Leveraging of roads dollars lands city $21 million in grants

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The City of Tacoma is well on track to top the campaign promise of turning the $175 million raised from the two streets packages voters approved in 2015 into $325 million worth of work.

“Without that money, we couldn’t apply for these grants,” said Public Works Engineering Division Manager Chris E. Larson.

The city, for example, just received $21 million in state and federal grants. Those six grants bring the running total to about $45 million toward the goal of $90 million, when the roads packages expire in 2025.

“We are well ahead of where we thought we would be,” Public Works Director Kurtis D. Kingsolver said. “I feel really good about where we are at. I think we will exceed the $90 million, but I’d be hard pressed to guess what that will be.”

The recent grants, from the Washington State Department of Transportation, Washington State Transportation Improvement Board and the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, will fund projects that range from roadways and bridges to walking trails and pedestrian bridges. Specifically, $2.5 million will go to roadwork on South 19th Street, from Union Avenue to Mullen Street; $2.9 million will help fund the Yakima Avenue Bridge work; and $8.8 million will go toward re-doing Taylor Way between State Route 509 and East 11th Street. Another $50,000 will help improve the McCarver Street railroad crossing and $346,0000 will redo South 19th from Cedar Street to Bates Technical College.

The most anticipated project funded by the slate of grants is a complete redo of East 64th Street from Pacific Avenue to McKinley Avenue. The $6,501,958 grant will help add curbs, storm drains, gutters, bike lanes and sidewalks to a new roadway along that well-traveled – and crumbling – strip after years of attempts.  The city had been looking at ways to redo the 64th Street roadway for the last 30 years, but the high price tag had put it out of reach until now. Future phases will extend the improvements along the full street, first to Portland Avenue and then to the city limits by about 2019. The total cost will be $9.5 million, with just $3 million coming from local dollars.

“That’s a really big project,” Kingsolver said. “That is an example of what we want to do with street improvement dollars.”

The two voter-approved road packages in 2015 levied a 1.5 percent utility tax and added a 20-cent per $1,000 tax on property as well as boosted sales taxes by .1 percent. Proposition 3 generates $130 million, increasing transportation funding from $118 million to $248 million over the 10-year term. Proposition A raises $4.5 million a year in sales taxes, more than doubling the Transportation Benefit District funding to $7 million.

That influx of cash for roadwork gets multiplied with grant dollars by either being used for design work or matching funds Tacoma’s street budget couldn’t afford.

The $2.5 million grant the city recently received, for example, pays for the bulk of the 19th Street work, which only requires $850,000 from the city’s streets initiative fund. Outside of continuing to aggressively seek grants for future projects, one challenge now is coordinating with the utility companies about their need to dovetail street improvements onto their work schedules.

“We don’t want to have to dig up a road twice,” Kingsolver said. “For the first time in my career, I’m the one driving the bus.”

Public Works will provide its annual progress report of the work the street initiatives funded last year at the City Council study session on March 27.

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