The Dalles City Council is correct in keeping “all options” on the table as it heads into the budget cycle for the coming fiscal year with a looming crisis in street funding. Those options should include instituting a street maintenance fee and raising the city’s gas tax, the only viable way to bring in new, dedicated revenue to address these long-term needs.
Neither increase is likely to be popular with city residents: Indeed, neither appeared popular with council members themselves when they considered the issue at their Jan. 28 meeting.
There is a good reason for that; even a $5 monthly fee increase on their utility bill would be a severe burden for some.
And a gas tax hike, while spreading the cost of street maintenance among both visitors and residents, increases fuel costs in a region with limited public transportation — and therefore limited options for those struggling financially. Such an increase requires voter approval, which could be problematic.
But as Councilor Darcy Long-Curtiss said at the meeting, after noting the difficulty some would have paying even a small fee, taking the money out of the general fund would mean cutting other programs the city has previously judged as important enough to fund with taxpayer dollars. Programs people have grown to depend on.
The council — and therefore the city — stands between a rock and a hard place, quite literally as they calculate the cost of asphalt, gravel and other maintenance materials.
It is in part this precise dilemma that has resulted in the lack of adequate funding for streets. Maintenance is easier to cut or delay in the short term than vital and pressing services. In the long term, however, streets end up costing more because they degrade faster without regular maintenance.
That has long been a concern, but it’s been a concern for future generations and future councils.
The backlog of work undone has grown every year, and it is now substantially augmented by the need to begin upgrading curb ramps to meet the criteria of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Such upgrades are both a legal and moral responsibility: There are residents of The Dalles who daily struggle to negotiate high curbs and nonexistent or inadequate ramps throughout the city. Not all of them are physically disabled, either.
Funds to repair existing curb ramps, and perhaps create additional ramps where needed, will be a requirement for many decades to come. If those funds are drawn from existing maintenance dollars, the city’s street funding will quickly go from inadequate to almost nonexistent.
This is not a problem we can pass off on the next generation: The future is now, and we need to face that.
Any solution will require a mix of options, and some solid changes in how current funds are allocated have been suggested.
But merely juggling budget items is likely to delay, not resolve, the crisis. Additional revenue will need to be a part of the long-term equation, and the sooner we add it to the utility bill the better.
A new, dedicated transportation utility fee makes sense. Will such a fee be a burden for some? Yes. Are there ways to ease the burden for those individuals? Maybe one can be found: We have already found ways to ease the utility burden for many who struggle to heat or cool their homes.
A gas tax increase also makes sense. It may be a hard sell, but I personally like the idea of taxing tourists, commercial drivers and others who don’t share in the cost of upkeep but make use of city streets. Street maintenance is precisely what the city’s gas tax was created for.
—Mark Gibson is the editor of The Dalles Chronicle.