The most pivotal discussion in the history of Washington state roads took place over a century ago in downtown Spokane.
The year was 1899 and Great Northern Railway executive Sam Hill called the first meeting of an organization that would become known as the Washington Good Roads Association. While the automotive revolution was still several years away, Hill saw the potential benefit of farmers being able to travel on safe roads to towns and rail connections. Around the turn of the century, less than 1 percent of all streets in the state were paved.
Hill was named first president of the WGRA and invested $1 million of his own money into transportation causes over the years. By 1907, the Washington legislature had formed a state highway department, the 14th of its kind in the nation. In 1916, there were close to 70,000 vehicles on Washington roads and the first federal money arrived to help with a capital project in the Evergreen state, going to fund the Pacific Coast Highway, east of Olympia.
In 1903, the Spokane chapter of the Good Roads Association was organized. Over 100 years later, the nonprofit group is still making a difference in the campaign for safe and reliable transportation on regional roads from Liberty Lake to Medical Lake.
Joe Tortorelli has worked as the secretary with the area GRA for the past two years. He puts in about 20 hours a week, while also serving as a consultant for economic development with the cities of Deer Park and Cheney. Tortorelli said when it comes to “regional roads of significance,” the city of Spokane Valley probably stands out more than any jurisdiction in Spokane County.
A resident of Spokane Valley, Tortorelli was on hand last month when city representatives join other local leaders at the quarterly Council of Governments meeting convened by the Spokane County commissioners. One of the topics of discussion involved the consideration of a transportation benefit district that would apply a tax on car tabs to pay for street improvements.
During the Sept. 10 gathering, Commissioner Todd Mielke referred to a recent Good Roads survey commissioned by the county that showed 72 percent of Spokane County respondents support the idea of the county and area cities developing a regional transportation program while 90 percent view the responsibility of roads and other transportation issues as a vital role of local government. 57 percent of those surveyed said they would pay more in taxes to support better roads.
Tortorelli said road budgets throughout Washington were significantly impacted by the passage of Initiative 695 in 1999 that transformed the state’s motor vehicle excise tax. Instead of paying 2.2 percent of a vehicle’s value when renewing a car tab, residents now pay a flat $30 fee.
“It dramatically reduced funding for roads,” Tortorelli said.
Cities like Spokane Valley have tried to bridge the gap by instituting revenue generators like a 6-percent telephone utility tax while the city of Spokane attempted to catch up with crumbling roads by passing a $100 million street bond in 2004 – an initiative supported by the Good Roads Association.
Tortorelli said the Spokane scenario is a prime example of the exponential costs of rebuilding a road as compared to the price associated with consistent maintenance. When bringing up the possibility of a regional or municipal TBD earlier this year, Liberty Lake Mayor Wendy Van Orman said for every $1 spent on the regular upkeep of a street, cities would have to spend $8 for a complete replacement of the same road.
Tortorelli makes it a point to meet with local leaders to review the transportation terrain on a regional level. He acknowledges the recent announcement that Spokane would establish its own TBD represented a setback to the regional plan, but pointed out city leaders have said they would dissolve the program if other cities collaborated to establish the revenue source.
“We’re trying to build a coalition,” Tortorelli said. “We see the TBD as one element of paying for roads.”
From supporting to projects like the north/south freeway and Bridging the Valley to lobbying for legislative support, Good Roads has been a valuable advocate for regional transportation, according to Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke.
“They keep us informed about the trends they see and the costs associated with infrastructure,” Mielke said. “When a process is inefficient, they’re a good sounding board for us.”