Mayor proposes funding for road repairs, railroad overpass and police staffing

Over the last few years, Washougal has struggled in three important areas: street maintenance, adding an additional police officer and securing funding for a badly needed second railroad overpass. All of these items have been top priorities for me and the City Council. Due to years of hard work, a recovering economy, strategic city budgeting and successful lobbying for state assistance, we are poised to address all of these items.

Washougal has 66 miles of streets, all requiring some level of maintenance. Two years ago we had a complete visual survey of all our streets, and had a city-wide average pavement condition index (PCI) of 82 out of 100. We have since slipped to a PCI of approximately 77. To prevent further deterioration and maintain streets in their current condition, we need to spend approximately $500,000 per year on street maintenance. Currently we spend $360,000. This is an increase from prior years when we were only able to spend $150,000.

Due to a recovering economy, our revenue from Real Estate Excise Tax (REET – generated when property sells inside the city) has improved such that we are able to commit an additional $100,000 of REET funding toward streets. This additional REET funding, combined with a modest increase in general fund dollars, enables us to get to the needed $500,000 level. With this increase in street maintenance funding, we will continue to stay on top of potholes and road damage as we always have, but will also able to schedule some additional larger repairs on an annual basis.

Residents who live north of any of our at-grade railroad crossings know how much increased train traffic has resulted in delays getting back and forth over the railroad tracks, at any time of day or night, creating frustrating delays and dangerous back-ups onto state Route 14 at 32nd Street. For decades there have been discussions about the need for a second railroad overpass. This is especially important, should we have a prolonged breakdown of a train, or any kind of incident on the tracks themselves or that would compromise the River Road crossing. With all of the traffic at peak hours at Washougal River Road and E Street, even our lone railroad overpass is backing up regularly, and can cause a delay in fire/ EMS and police response coming from our stations.

Recent traffic counts show that the vast majority of vehicle traffic uses the 32nd Street exit off of SR-14, indicating that the east side of Washougal is the best location for a second overpass. The difference in traffic counts is very telling. Additionally, future economic development plans and a need for enhanced access to our Port’s industrial park necessitate that we make improvements to SR-14 on the east side of town. These improvements need to tie into the second crossing. A second overpass is a must-need for our community.

While the need for a second overpass has been evident for years, the hold-up has been determining how we fund it. The overpass is currently projected to cost upwards of $16.5 million, a sum that the city certainly does not have. Thankfully, however, the city was successful this year in getting a $7.5 million transportation grant from the state to go towards the planning and initial phases of the project. The city is also in discussions with other agencies to piece together additional grants for the rest of the project, but it is likely that we will need some local funds to help pay for the overpass.

While I am the last person who would like to cause our residents to pay more in taxes or fees, I have proposed to the City Council (acting as our new Transportation Benefit Board of Directors) that we enact a $20 per vehicle license tab fee. The funds from this fee, in my proposal, will only be used to pay-off any bonding needed to pay for the overpass project.

I made this proposal for two reasons.

First, with the funding provided by the state, this is likely our only real opportunity to construct an additional overpass in the foreseeable future. Second, the car tab fee is as close to a true user fee that you will ever find. If you don’t have a vehicle, you won’t pay the fee. If you do have a vehicle, the fee will go directly to a major transportation project in our own community. I don’t expect that residents will be happy with the fee, but the reality is that the need for an overpass is crucial to our community.

Finally, the calls for service to our police department have climbed dramatically in the last few years. Some of this increase is due to additional residents moving to our community, and some is attributable to cuts in services at the state-level for some of our vulnerable residents. No matter what the reason, when a call for help comes in, we need to be able to respond in a timely manner.

Currently the Washougal Police Department has 19 sworn police officers (including the chief and commander). To keep up with the increased call volume, we could easily use two to three more patrol officers, but current funding levels preclude that from being possible. However, due to increased general fund revenues from the recovering economy, and continued restraint on annual expenses, we are confident that we can allocate funding for one additional police officer in 2016.

This additional officer will certainly help by reducing call ratios and relieving some overtime. There is no doubt that we have plenty of neighborhood complaints, such as speeding, that an additional officer can help cover as well.

All of these items will be discussed at the Aug. 24 City Council meetings. If street maintenance, a second overpass and an additional police officer are important to you, I urge you to attend the meetings and let the city councilors know your thoughts.

Washougal Mayor Sean Guard can be reached at sean.guard@cityofwashougal.us.

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