City expects street work to take decades

Posted 11/15/23


While rough roads are a problem for many cities, Port Townsend is a victim of overly ambitious aspirations of its original settlement in the latter half of the 19th century.

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City expects street work to take decades



While rough roads are a problem for many cities, Port Townsend is a victim of overly ambitious aspirations of its original settlement in the latter half of the 19th century.

Port Townsend Public Works Director Steve King spoke recently with The Leader about specific culprits behind the problems plaguing Port Townsend’s streets.

“Its initial platting took place back when they believed it was going to be the next big city, and there were even streetcars, like San Francisco,” King said. “Obviously, that large population didn’t happen, so we wound up with all these dirt and gravel roads, which eventually acquired layers of chip seal, and eventually pavement.”

King acknowledged that this gradual evolution of makeshift placeholder measures “didn’t always hold up,” and notably fell short on providing amenities such as sidewalks and curbs, but the city was able to supplement their own work with state and interlocal resources.

But when Tim Eyman ran the property tax cap as an initiative in 2001, “It changed the world,” in King’s words, and while the state Supreme Court overturned the initiative in 2007, the state legislature quickly put it back into place.

“All our state funding for street maintenance went away,” King said. “Every city was in crisis.”

What Port Townsend’s neighboring municipalities did, over the course of the past decade or so—that Port Townsend voters approved by a more-than-80 percent margin this month—was institute a transportation benefit district, which in Port Townsend will utilize a sales-and-use tax for transportation improvements within the city.

“Most of the towns and cities surrounding us chose to address this issue sometime between 2010 to 2015,” King said. “Meanwhile, we’ve been sitting here since the turn of the millennium, not able to make our most expensive and necessary repairs. And once you put off those repairs, they cause problems on an exponential curve. Things fall apart fast, and the costs to fix them go through the roof.”

King explained that priorities have now been placed on preventive maintenance and repairing the streets that can be salvaged at relatively low costs, to avoid the much more expensive and time-consuming complete rebuilding that would otherwise be required, once those roads reach their respective points of no return.

“If we don’t maintain F Street now, it’ll fall apart,” King said. “As for parts of San Juan Avenue, especially in front of Blue Heron Middle School, this is an example of a street that is probably already past that point.”

Shelly Leavens, communications and marketing manager for the City of Port Townsend, clarified that F Street is in relatively good condition, but what King meant is that the city needs to maintain it to keep it that way, “rather than leave it alone and let it deteriorate, while we focus on the streets that are currently in shambles.”

Leavens identified Lawrence Street as among those that will need a complete ground-up repair, for which the city will conduct tests on soil rebuilding, as a way to save millions of dollars, once reconstruction can occur.

Again, King attributed a certain measure of the variability of Port Townsend’s street conditions to the number of roads that weren’t built well to begin with, versus how many of them were able to be rebuilt better during the following decades, compounded by the toll that a lack of preventive maintenance in the 21st century has taken on all the roads and streets of Port Townsend.

“We’re slowly clawing our way back, over the course of the next 20 to 30 years or so,” King said. “We estimate we’ll be spending roughly $1.5 million per year, in addition to what we’re already spending now, but the transportation benefit district should generate about $800,000 a year.”

Leavens added that the city and state recognize that sales tax is a regressive tax, “and yet, it is one of the few tools we have, to fill the gap in our streets funding.”

She pointed out that visitors will be contributing to the infrastructure, “just as we do when we visit surrounding cities and shop there.”

Ultimately, King estimated it could take a total of $43 million to restore Port Townsend’s streets to their 2001 standards, but he also noted the city is beginning this decades-long endeavor with a one-time shot of revenue, thanks to the 2019 annexation of the city of Port Townsend into Jefferson County Fire Protection District 1.

Paving projects happening around Port Townsend this fall, such as Hendricks and 24th streets, are examples of that banked capacity funding at work.

King and Leavens both pointed out that Port Townsend’s notably narrow streets should cost less to refurbish and take care of than many towns and cities’ wider streets, and agreed that this long-term roadwork represents an entirely separate project from either the Discovery Road improvements or the Washington State Department of Transportation’s roundabout, at the intersection of East Sims Way and Kearney Street.

“Each project is funded from different sources, and each ‘bucket’ of funding can only be used in specific ways,” Leavens said.

“Part of our funding, for the rest of Port Townsend’s roads, will be to leverage grants, depending on the opportunities and agencies involved,” King said. “We still have a lot of research ahead of us, and part of our investigations will be to evaluate the state of the sewer lines beneath each section of street, so we can fix them before paving over them.”