Spokane Journal of Business

Regional transportation benefit district loses traction

County push continues for transportation fix; cities remain hesitant

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Spokane County continues its push for a regional transportation benefit district, while cities remain hesitant to jump on board of an initiative that could divert important transportation dollars away from them, officials say.

County Commissioner Todd Mielke says discussions about a regional transportation benefit district that would cover all 2,600 miles of roadway in the county started in late 2008.

"Regional districts are extremely difficult to form," Mielke says.

The regional transportation benefit district here, as envisioned, would include 13 cities and towns within the county. Mielke says the goal of the district would be to fund transportation-related improvement projects considered "regionally significant," a term loosely used to describe a project that would benefit two or more jurisdictions within the district.

An interlocal agreement drafted Aug. 16, 2010, the latest draft available, says that of the transportation revenue collected by the jurisdictions, 70 percent would be divided up and redistributed to cities and towns based on a formula that uses population and vehicle miles of travel. The remaining 30 percent would be set aside for projects dubbed regionally significant. Funding would likely come from a vehicle license fee or an increase in sales tax.

To be implemented, the regional transportation benefit district needs to be approved by elected officials of Spokane County and 60 percent of the cities that represent at least 75 percent of the population within the county, a hurdle that the county is still fighting to cross.

"If you define the boundary as countywide, a big player like Spokane Valley, if they say not interested, that basically means every (other) jurisdiction needs to do it," Mielke says.

He says cities and towns in the county have remained relatively silent about whether they're interested in pursuing a regional transportation benefit district, a move he claims could help maintain the county's transportation system even as state and federal transportation dollars decline.

"I've been challenged to get a clear response for a significant period of time now," Mielke says.

With cities able to create their own transportation benefit districts, some have questioned whether a regional district is needed.

"That's always easy if you assume all your residents don't leave the (city) limits," Mielke says.

He contends that within the county, it's common for residents to move from one jurisdiction to another.

"One of the discussions has been how do they address (the jurisdictions') future transportation needs," Mielke says. "So far, we—the rest of the jurisdictions—have been waiting for Spokane Valley to make some decisions probably for the last 2 1/2 years."

Gary Schimmels, deputy mayor for the city of Spokane Valley, says with revenue for the benefit district possibly coming from a car tab fee, it's an issue that would be hard to get past voters. He says to him and for most of the city council, it's a dead issue.

"We've struggled with this whole thing; it's not just us," Schimmels says. "I don't think there's any consensus yet."

Schimmels speculates jurisdictions may be holding off on agreeing to a regional transportation benefit district to see how state transportation funding plays out, particularly what projects are funded by the state.

"It isn't just an outward no," Schimmels says, adding it just "isn't worth all the grief to go collect $20 for a car tab."

City of Spokane Council President Ben Stuckart says the city is split over the idea of a regional transportation benefit district, but adds he's in favor of its creation.

"The benefit of a regional transportation district means we would have money locally to put into big projects that benefit the entire region," he says, pointing specifically to the North Spokane Corridor.

The city of Spokane created its own transportation benefit district in 2011, paid for by a $20 car tab fee implemented Sept. 1, 2011. Stuckart estimates that the car tab fee generates about $2.2 million annually that is used to help maintain the city's transportation system. That money is mostly used for grinding and overlay street projects.

"When you're spending it on preventative measures, you can lengthen the life of a roadway by 20 to 40 years," Stuckart says. "We've been pretty preventative with our money, and I think it'll pay off in the long run."

Stuckart says the city of Spokane's transportation benefit district would dissolve if a regional transportation benefit district were to form. The district will disband automatically once pavement maintenance and pedestrian projects associated with the city's 2012-2017 six-year comprehensive street program are completed.

"We're struggling to get other jurisdictions to agree to come to the table," Mielke says, adding that when the interlocal agreement was drafted three years ago, he believes some people thought it was the final version.

Although cities and towns throughout the state have created their own transportation benefit districts, a regional transportation district has yet to form in the state of Washington, Mielke says. He attributes that to the high percentage of jurisdictions that need to agree on its creation.

Cheney mayor Tom Trulove says implementing a car tab fee in Cheney would yield little benefit. Home to Eastern Washington University, a four-year state institution that has more than 10,000 students annually, Trulove says more than half of the cars in Cheney aren't registered in Washington.

More than a decade ago, Cheney implemented its own transportation improvement program known as the Cheney Street Maintenance and Sidewalk Overlay Program. Paid for with a 5 percent utility tax, Trulove says it manages to take into account the state institution, which doesn't pay tax but does pay utilities, and a migrant student body.

"In a town like this, it's a real fair way to spread the burden," Trulove says. For 2013, the program is budgeted at $380,000. Trulove says it typically hovers around $400,000 and can fluctuate depending on utility services provided.

One concern he has is whether projects in Cheney would even be considered regionally significant, adding that the city's idea of a regionally significant project would be to make state Route 904 a five-lane highway with center turn lane.

He says although a regional option "has a lot of merit," and Cheney has worked more closely with the Spokane Regional Transportation Council, a metropolitan planning organization, how to finance a benefit district needs to be looked at more closely.

"We're not isolationists at all, but the proposals at this point—the license tab fee—just didn't resonate," Trulove says. "It would be a really hard sell for us."

He says he's unsure if anything could replace Cheney's current street maintenance program, speculating that by taxing utilities, the city could handle continued population growth.

"It's absolutely appropriate that (Spokane County is) looking at other sources," Trulove says. "It's an important thing, transportation."

He adds, "There are still a lot of conversations to be had and we still want to participate in those discussions, but we have a few issues and concerns we have to understand better," Trulove says. "Since our voters are already putting an extra tax on ourselves, it's hard to tell them we're going to tax them for the same thing."

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