Transportation Benefit District is needed for railroad overpass in Washougal

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category icon Columns, Opinion
Washougal Mayor Sean Guard

Any of our Washougal-area residents who have waited recently for long trains to pass through town, or those unfortunate enough to be backed all the way onto state Route 14 trying to get to the 32nd Street railroad crossing, know how convenient it would be if we had a second overpass closer to the east side of town. A second crossing will also increase safety in our community by providing an additional route for emergency vehicles to get over the railroad.

Due to amazing work by your city and lobbying staff, and the support of 18th District Sen. Ann Rivers, this need for a second overpass may be more reality than dream. And, come to fruition sooner than we could have imagined. However, to help ensure it as a reality, three things need to happen.

First, the State Legislature and Governor need to pass a transportation package which provides funding toward this project. The State Senate recently passed a proposed package which contains $7.5 million for a second crossing. The total cost of the overpass and the connections at Main Street and E Street is estimated at $16.6 million.

Second, Washougal needs to lobby the state to provide us more than $7.5 million, or we need to find other sources of grant money to help close the gap that we will not need to repay. We are hopeful that at least $12 million can be provided.

Finally, we need to have a local revenue stream to repay an anticipated bond that will help complete the project. Realistically, I can see Washougal needing $3 million to $5 million after we exhaust all other sources of funds, including the funding from the state.

This is where a Transportation Benefit District (TBD), with a local license tab fee, comes into play. This fee, if enacted by the City Council at $20 per eligible vehicle inside the city limits of Washougal, would generate approximately $200,000 per year that could go toward retiring this bond debt over 20 years. If the TBD is passed and generates more than is needed to repay the overpass construction bond, any additional funds generated can be put directly into other road projects in the City.

Now, I don’t expect anyone to love paying a local license plate fee, but if there were ever a tax (fee) that goes right to the heart of the matter of what it will fund, this is it. Wear and tear on our roadways is from vehicles on the road, and some minor damage from weather. This fee can only be used for transportation projects and maintenance of roadways, nothing else.

Starting in 2014, your city budgets $360,000 per year for road repairs. Prior to 2014, we were budgeting only $150,000. A recent road infrastructure study shows that by investing $360,000 annually, our roads will still deteriorate from their present condition, but not significantly in the short term. To ensure that they do not get worse, the study indicates we would need to invest at least $500,000 annually in our roads. Keep in mind, $500,000 does not get you any new roads, it only maintains the ones we have now.

There is one other funding mechanism for a TBD that may be a bit fairer to all who use our roads and which might actually generate slightly more revenue than the license tab fee. That would be for voters to raise our sales tax rate by $0.002. That can only be approved by a vote of the general public, but if it passed, it would spread the burden of the revenue to anyone who shops in Washougal, not just to Washougal residents with vehicles.

The obvious drawback to going out for a sales tax increase is that it could be voted down, in which case we are right back where we started with no solution to the problem. We just go on the same as we are today, waiting for long trains to pass through our town.

Now, some residents of our community will still say “don’t create another fee or raise any taxes, just do with what you already have.” That is an easy statement to make, but it is not a solution, nor even the hint of one. Washougal has done an excellent job of making significant budget cuts starting in 2010 and we continue those restraints today, while still increasing funding for street maintenance last year. However, to find additional funding for street maintenance and to pay for the remaining portion of a second overpass without a dedicated revenue stream, the budget will have to be cut in other places. Such cuts will require a reduction in services. There isn’t a way to do it without cuts.

The City Council is holding a second public hearing regarding the establishment of the TBD, on Monday, April 13 at 7 p.m. at City Hall, 1701 “C” St. Right now, the Council is only considering the establishment of the TBD. If the TBD is established, then the Council will consider the appropriate funding mechanism and transportation projects to fund. Your input is important to the process, and you are invited to share your opinion at the hearing or by submitting written communication.

With a very definite need in our community for local transportation improvements, now is the time to move forward on this proposal and start solving some of our pressing needs — ourselves. In the competitive world in which we now live, we are almost the only ones concerned with our transportation needs and our traffic congestion caused by rail freight.

We need to solve this now, before the opportunity is taken away from us.