Grants, partnerships, taxes continue to fuel road improvements

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Road workers and construction cones are increasingly becoming everyday sights around Tacoma after voters approved two streets initiatives in 2015. Photo by Steve Dunkelberger

Public Works officials presented the department’s annual roads improvement roundup and plan for 2018 at the City Council study session on Tuesday. The takeaway? Grants and partnerships are stretching dollars farther than first projected, but that means coordinating the work has slowed progress.

Tacoma voters approved Proposition 3 and Proposition A in 2015, collectively known as the Streets Initiative. The packages hiked property and utility taxes, car tabs and sales taxes to raise an estimated $175 million over 10 years. That money is then leveraged with grants and $30 million in general fund dollars to bump that total to about $325 million for street repairs, trails, safety features and bridge work through 2025. The initial grant estimate might have been too conservative, which means more money for streets.

The city accepted three more grants, totaling $5,244,281, just this week for pedestrian facilities, trails, bikeways, and pedestrian railroad crossings. The city’s total match is $1 million, meaning $1 in local funding brought in another $5 toward the projects. These latest grants came in addition to earlier ones, totaling $21.3 million just last year.

A requirement in the initiatives requires an annual report on the progress of the work and the forecast for the work in the coming year.

The 2017 roundup is that crews spent $12.9 million in work but had budgeted $19.8 million, which leaves $6.9 million in future years. But that is more of a ledger shift because planning and coordinating timelines with utility and school crews to dovetail street improvements into their upgrades has slowed projects that will be done soon.

That said, road crews have been busy. Crews have, for example, done road overlays on 844 residential blocks of streets since the packages passed and are projected to do another 800 blocks in 2018, now that the coordination timelines have been figured out. Other work has included 1,840 feet of sidewalks and the installation of 39 caution beacons around Tacoma schools.

The volume of work, however, is causing some frustration and confusion in many neighborhoods, as residents see some blocks getting repaved while other nearby streets receive little or no attention. The patchwork of seemingly random street repairs thus far had been done to coordinate with other needed projects – new sewer line, new communication lines or traffic flow improvements – so roads aren’t repaired only to be torn up again years later for that work. But that background reasoning really hasn’t been conveyed in pre and post-work mailers to area residents and area businesses.

“This is an area, frankly, that we have to get better at,” Public Works Director Kurtis Kingsolver said.

Another area that will likely see changes is the allocation of how the money is being spent, with about three out of every four dollars going toward residential street repairs. Most neighborhoods need either sidewalks installed or repaired. But there are few funding and grant sources for them. The city could shift more money to sidewalks, at the cost of street repairs, for example. That, however, might run afoul of voter expectations since they wanted potholes filled when the packages were approved three years ago. There is also the fact that sidewalk repairs fall on the abutting property owners’ responsibility once they are installed. Sidewalks cost about $50 per foot, which would hit property owners hard at a time property taxes are on the rise as values continue to skyrocket.

Money, however, could be used for a low-interest loan program to spread that cost over five years or so, but the administrative costs would eat away at the funding sources used for streets.

“I want to make sure we follow through with what we said to the voters what we would do,” Kingsolver said.

One large project that is moving forward is the Lincoln Streetscape Project. Crews have shifted traffic to the south side of South 38th Street so they can focus street work on the north side of the street from South J Street to South Fawcett Avenue. Traffic will continue to be reduced to one lane in each direction and on-street parking in the construction zone will remain temporarily removed. This is just one of the steps of Phase 1 of the streetscape project and is expected to run through July and include road, pedestrian, landscaping and sidewalk improvements.

Learn more about street and transportation projects around the city by visiting TacomaStreetsInitiative.org.

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