City Of Burien Drives Through Political Potholes Over Road Repair Costs

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by Ralph Nichols

Remember the television commercials for Fram filters from the 1980s?

A somber-faced mechanic, holding a dirty air or oil filter that should have been replaced 100,000 miles ago, would tell viewers that the car owner’s neglect – and his use of cheap filters – resulted in a costly valve job or an even more expensive engine replacement.

Pay me now,” the TV mechanic intoned, “or pay me later.

Fast forward to Burien 2010.

Due to budget constraints, routine street overlay work – applying 2 inches of asphalt to the existing surface – has not been done for two years.

Yet asphalt overlays are essential maintenance to extend the life of roadways. Further neglect will result in irreversible deterioration, resulting in the far more costly process of rebuilding them.

It’s a matter of “pay now, or pay later.”

That’s the bottom-line message City Manager Mike Martin and Public Works Director Larry Blanchard delivered to city council members at a special meeting March 29 (download PDF of proposal here).

On this point, there seemed to be no disagreement.

Councilman Gordon Shaw did question prior council decisions that led to this dilemma by placing funding for lower-priority programs and services ahead of street maintenance.

But all acknowledged that asphalt-overlay work on city streets needs to begin soon – and then continue on a regular basis – to avoid expensive rebuilding later.

Martin and Blanchard proposed an ambitious, ongoing maintenance program – $19.4 million over the next 10 years – which Martin said “is very much a legacy project.”

Blanchard noted that, with Burien’s average Pavement Condition Index currently at 68 percent, “every street needs work.” And, he cautioned, “repairs to failed streets cost 5 to 10 times as much as streets that have not failed.”

Photos from the city's Street Overlay Program Dilemma & Solution PDF. Click on image to see larger version.

Just a 2-inch overlay will keep a good street in good condition, Blanchard added. The plan proposed would maintain Burien streets at an average Pavement Condition Index of 80 percent.

Neglect of routine street maintenance “is a trend that can’t continue,” Martin told council members. “This is preserving an asset … we need to preserve asphalt.”

A good street system, he said, “is a core service that we as a city provide.” In addition to supporting general transportation, deteriorating streets impact crime, economic development and neighborhoods.

The dilemma facing the council is how to pay for asphalt overlays. There isn’t enough revenue coming into city coffers to fund the needed overlay program after current budget commitments are paid for.

Although Finance Director Tabatha Miller presented a funding strategy, much of which council members seemed to like, lawmakers aren’t sold on certain elements of this plan.

They will continue this discussion at their April 5 meeting.

Even with the unwelcome projected price tag, council members were given a silver lining. By bringing asphalt overlay work in-house, the city, which has contracted this out to King County in the past, will save $750,000 a year.

“That’s big news, really big news,” Martin said, adding that it reflects the efficiency that Burien city staff brings to a project.

The asphalt-overlay program, as proposed to the council, would cost Burien $8.6 million this year to upgrade those streets that are in the worst condition yet can still be repaired.

This maintenance would be done during the remainder of 2010 and in 2011, although no additional funds would be used next year.

Beginning in 2012, the overlays would continue at an annual cost of $600,000 annually.

These costs estimates do not include anticipated growth or inflationary factors, Blanchard cautioned.

Compared to the cost of completely building a deteriorated roadway, the $19.4 million price tag facing Burien is a bargain, he suggested.

The 10-year cost of completely rebuilding damages streets currently is around $231 million, Blanchard added.

Miller recommended paying for the maintenance project with Build America Bonds with annual bond payments of $650,000. She said the total investment including bond payments from 2010 forward would cost the city $1.25 million.

One revenue source suggested by Miller is a Transportation Benefit District that would be funded by a $20 car tab fee on all vehicles registered inside the city. A proposal for a similar district to provide bike paths was soundly defeated in the election last November.

Other possible revenue sources include operational savings from surface water management and transportation services by bringing these programs in-house, increasing the electric utility tax (on Puget Sound Energy customers) from 3 percent to 6 percent, expanding the utility tax on solid waste collection to include recycling and yard waste disposal, negotiating some fees with water and sewer districts, and increasing the city’s business and occupation tax rate.

“As we go along, hopefully we can find additional funding sources,” Martin said.

Shaw and Councilwoman Kathy Keene both said they want any special funds for street maintenance be committed “to actually go to roads.”

Councilwoman Rose Clark said Burien is in its current financial bind, necessitating special funding for street maintenance, because “over time with various [tax limitation] initiatives to take away money from cities, the counties and the state … we’re down several million dollars a year as a result.”

The decision rests with city residents, said Mayor Joan McGilton – “new taxes on the citizens or lose services. If they are not willing to have these taxes levied against them for services, they must be willing to accept a decreased level of services.”

But, Shaw demurred, “it bothers me that roads are easy things to steal from in tough times to balance the budget. You don’t have to lay anyone off [to delay road work].

“Some decisions of this council [have resulted in] money going elsewhere that could have gone to roads and the good of our citizens.” He added, “We probably wish now we would have done this.”

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5 Responses to “City Of Burien Drives Through Political Potholes Over Road Repair Costs”
  1. citizen says:

    Our city is so ass backwards……The Mayor says more taxes or less service….The article states THE CITY COUNCIL spent the money on LOW PRIORITY projects….Now the citizens have to pay more…The city council wanted a new 152nd and a new 1st ave….the rest of the city looks like crap…..Vote the BUMS out of office…..also wasn’t Joan McGilton on the council when these BAD choices of funding were made? We need to have more accountability…..Oh thats right she wasn’t voted in by the people…….

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  2. SD says:

    At the very least, the City of Burien should be responsible enough to post hazard signs for motorcyclists. The potholes at the intersection of 148th and Ambaum are dangerous!!!!

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  3. tripC says:

    I certainly hope that more of the council, and staff approaches issues like this as councilman Shaw has [as I read it]. We citizens cannot be wholly against taxes, but also favor keeping every service, employee, and benefit unchanged. The prudent way for the council to proceed would be to make difficult decisions BEFORE putting the hat out and begging, or telling us citizens to ante up more. I am quite sure that in difficult times, I am not the only one who learns how to make tough choices, and see how far I can stretch a dollar. Of course I do not work for the government either. The common M.O. for governments is to start the scare tactics. I cannot wait for the “if you don’t pay up we will have to let the roads go, and it will cost more later”- wait that already has started. Well maybe the “we are going to have to cut the police, close the parks, and put in parking meters” can’t be far off. If we had license plates on our rears, I bet the city would seriously consider how much money the jay walk cameras could bring in. From other recent blog stories, it might help the city to start looking inward, maybe start by turning off the lights when they go home $$$ x Kw hours x 365 = road improvements. Every little bit helps. As a citizen of Burien, I hope more of my current tax dollars will go towards staving off a financial mistake, and tackling the roads problem sooner rather than later.

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  4. How about just enforcing our speed limits?—sound like our neighbors to the south??Look at their roads. Does any driver with a brain speed in Normandy Park? We could easily pay for the enforcement personnel and get the roads resurfaced if all the money from tickets went to the roads and the police.–(-We could just let Normandy Park enforce our limits and pay them a fee!)–Sounds to me like we would be solving the speeding issue and the road repair.–Win -Win

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  5. kai. J says:

    I thought Burien was going to be so much better now that it is so much bigger?? Why else would we annex?? Oh..that’s right so the city manager and all the politicos can be more important and paid more?

    Now Burien feels more like a third world country with pot holes big enough to damage my vehicle (Ambaum & 148th!!!) and all the business are fleeing. When I drive down 1st Ave I don’t really notice the lack of overhead wires, but I do notice all the empty commercial spaces and fancy red light cameras. Just noticed Party City MIA and I’m sure the Ford dealer will be paying their part….oh wait they are gone to.

    Well Burien council members got their pet projects over the years; Town Square for 3 owners, Fancy new library where few actually care about books over FREE internet surfing, and a super fancy city hall where they enjoy the view of the tumble weeds.

    The bills are all due and it doesn’t sound like there is enough money to take care of basic maintenance. Sad.

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