis Kingsolver, who led the tour, explained why the road and hundreds more across the city are about to see worse days because of the changing seasons.
“What you can’t see in this road, because it’s a nice day, is where all of the water would go and all of the puddling that would be part of this,” he said.
Standing water and freezing temperatures are like kryptonite to a road. Once water seeps into even the tiniest of cracks, a quick freeze changes the water into ice. The ice expands and wedges the crack farther apart. More cracks form. The cracks and gaps form a lattice, what road crews call “alligatoring,” named after the scale pattern on an alligator’s back.
Soon, all it takes is the pressure from a passing car to pop a piece out of place.
A pothole is born.
The city has patched them one of two ways: a temporary fill, or a permanent, but more costly, patch. The permanent patch costs about $250 for a 16-square-foot area. City crews cut into the pavement, remove the material around the pothole, and pave and seal a new section.
If Proposition 1 passes, the city says it will be able to pay for 18,000 more permanent pothole repairs in five years — double the current rate.
As it stands, the city tries to address potholes on neighborhood streets with a temporary patch within 10 days of a report of one. But based on current funding and the city’s workload, a permanent fix could take as long as eight months — if they are fixed at all, said Rae Bailey, manager of street operations for Tacoma.
“The reason we wouldn’t do a permanent repair is the street is in such bad condition that the permanent repair is not going to fix anything,” Bailey said recently. “For a lot of our residential streets, we will get a complaint about a pothole and the whole street is basically one giant pothole.”
Failed streets can be found in every neighborhood in Tacoma, Kingsolver said.
Ten years ago, Spokane’s streets were similarly deteriorated. Faced with broken roads, in 2003 its residents approved a $117 million bond to repair a third of its city streets.
Spokane and Tacoma have similar street systems and population, with Spokane having 2,098 paved lane miles to Tacoma’s 2,200. Before Spokane’s bond issue passed, the city’s roads were rated at a 42 out of 100 scale, low enough to be considered in poor condition. Tacoma’s roads had the same score in 2006, and undoubtedly have worsened since then.
Before Spokane voters approved the bond issue, the city spent “almost nothing” on road repairs, said Gary Nelson, a design engineer with the city of Spokane.
Today Spokane’s entire network scores at just above a 70, considered “good” condition, and the city has nearly completed all of its projects.
“I think it’s been a raving success,” Nelson said.
But the money is almost gone and city taxpayers will pay down the bond debt for another 10 years — with no money for new, large projects.
In contrast, Tacoma’s Prop. 1 doesn’t rely on bond debt, so all of the money will go straight to designated projects. If revenues stay flat for 10 years, the earnings tax will have raised between $100 million and $110 million for Tacoma streets. The 2 percent tax on utility earnings also continues forever, which city officials say provides a stable revenue source.
“I wish we had been smart enough to do that,” Nelson said.
While Spokane’s money was dedicated solely for road repairs and resurfacing, Tacoma’s Prop. 1 seeks money for a variety of projects.
Residential streets would see the bulk of improvements, with 510 blocks slated for resurfacing in the next five years. The city also plans to build 46 school zone improvements, which includes crosswalks and flashing lights. For main roads, the city would have more money to dedicate toward matching funds, which is often required for state or federally funded projects.
Changes to Tacoma’s roads will not happen overnight and probably not fast enough to satisfy some Tacoma residents if voters pass Prop. 1, said Mike Gent, assistant to Tacoma’s interim public works director.
“It’s a vast problem. It’s taken many years to get to this point. It’s going to take many years to correct the problem,” Gent said.
Still, Prop. 1, combined with the money the council voted to set aside for road repairs, is not a complete solution to the city’s crumbling roads.
“This is a really good start,” he said. “You are going to see the condition of Tacoma streets stop deteriorating and start improving.”
He said the city is examining how much more money it would cost to fix the entire system. The answer is not simple because some areas of the city have dirt roads, which would need to be engineered from the ground up.
Tacoma Power would pay the bulk of Prop. 1’s tax. Nearly half of its customers live outside Tacoma city limits, prompting critics to charge that Prop 1 shifts the costs of maintaining city streets onto the backs of residents of places such as University Place and Fife, who have no say in whether Tacoma’s Prop. 1 passes.
But increases in Tacoma Power’s rates, while likely at some point in the future, are not a foregone conclusion. Private utilities such as Puget Sound Energy can increase rates if it can show the state increased costs, but Tacoma Power’s rates could only increase with approval from the City Council.
Broadnax has said he believes Tacoma Public Utilities could absorb some of the cost of the earnings tax, though he is reluctant to say how. TPU spokeswoman Chris Gleason has also said that TPU’s board is unlikely to consider a rate increase until 2015.
However, TPU head Bill Gaines recently said customers will eventually see increases.
“The costs are ultimately going to wind up in the rates,” Gaines said.
City officials defend Prop. 1 by arguing that improvements to city streets will benefit the entire region since people who live elsewhere often visit Tacoma, Pierce County’s employment center, county seat and shopping hub.
But as Bruce Kendall, president/CEO of the economic development board for Tacoma-Pierce County, points out, Prop. 1 focuses on residential streets, not the main roads that visitors and commerce rely on to conduct day-to-day business.
“I’m not arguing that roads are not an issue,” Kendall said. “When businesses are looking to invest in an area and they are looking at basic infrastructure, they are looking at the freeways and the major highways … residential areas are important, but they are not at the same order of importance.”
Commercial customers represent about 11 percent of Tacoma Power’s customers, according to the utility, but provide more than half of its total revenue.
Three companies within Tacoma Power’s service area could pay at least an additional $100,000 per year on their electric bill to make up for an increase in the utility earnings tax, said Tacoma Public Utilities spokeswoman Nora Doyle.
Even small cost increases can harm a company’s competitiveness, said Denise Dyer, manager of Pierce County’s economic development department. Some of the businesses paying increased utility rates might be competing against other company branches in locations with lower taxes.
Dyer said the utility tax could stifle economic growth or drive businesses away from the region entirely.
“These are companies that we want to keep,” Dyer said. “These are companies that employ people every day, which earns us a whole lot more than $5 a month.”
Kendall said the city should more closely examine its budget for money that could be used for road improvements instead of asking voters to increase the utility earnings tax.
At a recent forum on Prop. 1, Dave McEntee, a vice president and spokesman for Simpson Tacoma Kraft, said the city should wait until the Fiscal Sustainability Task Force completes its work. The group, comprised mostly of area business owners and neighborhood leaders, will send its recommendations to the City Council in December. The task force’s goal is to close the city’s $30 million to $40 million budget shortfall.
Even if Prop. 1 doesn’t pass, the city has pledged to spend more money on road repair in the coming years. Last year, the City Council approved a $20 car tab fee that is expected to raise $2.6 million a year for road repair. And last month, the council voted to dedicate $6.2 million from an existing utilities tax to road repairs and engineering.
But city officials say they don’t know where they will get additional streets money without Prop. 1. For the past two years, citizen committees have examined possible revenues to pay for road improvements and have not found any sure answers.
“The light at the end of the tunnel is very dim, and Prop. 1 is a brighter light,” Kingsolver said.
Kate Martin: 253-597-8542
School safety improvements
- 46 school zones would get improvements sooner, including ADA-accessible crosswalks and school-zone flashing beacons
- Funding for 18,000 additional permanent pothole repairs — double what the city does now.
- Repave or resurface 510 residential blocks
- Pay for 12 backlogged neighborhood local improvement district projects.
- Pay matching funds for utility projects to coordinate street improvements with water and sewer upgrades and repairs.
- 70 traffic signals would be repaired and synchronized, which would decrease congestion.
- The city would restripe all center and turn lanes every year instead of every other year.
- Some money would help to secure federal and state grant funds for main roads.
Source: City of TacomaHOW WE GOT HERE
Tacoma’s streets weren’t always this way.
Pitted, cratered, pocked and cracked, it has taken “decades of neglect” to get to this point, said City Councilman Joe Lonergan at a recent Tacoma City Council meeting.
1968: Nearly 69 percent of Tacoma voters approve a property tax measure, prompting a $4 million bond issue to “pay part or all of the cost of acquiring, constructing and making certain capital improvements to the street systems of the City.”
1999: Voters statewide approve Initiative 695, which eliminates the motor vehicle excise tax. A quarter of the money went to local cities and counties.
2006: Tacoma voters defeat a property tax increase to pay for road repairs, which would have cost the owner of a $250,000 home $120 per year and would have raised $8 million per year for six years for road repairs. The issue fails by 1,657 votes. The same year, the city stops rating roads on a 0-100 scale based on their condition because it says it does not have enough money to repair them.
2009: City of Tacoma abandons a plan to ask voters to increase property taxes to pay for road repairs because it wouldn’t earn enough money.
2011: The city convenes a citizen panel called the Mobility Stakeholder Funding Task Force, which is charged with looking for sources of funding to repair city streets.
2012: A second citizen panel, called the Citizens Neighborhood Streets Improvement and Safety Task Force, considers how to spend the money.
Also, the City Council approves a $20 annual vehicle registration fee to pay for city road and sidewalk projects. The fee, which vehicle owners begin paying the following June, is estimated to raise $2.6 million per year.
2013: The council votes to dedicate about $6.2 million directly toward road repairs and engineering. The money had previously come from the city’s general fund, making it subject to budget decisions and pitting roads against other city needs.
HOW TACOMA’S POTHOLES ARE FIXED
While Tacoma’s budget doesn’t include enough money to repair all of the roads, streets still get some attention. The city decides to repair potholes based on a number of factors.
The city’s priority system for fixing residential streets is largely complaint-driven. Residents can report potholes either on the city website or by calling the pothole reporting hotline: cityoftacoma.org/residents/report_a_pothole or 253-591-5161.
The city tracks each pothole complaint in a city database. The city aims to fill potholes on main streets within 48 hours and residential streets within 10 days. Such potholes are initially fixed with a temporary patch, which means a city worker pours an asphalt mix into the pothole and drives back and forth over the area with a heavy truck.
In general, potholes are fixed in the same order they are reported by residents, although the city tries to fill potholes in one area at the same time.
Sometimes, the city repairs a pothole with a permanent repair. In these repairs, the city cuts a square section out of the street around one or more potholes and repaves the area. These repairs are more durable than a temporary pothole patch. It could take the city as long as eight months to get to a permanent pothole repair on eligible streets.
Some streets have so many potholes that it would require the city to repave an entire section of the street. Such areas are moved to a list of roads that need a grind and overlay, for which the city hires a contractor to grind up the top layer of the road and repave it with new asphalt. The city has a five-year backlog for these repairs.
Flat streets, where water collects and does not run off, are not eligible for permanent pothole fixes or grind and overlays. City crews continually fill potholes on these streets with temporary patches. A full repair of such a street would require neighbors to approve a tax on their property to fix their neighborhood street, called a Local Improvement District.
Source: City of Tacoma, Rae Bailey, manager of street operations