Citizen Harry analyzes Proposition 1 and has a proposition for you, too.

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By Harry Gatjens

The economic and strategic potential of the German Autobahn was not lost on Dwight Eisenhower during World War II. When he became president, Eisenhower pushed forward America’s Interstate Highway System, knowing that good-quality roads would promote both economic growth and a way to move goods and people throughout the country. Today, we still benefit from the road projects initiated during Eisenhower’s tenure.

This is the historical backdrop for Edmonds’ own Proposition 1. Appearing on the upcoming November general election ballot, Proposition 1 is a measure to preserve and improve the condition of Edmonds’ roads. Members of the Transportation Benefit District (TBD) are asking you to agree to a higher annual car license fee to support these improvements. Your cost will go from $20 to $60 per year per vehicle.

 The 411 on Propostion 1

Go back to early this decade when car license tabs included an excise tax that was used to fund road improvements, and car license costs ran as high as $600 or $700 per year. The Washington State Legislature kept increasing the tax in order to fund education and other non-road-related items. The state Department of Licensing based the value of your car for the first three years at full retail price, even though the car depreciated the minute you drove it off the lot.

The public finally said (and rightfully so), this is too much! They passed an initiative to eliminate the excise tax and reduce the car tabs to well under $100. The problem was that while consumers no longer had outrageous license fees, they also eliminated the funding for road improvements.

Edmonds and many other cities have tried to cope with the loss of funding by looking for grants, deferring road maintenance and delaying projects. In 2009, the City Council formed the TBD, which the state had authorized as a new type of organization to help improve transportation issues, be it roads, buses, trains whatever the community needed. TBDs were authorized by the state to impose car license fees of up to $100 per car, per year. Of this amount, up to $20 can be mandated by the TBD; any larger amount requires voter approval. This is why Proposition 1 is on the ballot now.

 What will Proposition 1 do?

Edmonds imposed the first $20 licensing fee in 2009, and it raises about $500,000 annually for roadway funding. The city’s current estimate is that we need about $1.5 million per year to keep the roads in good condition. While it’s not immediately apparent, whenever we spend less than that $1.5 million, our road system gradually deteriorates. The proposition raises funds for this repair.

 In addition to roadway maintenance, the TBD members (essentially members of the Edmonds City Council, but in a different role) have identified 37 specific, transportation-related projects that also need funding. All of these are included in Proposition 1, too.

If approved, each vehicle owner (of cars, trucks and motorcycles but not trailers) would incur a license fee increase of $40 (in addition to the $20 paid now), for a total of $60 per year, per vehicle. Why vehicle owners? Because improving roads is good for vehicles, and thus owners should share in the cost of the roads they (we) use.

How will the money be used?

Of this proposed new amount, half of the funds would go directly to maintaining and resurfacing roads, and half would be earmarked for the 37 related projects. The increased revenue will amount to $1 million per year for roads, or about two-thirds of the needed $1.5 million annual roadway maintenance cost. Public Works Director Phil Williams says that while it is not the whole amount, it would be a big improvement over where the city is today. (The TBD has identified about $13 million worth of roadway projects)

The projects, based upon the list, have a total cost of $61,956.680. Of those, $13 million are considered roadway maintenance and overlays, leaving $49 million for other projects. Based on  the remaining half of the fee ($500,000 annually), it will take almost 100 years to pay for the projects. Somehow this doesn’t all add up.

What happens is that the city will actively try to secure grants from other places to make up the difference. The city can leverage its dollars and secure funding from state and federal programs. For example, the City of Edmonds has already received a commitment for grants of $674,000 to cover 100 percent of one of the projects. However, if you don’t have any of your own money and you don’t have a plan for the improvements you want to make, then the grants are very few and far between.

Pros and cons

Will Proposition 1 solve all of the city’s transportation issues? No. We still need outside funding. On the other hand, the income generated by Proposition 1 would put the city in a substantially better transportation position than it is at present.

Proposition 1 supporters say that if we’re successful at raising the lion’s share of $49 million over the next several years on a contribution of $500,000 per year, that is a pretty good return on everyone’s investment. And, they point out that this fee can only be spent on transportation-related projects, so citizens are insulated from the type of abuse the state Legislature once applied. While this is technically true, these funds also would relieve some of the burden on the city’s general fund, and that money could be spent on other issues.

The anti-Prop 1 group contends that it is a regressive tax, unfair to low-income families. Since we’d each pay $60 per car, whether we’re rich or poor, the economic impact is proportionately greater on an individual with a small income. Setting a tax based on the value of one’s car would tend to even out this burden, but that option is no longer allowed by law

Another issue that comes is that there is no end to the fee. It is said that it will go until such time as either 1. all of the projects are completed or 2. if the projects are funded by bonds, the bonds are paid off. This makes a certain amount of sense as long as there will never be an ability to add additional projects to the list. Otherwise the fee could go on forever.

In the early 1900s, Robert Moses, the man responsible for the road infrastructure in New York City, wrote the legislation for tolls on bridges. While most bridge tolls expire when the bridge is paid for, he craftily worded the legislation to say the tool would be collected until the bridge and or other projects had been paid for. Because of that wording, even though the tolls have paid for New York bridges many times over, they are still being collected. The pro-Proposition 1 committee was not 100 percent clear on whether projects can be added to the list.

What about issues of fairness?

Now as to whether this is the right way to fund these issues. One can make a good argument that since vehicle users benefit from transportation projects, they should be the ones to pay. However, 24 percent of the projects are for sidewalks and bicycle pathways. Should vehicle owners pay for those? Should people who use those amenities, but don’t have vehicles, contribute in some way? Also, whether you own a vehicle or not, you still benefit from the transportation infrastructure. It’s where the buses run, and where trucks deliver food and other goods to stores run.

You might wonder why road maintenance and bicycle paths can’t just be paid for out of the city’s general fund. In this economy, there are many claims on the general fund, and it in turn is disproportionately supported by property taxes; so any additional spending would come at the expense of homeowners, and that’s another “fairness” question.

Let’s ask Phil

There are other questions that can and should be answered about this proposition.  You may have your own. At this Wednesday’s”Coffee with Harry,” Phil Williams, Edmonds’ Public Works Director, will come to add clarity and answer questions you might have. Please join us.

Transportation Infrastructure is an important part of our City. There is no perfect solution for how to fund it. Some ideas seem right because they charge the users, or at least some of them. However, these same ideas create a regressive fee on lower-income people.

I would be more enthusiastic if there was an “ending date” on the fee with voter re-approval needed after that date. I haven’t quite made up my mind on this issue. Come and discuss it this Wednesday and maybe we can help each other decide what is best.

Edmonds resident “Citizen Harry” Gatjens is providing regular reports to My Edmonds News on the workings of the Edmonds city government, including the 2010 Citizens Levy Committee and the Citizens Technology Advisory Committee.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Harry, Eisenhower commissioned the postwar Interstate highway system as a national defense asset, not to mitigate a case of Autobahn envy. The idea was that with a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union at least probable, we needed to be able to move a lot of men and bulky materiel around the US at high speed. Interstates were funded as a national security imperative.

    Bike lanes and light-traffic sidewalks in Edmonds don’t, I think, meet the same urgency test.

    I’ve examined the laundry list of projects to be funded by this $40 tab hike, and I believe the majority fall into the “nice-to-have” category, not “got-to-have.” I have yet to see anyone speak to the cost of NOT doing these projects. Or provide cost-benefit analysis. If we had an extra $2.27 million, would your first impulse be to use it to upgrade Five Corners so motorists pass through it in 12 seconds instead of 16? That’s an expensive four seconds. If the city happened on a spare $6.8 million, would an “enhancement” to the 4th Avenue corridor be the best way to spend it? (4th Avenue as it is doesn’t look so bad to me.) “Enhancement” is a pretty murky term. What’s the cost (in safety, traffic flow, esthetics, whatever) of not doing these things? Or of awaiting better times?

    Outside of the stipend for routine upkeep, I haven’t seen any of these projects tagged with any particular urgency.

    I’m not opposed to Edmonds looking nice. I don’t want roads rotting and cracking. But the times demand greater scrutiny of spending choices — and, I believe, recognition that we are entering an age of austerity in which we must separate the got-to-haves from the won’t-this-look-nices. Eisenhower had a national security imperative; the analogous force in this generation is fiscal caution. The days of writing a big, fat ticket covering every “enhancement” one might like are long over — or ought to be.

  2. would be better to have an ending date to re evaluate the projects on the list . needs change over 60 years. when was the last time a tax was removed voluntarily by gov.

  3. To protect our investment in roads and side walks and right of ways from deteriorating Public Works has spent in the past and estimates in the future that we need between $2.5-$3.0 million per year. For street overlays as an example we need about $1.5m per year. While Edmonds has paved a few streets in the last couple of years it has all been done with federal stimulus money or as a part of a utility project. Edmonds has not paved a street on its own for the last few years.

    Primary streets are estimated to need overlay work every 15-20 years and other streets need overlay work in the 30-40 year range. To keep up with this need is where the $1.5m comes in. Although the first $20 TBD fee goes to the street fund, none of it goes to overlays. This year’s transfer from the General fund was around $770,000 but none of it went to overlays.

    With about 25,000 registered vehicles at $20 each we raise about $500k. The proposed $40 added fee would allocate $20 to overlay work and $20 to the long list of other projects. If you just look at the overlay part that generates $500k for overlay work when the requirement is for about $1.5m just to stay even. The Mayors new budget does not have any money allocated to overlay work. So how are we going to protect the investment we have in streets? How do we make sure we do not create hazards that could open us to lawsuits from bikers and walkers and cars?

    When we look at things like the TBD we can discuss the taxing philosophy but we also need to go back to what it is we want to do with basic services like maintain the infrastructure we have. On one hand we can argue about the merits of the new things on the long list, but on the other hand how do we argue about the basics like keeping the infrastructure we have in an acceptable condition. The questions boil down to what will it take to maintain what we have and where do we get the money to do it. If we want it to come from the TBD then $20 is not enough, it would take about $60 of TBD funds to raise the $1.5m annually. If we want it to come from the general fund then we have to put it in the budget. Since NO GENERAL FUND dollars are going to street overlays we would need to put that in the budget. The bottom line Edmonds has about 20,000 households and we need about $75 per household per year to keep the roads in good condition.

    Logic would suggest that since none of our current taxes go to street overlay work we need to find a way to fund this basic service. We can shift funds from other places in the budget and anger people who want those funds to stay where they are or we can find new funds through a levy increase, a TBD fee, or pass the hat. The bottom line is we need a complete plan to pay for the basics. This is not to say what is the right way but rather to point out that we are kidding ourselves if we think the TBD will take care of street overlay work because it will not be enough unless we dedicated all $60 to street overlays.

  4. Well said, Darroll. Why is the city identifying $65 million in “enhancements” and upgrades of mostly dubious importance, but not budgeting $1.5 million per annum for basic maintenance? Why is nothing from the TBD fund going to overlays?

    I favor infrastructure upkeep first, but “enhancements” only if there is anything left over. If the city came out to voters and said, OK, it’s $75 per household to keep the streets in working order, we’re getting X dollars from the TBD and general funds and we need the rest from you, I would respond: certainly. But I can’t support the $40 hike as it’s presented. It buys too much candy, not enough meat and potatoes.

    As Darroll says, “we need a complete plan to pay for the basics.” To earmark millions for bike paths, building new and lightly trafficked sidewalks in outlying areas, etc. without a plan for “the basics” seems to me to be wrongheaded no matter how good the economy is. With a full-blown recession going on, it’s egregious.

  5. Our City promises us a certain level of service – be it in streets, water and sewer, or parks. Each year, the City staff reviews their operations vs. the standards, and determines what additional investments would be needed to reach the level of service that they have promised.

    When it comes to streets, I think that many of the proposed changes are just that – not simply , “golly, wouldn’t it be nice if we had a roundabout”, but rather, a means of correcting a level of service that is, by our own, codified standards, below standards.

    I don’t see the project list as a bunch of dreamy “nice to have” items, but rather, items that we said we wanted, as we (through our Council) determine the standards of service that the City should strive for.

    There are only two real ways that I see to deal with this:
    1. Approve the fee hike, so that we get what we asked for. Ok, part of what we asked for, as we still have to pay for overlays somehow.
    2. Deny the fee hike, AND accompany that with a clear message that we understand that the level of service isn’t what we expected, but that we’re willing to deal with the lower standards, in order to keep our $. Then… still figure out how to pay for overlays.

    In any case, we have a multi-million dollar gorilla in the room, the overlay plan, that seems to be getting ignored over for some reason. My vote is no on this fee hike – and an understanding that service will suffer. I want to address maintenance of the current level of service first.

  6. There was yet another accident this morning that toppled a power pole on 196th at 88th. This is a very dangerous intersection which is not included in the 37 projects of the Prop 1 plan. The State seems to want that “second slip” for the Mukilteo-Clinton ferry, the impacts of which in terms of traffic and wear on the roads is not even contemplated in the list of 37 projects.
    We need a rational, flexible and fair means to fund our streets. Should Edmonds have to accommodate the influx of traffic created by a second ferry, the maintenance costs of the streets alone will increase. Under Prop 1 the inadequate overlay funding will lag farther behind.
    Increasing the Property Taxes is the fair, flexible and rational way to fund these needed projects. Most property owners have seen their taxes go down and would not be as negatively impacted by a raise in those taxes.

  7. It is true that 196th & 88th is a terrible, hazardous intersection, especially if you are on 88th heading north, and it’s hard to believe 37 road / sidewalk projects in Edmonds are more pressing than fixing the lines of sight or installing a signal here. Another example of cryptic, unexplained priorities surrounding Prop 1.

  8. @Tom and Diane: you should try and get your kids across that intersection whether it be for school and a bike ride..absolutely brutal and I am surprised we have not had worse that a power pole wreck..
    @Darrol: is it true that the city can increase the car fee by $20 w/out a vote? I thought I saw that somewhere at one time. If it is true, if the council had just done that we would then have $1mill in the fund which goes further in handling the overlays. I have no clue why they wanted to list 37 wish list projects that even with the $40 increase will take 60+ years to get done..it reminds me of all the pork inclusion on federal bills..”I’ll back your $40 tax if you give me a roundabout at 5 corners”..

  9. The council cannot increase the fee beyond the already-implemented $20 without voter approval. Voters can approve increments of $20 up to a maximum of $100.

  10. The TBD legislation allows cities to implement the first $20 without voter approval. Voter approval is required for anything additional up to a total maximum of $100.

    The already approved $20 is allocated to street maintenance and preservation. If Proposition 1 is approved, $20 would be allocated to street overlays and $20 would be allocated to street capital projects.

    The City needs about 1.5 million each year for street maintenance. The $20 fee would fund about a third of that need.

    The City also needs about 1.5 million each year for street overlays. The $20 fee would fund about a third of that need. ( This is #1 on the list of 37 projects.)

    If the total $60 dollars were spent on the approved transportation projects and programs, then we would be able to complete the remaining 36 planned improvements. The 36 planned transportation improvements are broken down as follows: 33% safety projects, 30% capacity/concurrency projects, 30% sidewalks, 3% signal upgrades, 3% other, and 1% bicycle projects. Of these projects 2/3 are needed for safety, growth and economic development. The remaining third are sidewalks and enhancements.

    I suggest that you go to the City’s website for an interactive map and description of every project.

    I hope this adds clarity to the discussion.

  11. I’m curious where this requirement of $1.5 million each year for street overlays has come from.
    In June 2006 City Council ruled that REET 2 collections (Real estate excise tax) in excess of $750,000 would go for street overlays. $680,000 was provided for that use in 2006, and $675,000 in 2007. REET collections did not reach $750,000 since then. In 2006 and 2007 the funding was sufficient to bring the overlay cycle to something below 30 years – that was deemed by city staff to be acceptable. So how did we get up to an annual need of $1.5 million???

  12. Phil Williams, Public Works Director, has made several presentations around town about street maintaince. His presentations talked about what dollars are need to do basic street maintaince and protecting our street investment. His presentation talks about residential and primary streets and shows that residential streets have a life of about 30-40 years and primary streets have a life of somewhere around 20 years. He then shows the street miles for each type and cost to overlay and all the details that show for overlays along the annual cost is about $1.5+m. Regular items that deal with other maintaince that include right of way work adds another $1.5+m. So it takes about $3m+ to stand still.

    Ron is far more of an expert on where the money has come from and can come from in the budget but the numbers above show what is needed just stand still. If we believe streets are a basic service we want to protect than $3m is a pretty good estimate.

    Phil has also outlined that other than some Federal Stimulus Money Edmonds has not done any street overlay for several years.

    So if the TBD passes there is $500,000 for overlay work. If we need $1.5m for overlay work we will need some source of funds for the $1m shortfall. If TBD fails we need $1.5m.

    We need to come to some understanding of street overlay costs. The analysis that Phl has presented look pretty good. Once we decide what that number should be then we need to very clear on how we will fund it: Some REET, some General Fund, TBD, New property tax? Finding where the money comes from and goes in this town is much like watching the guy with walnut shells and a pea. Now is the time for us to try to get specific facts and make some plan as to how we will fund a basic service like streets.

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