Politics & Government

Mayor unveils $325 million plan for Tacoma roads

Voters could consider two tax issues this fall to repair and reconstruct Tacoma’s increasingly ragged roads.

The package has been scaled back since Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland first proposed a $500 million road repair plan in her February state of the city address.

Her new $325 million proposal, which she unveiled publicly Tuesday, includes $175 million in new voter-approved taxes, $30 million from the city’s general fund, and $120 million in anticipated state and federal grants, all raised over a 10-year period. The voted taxes would sunset after 10 years, prompting the city to put them back on the ballot.

“Every 10 years the voters will have evidence that we are doing what we promised to do,” Strickland said. “... We are going to deliver on a promise. If you look at the work we are doing throughout the city, you are seeing progress.”

Tacoma is not alone nationwide in failing to maintain its infrastructure, Strickland said Monday. Road and bridge repairs have taken a back seat to economic development and weathering the Great Recession in recent years.

With the local economy on the rebound, Strickland said now’s the time to ask voters again.

One proposed ballot measure asks voters to approve an additional 1.5 percent tax on gross earnings for power, telephone and natural gas utilities. A second measure includes two items: a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax and a property tax of 20 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation.

If voters approve both measures, each household could expect to pay about $7.50 per month, Strickland said.

The package and related investments would rebuild and maintain 70 percent of Tacoma’s residential streets and dedicate some money to projects outlined in the city’s transportation master plan.

“Oddly enough, Tacoma has a lot of gravel streets for an urban area,” Strickland said.

With the money, the city could pave 167 gravel roads currently within the city limits, maintain about 4,200 blocks of residential streets in excellent, good or fair condition, and resurface up to 1,500 blocks of streets in failed or poor condition, she said. About $20 million would pay for flashing lights at school crossings, build missing sidewalks and pay for work on the city’s transportation master plan.

The road projects could generate around 420 direct and indirect jobs per year, said Mark Martinez, executive director of the Pierce County Building and Construction Trades Council.

The proposal comes nearly two years after Tacoma voters defeated a measure that would have raised up to $11 million per year by increasing the utility earnings tax by 2 percent for power, natural gas and telephone service.

At the time, critics said $11 million per year wasn’t enough to dent what then was characterized as an $800 million problem.

The Pierce County, Lakewood and University Place councils took symbolic votes against the issue because they objected to raising rates on Tacoma Power customers outside of the city of Tacoma. About half of the utility’s 170,000 customers are outside of Tacoma’s city limits.

An increase to the utility gross earnings tax means power users outside of Tacoma would see a small bump in electricity rates, said Tacoma Public Utilities Director Bill Gaines on Monday.

Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber CEO Tom Pierson, a critic of the 2013 measure, said the group supports the mayor’s latest proposal. He said the city needs to find a way to make critical repairs to residential streets and Port of Tacoma access roads.

“We just had a board meeting last week, and we talked about this,” Pierson said of the ballot issues. “If not this, then what?”

Since the 2013 measure’s defeat, the Tacoma City Council has dedicated more money to street repairs and improvements.

In 2013, the city established a $20 per vehicle car tab, which raises $2.4 million to pay for road projects. Later that year the city dedicated $6.5 million per year to a street repair fund — money the city receives from an existing utility earnings tax. And last year, the City Council approved a two-year budget that dedicates $2.6 million for a five-person pothole repair crew.

The city also is wrapping up its crosswalk construction effort, which spent about $3.3 million to build crosswalks and other small projects in many neighborhoods all over Tacoma.

Strickland said if the ballot issues do not succeed this fall, voters can expect to see them in a special election sometime in early 2016.

The two road repair measures would join an already crowded fall ballot, which could include two proposals to increase the city’s minimum wage and City Council elections. The council has until 4:30 p.m. Aug. 4 to place items on the ballot.

Seattle voters will decide on a nine-year, $930 million property tax this fall to pay for transportation improvements.