Bellingham develops potential transit funding mechanism

Funding is tight for city road projects this year, and the future doesn't look much better. This has led the...

By Ryan Wynne

Every year, Bellingham city staff is required to draft a comprehensive plan for transportation projects and each year the City Council must approve that plan. It sounds fairly straightforward. How contentious can transportation planning be? Apparently, it can be quite divisive.

The City Council narrowly approved this year’s Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) at the end of June. With Councilman Stan Snapp absent, the council’s initial vote was 3-3, meaning it failed. Councilman Jack Weiss said he would hold his vote unless a project in the plan was amended. It was amended. That was enough to sway Weiss, but not councilmen Barry Buchanan and Gene Knutson. The plan was ultimately approved in a 4-2 vote.

Before the final vote, Knutson said he had never voted against a TIP, but that he couldn’t bring himself to support this one.

“I firmly believe it’s the wrong thing to do,” Knutson said.

Most projects in the TIP are of the usual transportation creed, but Knutson had a problem with one specific project: No. 17. That project is new to the TIP and involves enhancing capital facilities and capacity for public transit, which means the city could potentially contribute funds to Whatcom Transportation Authority (WTA).

But at this point, it only has potential. None of the projects in the TIP are absolute, but are meant to show the city’s intent, or the projects it hopes to do. Whether this specific project gains ground is even less certain. That, in part, is because it won’t rely on traditional methods of funding.

Project 17 is one of three in the TIP that would receive funding through a newly established “transportation benefit district,” an independent citywide taxing district that is designed to fund specifically identified transportation projects.

Funding sources scarce

David Webster, chief administrative officer for the city of Bellingham, said Mayor Dan Pike proposed the district because high-priority projects for the city and citizens need funding and because a majority of Bellingham voters expressed interest in keeping transit whole. Because of the economic downturn, the city continues to be challenged to keep up with transportation needs, he said.

“There is a growing list of projects in the unfunded column [of the TIP],” Webster said.

Since late 2008, the city has cut $30 million out of its budget, Webster said. The street fund has seen its share of those cuts, which is leaving certain essential projects in the TIP unfunded.

One of those neglected projects is annual arterial pavement resurfacing. Bellingham Transportation Planner Chris Comeau said the city has a goal to overlay 5 percent of city streets per year, but it is not even close to meeting that goal. In fact, he said, there have been years when overlay was skipped altogether. If streets are left too long without new surfacing, they fall apart, and the cost of fixing them is much greater than overlaying them.

Funds for transportation projects aren’t drying up just in Bellingham. Comeau said it’s difficult for most cities to get funding for projects. In addition to reductions in tax revenue, and thus city budgets, there are fewer grant dollars available for projects.

“We definitely received less money in 2009 than we did in past years, but that is a reflection of funding that’s available,” Comeau said. “There’s been a massive change in the past two years.”

Basically, there is very little funding available, Comeau said, and every city in northwest Washington is a lot hungrier for federal and state money.
“There’s an endless list of transportation needs out there, but the funding is becoming scarce,” Comeau said. “When there is a lack of funding elsewhere, we have to be more creative.”

And so the city got creative and decided to propose formation of the transportation benefit district, he said.

A new taxing district is formed

The City Council approved formation of the district in a  4-3 vote, with Knutson, Buchanan and Snapp opposed. That same divided council will now act as the benefit district’s board and decide what direction the district takes.

In order for projects to be included on the list of transportation benefit district projects, they must be listed on the TIP. The three projects currently slated to receive transportation benefit district funding are TIP-project 1: annual arterial pavement resurfacing; project 16: non-motorized transportation options, which include flashing crosswalks, sidewalk connections and bicycle facilities; and the contentious project 17: transit enhancement options, which could restore funding for the WTA and save someservice within the city that will be cut due to a lack of funding.

However, none of those projects will receive benefit district funding until the City Council decides how that funding should be collected. According to Washington law, the council could vote to add a $20 fee to annual vehicle license registrations without voter consent, but city staff seemed to be leaning toward putting a proposal before the voters on Nov. 2. That proposal could raise the sales-and-use tax by as much as .2 percent for 10 years.

While project 17 was met with several long City Council and public discussions, the remaining TIP projects received much less attention.

Notable TIP projects

Comeau said there are some noteworthy projects in this year’s TIP.

Project 5 will create a connection between Bellis Fair Parkway and Eliza Avenue, thus helping traffic flow in the area.

There are also three new waterfront multimodal improvement projects, and a project that would create major pedestrian crossing points on Samish Way between Bill McDonald Parkway and Maple Street.

Project 13 calls for safety and circulation improvements on Barkley Boulevard. Comeau said there are tremendous traffic backups in that area, so the city wants to change the west approach to the intersection by adding another lane.
The intersection of Meador Avenue and James Street will eventually get another stop sign.

“It has reached a point where so many things are going on there that it will need to be a four-way stop,” Comeau said.

As part of that project, the city has plans to provide on-street bicycle and pedestrian facilities between Meador Avenue and Ellis Street. Unlike most projects in the TIP, though, this one is fully funded. It is scheduled for completion in spring of 2011.

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