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Road woes

Cities, county look to fill funding sinkhole


When Lake Oswego City Councilor Donna Jordan thinks of Washington County's roads, it's not without a twinge of envy.

There, a property tax levy in place for years allows officials to maintain not only major arterials and collector streets, but also neighborhood roads.

by: VERN UYETAKE - Bland Circle, between Fircrest Drive and Weatherhill Road is one of the worst streets in West Linn. The road is narrow and deteriorated.'That's what's allowed Washington County to actually do quite a few road projects,' she recently told fellow city councilors. 'Nobody else can compete.'

Clackamas County cities are not alone.

Nationwide, government agencies are struggling to fund roadwork. Some places are even ripping out asphalt and replacing it with materials like gravel, which is cheaper to maintain.

Clackamas County isn't tearing up the roads, but cities here have trouble keeping up with basic pavement preservation, let alone funding needed overhauls of major streets.

'There is nothing in the coffers in Clackamas County for that,' Jordan said. 'Every city is struggling with it.'

As a result, government officials have launched a long-term discussion of transportation issues in hopes of finding new funding sources to maintain and rebuild roads. The conversations are taking place among members of the Clackamas County Coordinating Committee, or C4, a group of representatives of cities, special districts, hamlets, villages and community planning organizations.

The goal is to come up with a plan, including a mix of financing tools, to pay for street projects. Options on the table include higher gas taxes, new vehicle registration fees or a property tax levy.

'There's a longstanding goal of C4 to somewhat emulate what Washington County did,' to create an ongoing funding stream to pay for road projects, said Clackamas County Commissioner Paul Savas, who, as co-chairman of C4, initiated the effort to tackle transportation funding problems.

But first, he said, the group needs to assess the county and cities' varying needs and consider what mix of financing solutions citizens might be willing to support. City leaders are now presenting local issues and financing gaps to the coordinating committee. It could be a year or two before the county comes up with a proposed resolution.

'It's a work in progress,' Savas said. 'There's no decision to do anything at this point other than to assess the need, to assess our options and consider ways of tackling this.'

He acknowledged some of the proposed financing tools could face a political fight. However, he said, 'I think we all universally realize it's going to go before the voters and the voters will ultimately decide.'

Local roads are last priority

While cities and counties receive some funding from state and federal sources, that money hasn't been reliable, according to the county.

Clackamas County brought its roads up to grade in 2004. But within a few years, the economy tanked. The cost of asphalt went up, as did the price of gas. At the same time, many people cut back on driving or bought more fuel-efficient vehicles, which meant they paid less in gas taxes, one of the government's main revenue sources for road projects.

In 2008, just a few years after getting on track with road maintenance, the county suspended its paving program.

'It just proves that a reliable stream of money is needed, whether you're a city or a county, to ensure that roads are maintained over time so it's the least cost to the road user and paving is done when it's necessary,' said Cam Gilmour, director of the county's transportation and development department.

The worst roads are where people live. Those are the streets that fall under the radar when officials prioritize projects.

Arterials carry the most traffic, so they are a bigger priority than collector streets, which move people between arterials and residential streets. And collectors are higher priorities than residential roads.

That means the local street in front of your house, Gilmour said, 'is always the last priority.'

'The most important thing is safety for the motorist,' he added. 'It's why signals have to work, lanes have to be striped, signs have to be visible. Then, if we have any money left over, we'll use it for paving.'

The lack of transportation money is a big problem when local governments seek federal grants for major street projects, because those grants often require matching funds - something the cities and county don't have, officials said.

And putting off repairs has costs of its own. Regular maintenance ensures a road lasts as long as it's supposed to, about 20 years, Gilmour said. A road might need an entire rebuild sooner if cracks aren't sealed and the pavement isn't kept up.

West Linn needs more money for capital projects

In West Linn, the city's street maintenance fee, which costs about $5.90 per home monthly, actually generates an annual operating surplus of about $578,000 each year.

Yet the city still can't fund all of the projects necessary in the next five years. After factoring in the annual surplus as well as state funds and system development charges, West Linn still needs $3.64 million more to keep up with its five-year transportation plan.

West Linn's city council hasn't yet discussed the countywide transportation proposals at length, said City Councilor Jenni Tan, who recently presented the city's position to C4.

'Transportation is a huge issue,' she said, but the council has been busy working on a lot of big goals, such as maintaining the city's aging water infrastructure and dealing with discussions related to the Lake Oswego-Tigard Water Partnership.

Tan said as conversations continue at the county level, West Linn officials will likely consider the new financing options.

'As time progresses, we should have a discussion to see what makes the most sense for our citizens,' she said. 'Times are tough, the economy is tough and we want to be sensitive to everyone's financial situation.'

Lake Oswego also faces funding gap

Like West Linn, Lake Oswego collects a street maintenance fee from residents - about $7.80 monthly per home. Both cities also require real estate developers to pay special fees, or system development charges, and both funnel some franchise fee revenue toward road projects.

But Lake Oswego recently reported deficits in funding annual street maintenance as well as long-term capital projects.

In all, the city faces a $1.7 million deficit each year in keeping up its streets. That doesn't count $20 million in planned pathway projects or many other major capital investments.

The Lake Oswego City Council recently discussed the possibility of a countywide street district as well as a new vehicle registration fee, but some members voiced concern about the structure of the potential new tax levy.

So far, discussions have focused on distributing the new revenue according to cities' population sizes, with the county taking its share too. That's how state highway funds are distributed.

But Mayor Jack Hoffman wondered why Lake Oswego would consider a countywide district rather than simply raising its local utility fees.

Councilor Bill Tierney said distribution should be based on where the tax revenue came from. That way, Lake Oswego might be able to claim a larger share than cities with more people but lower overall assessed property values.

Councilor Mike Kehoe said he wouldn't support any new levy.

'Today, this year or next year, I'm not in favor of any new taxes,' Kehoe said. 'It's not a good environment.'

Councilor Sally Moncrieff said she appreciated that the issue would go to voters eventually, as they would have to be 'willing to pay for their roads.'

'We have a lot of transportation needs and a lot of funding to figure out,' she said.