Pots of Money

If you’ve walked, jogged, biked, driven or ridden the bus through Spokane recently, you know that the roads could use some work. They’re wavy, rutted, pocked, scarred and misshapen. Everyone knows that.

But basalt and blacktop are only a slice of Spokane’s pavement predicament. The real mess is money. Consider the estimate that for every year of minimal road repair and maintenance done by the city (about $5 million worth this year), another $7 million of damage gets worn into the streets. Then consider that City Hall is currently hemorrhaging money and that Spokane voters have blocked every attempted road repair bond measure since 1987.

What you get is a flat-broke city with a $236 million backlog in road repair. What you get, says Spokane Journal of Business publisher and self-made streets activist Greg Bever, “is a totally crumbling infrastructure. And the longer we wait, the more it crumbles. We’re at the turning point of a crisis.”

So Mayor Jim West, from deep in his own asphalt end zone, and fronted by Bever and other citizen linemen, is lobbing up a Hail Mary pass that he thinks could put Spokane back in the game. On Nov. 2, voters will weigh in on City Proposition 1, a proposal that would allow the city to cash in $117,351,000 worth of bonds and kick off a 10-year program that, City Hall says, will maintain and repair 110 miles of Spokane streets.

That’s right, another bond measure. Another uptick in property taxes. Another attempt to save the streets. But before your eyes roll right out of your head, it’s worth noting that this ain’t your average, everyday bond measure.

For starters, it’s the biggest, most expensive one ever proposed in Spokane, chewing up more than half of the city’s bonding capacity. The cost to voters: 68 cents per $1,000 of their property’s assessed value, per year. So, the owner of an average Spokane house, with an assessed value of $100,000, would pay $68 every year, or about 18 cents a day, for the next 10 years, to fund the street repair program.

That kind of breakdown is enough to scare many voters away from the proposition, especially people like Lilo Harris, a retired business owner who says the city needs to make due with the money it already gets. “You know they have enough,” says Harris, echoing the sentiments of many voters suspicious of City Hall. Some critics point to the $15 million bond the city council enacted last year for road repairs.

Mayor West knows he has a tough task ahead of him: to repair the streets and to repair the broken trust felt by some citizens like Harris. However, while Mayor West recognizes the price tag’s potential to turn some voters off, he suggests that it may have an opposite effect on others. While campaigning for office last year, he says, he met a number of people who voted down a $50 million street repair measure in 2002 because they felt it wasn’t enough to make a dent or spread to those streets that they personally used the most. Bever suggests that the difference with City Prop 1 is that, whereas earlier attempts like the 2002 measure only tried to throw a roadblock in the path of street deterioration, “this plan calls for us to catch up.”

And indeed, the length of the bill is exceeded only by the list of streets the city intends to repair with the bond money. During six public forums, city planners met with more than 200 citizens to target a total of 110 miles of city roads in need of repair and maintenance. That includes 37 miles of major arterials and public safety corridors, 52 miles of residential streets and seven miles of streets impacted by utility work. In addition, the city will help certain neighborhoods form local improvement districts so they can pave 14 miles of now-unpaved gravel streets.

Not only have the city and the citizens’ committee identified the total mileage of the project, but they’ve mapped out which stretches of which streets they’ll work on, when they’ll do the work and how much each project will cost (see sidebar).

And to ease the suspicions of those who voted against previous street bond measures because they feared the city would use the money for “lawn bowling,” Mayor West has established a Citizens Streets Commission to audit all spending on road repair and maintenance. And that commission won’t just oversee expenditures under the new bond measure; even if the city prop flops in November, the commission will continue to function as a watchdog for all street spending.

To make the process even more transparent, the city has already begun to track the progress of street construction projects on its Web site, www.spokanestreets.com. In September, Mayor West told KPBX that citizens “can hold us accountable and look to say ‘You said you were going to do X street in Y year. Did you do it?’ And we’ll be able to say ‘Yes, we did, and here’s how it worked out.'”

But, transparent or opaque, not everyone is enthusiastic about City Proposition 1. While five Spokane City Council members endorsed the plan last week — including councilwoman Cherie Rodgers, who characterized the measure as a gift to her grandchildren’s generation — councilman Bob Apple disagreed. “It’s a bad deal,” he says. Apple points out that the bond would accrue $41 million in interest over the 20 years it’s sold off. “Out of $117 million, that’s a pretty high interest rate,” Apple objects, and indeed the interest payments represent nearly 35 percent of the bond’s total value.

Instead, Apple suggests taxing owners of parking spaces all across the city $1 per space and using that money, which would eventually come out of motorists’ pockets, to help fund road repair. Either that, he says, or refiguring a new bond proposal in the coming year that wouldn’t cost taxpayers nearly so much in interest.

He also worries that the city doesn’t know how to build streets properly, citing areas of Grand and Northwest Boulevards that have been paved at least twice in the last several years when he says they should last 50 years. “We don’t have any requirements for putting in streets right, yet we’re going to get a bond and tell people that we’re going to put them in right. They fall apart — they won’t last.”

But Mayor West calls Apple “misinformed,” insisting that standards do exist for road construction in Spokane and adding that part of the focus of the bond-backed 10-year repair program would be to rebuild roads from the ground up. It won’t be a matter, he says, of doing patch-and-run jobs and moving on the next street. He cites recent projects in the Indian Trail area, where the city laid down as much as nine inches of asphalt (as opposed to the usual two or three) to keep the roads intact for the next half century.

To Apple’s contention that the current bond measure is a “bad deal,” the mayor concedes that, “there is no magic bullet. We’ve been waiting 20-plus years for a perfect solution, and the problem keeps getting worse.”

It’s gotten so bad that the city declared the street situation an “emergency” in the opening passage of its ordinance concerning the bond measure. City spokeswoman Marlene Feist says that declaring an emergency expedited the process enough to allow the city to put it on the Nov. 2 ballot. (The measure was originally slated for a spring 2005 election.) “The city felt a sense of urgency from the citizens,” says Feist. “[We] wanted higher voter turnout, to see what a majority of citizens think in a highly contested election year. We’re asking voters: Is now the time to pay to fix these streets?”

But the rhetoric from many proponents of City Proposition 1 seems to belie more than just a civic pulse-check. In a recent conversation with The Inlander, Mayor West likened the city’s relationship with its street problem to a small pickup truck with a snowplow on the front, pushing back a quickly accumulating wall of snow: “The city has seen this coming and done nothing.” Eventually, he says, the truck can push no more and the engine dies. “We can’t push it off … there won’t be a city left to save.”