County and PRCAC discuss gas tax spending

By Meg Olson

With almost a million dollars sitting in the Point Roberts gas tax fund, the county and the Point Roberts Community Advisory Committee (PRCAC) are moving to streamline the process to decide how the funds should be spent.

“The goal here is to work with the community, come up with something we’re all happy with, go to county council, make them happy about it and get something built,” said county engineer Joe Rutan at the December 12 PRCAC meeting.

The key to moving projects forward was consensus and a unified voice.

“We are a recommending body to council. You are a recommending body to council. Only the council has the authority to write checks. Generally, they will accept recommendations and work with them when we’re all standing in front of them arm in arm,” Rutan said.

Brian Walker, senior engineering technician and PRCAC liaison, explained how and for what kinds of projects Transportation Benefit District (TBD) funds could be used. The 1-cent per gallon tax is collected on local gas sales to fund transportation related projects as defined by state law. Acting as the TBD board, county council approves use of the funds.

Most TBD funded projects would be capital projects, and would therefore need to be approved on the county’s six-year transportation improvement program, a long-range planning document, and the annual plan. “Those are the projects [that we intend] to actively construct and spend funds on.” Maintenance activities do not need to be on these council approved plans.

Both of the current plans identify $150,000 for Point Roberts transportation improvements that Rutan said they had included to make it possible to fast-track a project if there was community consensus.

PRCAC needs to take the lead in community outreach, Rutan said, as well as be the conduit which community priorities are identified and transmitted to county staff. Taxpayer’s association PRCAC representative Jeff Christopher volunteered to be the lead for the process, which was unanimously endorsed by the committee.

PRCAC members will consult with their organizations to develop a “list of blue sky ideas” as well as take suggestions from the public at comments@pointrobertscac.org, Christopher said. The committee will refine that list and Christopher will work with Rutan and public works engineers to determine the feasibility of those projects.

Christopher emphasized the projects TBD funds would be used for projects the county would not otherwise be doing, rather than regular road maintenance and upgrades all county roads receive.

“Your needs up here aren’t really that much,” Rutan agreed. “You don’t have the traffic or the accidents that other parts of the county have. For that reason, projects in those areas would rank higher and without TBD funds Point Roberts projects would end up at the bottom of the pile.”

In discussing possible projects Rutan quickly pointed out hurdles but also noted he wasn’t being negative, just realistic. “We’re not talking about why it can’t be done,” he said. “We’re talking about the things we need to do to get it done.”

Widened and paved shoulders, whether at the Marine Drive curve by Lighthouse Park as PRCAC had previously suggested or along Benson Road, emerged as strong favorites for committee members, the audience and engineers.

“The number one thing I can do to make county roads safer is to get what we call a clear zone and recovery space – a fancy word for a shoulder,” Rutan said. “If you pave that shoulder, you have a place for people to walk. If you came back with a recommendation to put shoulders on Benson I would recommend to my boss, the executive, that we match it,” by adding county general road funds to
the project budget.

Rutan said that while use of TBD funds had strict limits, some projects that didn’t seem like road work in fact were. He pointed to the Birch Bay Drive project beginning this year that will “remove the rip rap, sea walls, groins and bulkheads along Birch Bay Drive and replace them with a “natural” soft shore beach; reestablishing the beach profile and improving flood protection for the roadway and adjacent structures,” which will “improve habitat functions and the currently disrupted natural littoral drift of the beach.” That $12 million project relies heavily on road funds as the seawall is part of the road.

“If you like what Birch Bay is doing maybe you decide ‘Hey, let’s do that at Maple Beach.’ We spend a lot of money maintaining that roadway so that would be a benefit to us,” Rutan said.

The committee and community are shifting  focus on what needs to get done, rather than trying to figure out how to spend the $1 million in the TBD coffers, Rutan said. “Funding comes after,” he said.

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