It’s way premature to endorse Mayor Marilyn Strickland’s $325 million plan to improve Tacoma’s pitted roads, but we can endorse the way she and her colleagues have approached it.
A good contrast is the city’s failed 2013 plan to raise, at most, a piddling $11 million a year by taxing the customers of Tacoma’s electric, gas and telephone utilities.
That ballot measure — Proposition 1 — started out with two and a half strikes against it.
The money would have barely dented what was then described as an $800 million deficit in repair and construction. In addition to its cracked and decaying existing pavement, the city has 167 gravel and dirt roads, concentrated — naturally — in poorer neighborhoods. Tacoma’s lunar potholes could swallow $11 million a year and still leave the city’s streets looking like the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic movie.
The plan’s backers also neglected to bring along many of the people who’d have to pay the bill. Commercial enterprises, for example, account for more than half of Tacoma Power’s revenues — and some of them complained that they were blindsided by the proposal. The Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce and various corporations wound up spending almost $100,000 to defeat Prop 1.
Roughly half of the utility’s customers live outside the city. They would benefit from better roads in Tacoma, but those benefits aren’t obvious. Supporters of the 2013 measure ought to have persuaded more of the city’s neighbors that they had a stake in the navigability of the region’s urban core. That didn’t happen.
While ratepayers outside Tacoma couldn’t vote on Prop 1, they could raise a stink about it. The Lakewood, University Place and Pierce County councils staged protest votes against the utility tax increase.
The package Strickland and City Manager T.C. Broadnax proposed Tuesday — which would appear on the November ballot — reflects a very different way of thinking.
The revenues would come from multiple sources, not just a stick-it-to-the-neighbors utility tax. The broader base would include a smaller tax on utilities, a 0.1 percent sales tax and a property tax of 20 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. These would be bolstered over 10 years by $30 million in city operating funds plus outside grants.
The city estimates that a typical household would pay $7.50 a month for the package.
Well spent, the $325 million raised could pull Tacoma’s streets out of their current third world condition. A 10-year sunset clause on the voter-approved taxes would let citizens ultimately decide whether they got their money’s worth from the deal.
This time around, city officials are doing their political groundwork early. The Chamber is backing the package — a dramatic turnaround from 2013.
Past city councils and administrators have shamefully neglected Tacoma’s roads. The deferred maintenance and outright ruination can’t be undone solely with regular operating funds. Tacoma needs a major street initiative with broad support. This could be what the city has been been waiting for.