By Lance Henderson
The circulatory system within the human body is unchangeably tied to the body’s growth. As the body grows, the circulatory system must grow with it.
The same principle applies to transportation within the city of Bellingham.
The body is Bellingham and its urban growth area and the circulatory system is the network of side streets, arterials and major thoroughfares, which transport everyone in Bellingham — on bikes and in cars and buses — to the places they need to go.
But just like with the human body, transportation infrastructure must grow concurrently with land use.
On June 1, the Bellingham City Council adopted the city’s six-year Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) for 2010 to 2015, which is essentially a state-mandated transportation planning document that lists infrastructure projects with full funding within three years and planned projects without complete funding slated for as far out as six years.
Projects on the TIP are generated from a larger list of needed projects identified in the city’s comprehensive plan, which is updated every seven years.
Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike said the TIP is supposed to be an annual reality check when the city has to reconcile the current transportation needs with the available funding.
“One of the things we don’t want to do is put projects on the list just because we think that maybe they will happen at some point,” Pike said. “We want to have more assurance, such as perhaps some funding has already been secured or we have done significant planning — then it would be appropriate to put it on the list, but not because we think that maybe in six years we might be able to do it.”
Projects listed on the TIP that could see construction by the end of 2012 are pedestrian improvements on McLeod Road, a roundabout at the intersection of Northwest Avenue and McLeod Road, intersection and pedestrian improvements at Bill McDonald Parkway and 25th Street near Western Washington University, and, finally, bridge replacement and multi-modal improvements for James Street Road between Woodstock and Orchard streets.
‘Money has its own gravity’
When talking about city dollars, it’s all about leveraging local money to attract state and federal funds in order to make local money go as far as possible.
Chris Comeau, transportation planner for the city of Bellingham, said for projects to receive state and federal money they must first be adopted in the TIP. Therefore, projects selected for the TIP must straddle a line of local need and the project’s ability to attract other money.
“What we do is look at those facilities and we try to choose the ones that we think are needs but are also good grant funding candidates,” Comeau said.
Pike said one of the best things a city can do to get more money for transportation infrastructure projects is to attach city money to projects they feel are high-priority needs.
“That’s important because money has its own gravity,” Pike said. “They want to see that you have some skin in the game and that the project is serious.”
For example, the roundabout project slated for the intersection at McLeod Road and Northwest Avenue will complement another roundabout to be built this year on the north side of Interstate 5. It also received both state and federal funding.
Comeau said due to the project’s proximity to Shuksan Middle School, the city was able to join local dollars with a $780,000 Safe Routes to Schools grant awarded for the roundabout.
“That is because the roundabout is going to provide a much safer situation for school kids from Shuksan Middle School walking and biking up and down the corridor of Northwest Avenue,” Comeau said.
The roundabout project then competed against projects from all other jurisdictions in Northwest Washington to win a $1.6 million grant from the state Transportation Improvement Board.
“It’s a major corridor,” Comeau said. “We expect that there are going to be more users there in the future, so we are trying to plan for that and get a facility constructed that will meet the need.”
Comeau said the TIP is prioritized with projects with full funding at the top and those with shakier funding but high priority toward the bottom. Such projects include expensive waterfront infrastructure projects. the Birchwood-James multimodal corridor and San Juan Boulevard.
“Last year, the McLeod roundabout was No. 14 on the list; however, we got the $1.6 million grant, which bumped it all the way to the top. Now it is going to get built,” Comeau said.
The recession strikes again
Slow economic times have already taken a toll on Bellingham’s transportation infrastructure improvement. The city used to divert 49 percent of sales tax revenue to the street fund, an annual repaving and resurfacing program. Recently that amount was reduced to 42.5 percent.
Pike said the city of Bellingham has never had a year-over-year decline in sales tax revenue as long as they have been keeping records, however it is currently on pace to come in 15.5 percent below last year’s sales tax revenue.
“Right now, we are down because our resources are down,” Pike said.
For the last several years, Comeau said the city has used real estate excise tax (REET) money to fund bicycle and pedestrian improvements. However, as the housing market has dwindled, the REET funding stream has all but dried up.
“We have been told by the Finance Department to decrease the amount that we plan for those types of projects in the future and that we don’t have any access to first quarter REET funding [from 2010 to 2015],” Comeau said.
For the second quarter REET funds, Comeau said the Finance Department has asked the Public Works Department to decrease the amount they plan with those funds from $550,000 a year to $450,000 a year.
“That is before they even get a chance to see what the trends are looking like for this year,” Comeau said. “We may end up having to make another adjustment to that. We are working under the assumption that the money will be there, but it doesn’t mean that it is going to be there. It is completely dependent on what kind of real estate activity takes place.”
‘We did not want to create a false expectation’
At the end of the day, Bellingham’s six-year TIP is a planning document that is constantly trying to balance transportation needs with money available at the local, state and federal levels, which is a constantly changing situation.
This year, there are only 13 projects on the TIP, whereas the city usually carries closer to 20 projects.
“There is always going to be more transportation need than there is money,” Comeau said. “We want to make sure that everyone understands that this is not a wish list. We can’t just endlessly list projects that people would like to see built because all it does is create false expectations and, in the long run, make the city look very ineffective at getting things done.”
Comeau said during normal budget years, the city asks the 24 representatives of the mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission for Bellingham neighborhoods to submit project priorities from the list of approximately 120 projects identified in the transportation element of the city’s comprehensive plan. The city also normally asks the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee to produce a top five priority list for bicycle and pedestrian-specific projects, as well as a top five priority list of pedestrian crossing locations. But none of that was done this year, due to city’s constrained fiscal situation.
“We did not want to create a false expectation and lead people to believe that they were going to be submitting a list that we could somehow attend to. We don’t have any money,” Comeau said.
Pike said this year and next year promise to be challenging fiscal years, but he hopes to return to getting public and advisory committee input on transportation projects as soon as the economy rebounds.
“We are trying to be very transparent with everyone about what the situation is and what the results of that situation are,” Pike said. “However, it’s unfortunate because for a lot of people, this (road construction) is where the government meets their doorstep.”