Though Richmond voters were promised noticeably improved streets after passing a one-half-cent sales tax in November, that outlook remains unclear.
On Tuesday, council members were divided after hearing proposals from city staff on how to use roughly $3.75 million annually in Measure U tax proceeds for the purpose of sustained roadway improvements. Council ultimately voted to have staff return to a future meeting with more details on the proposals.
The main point of contention is whether the $3.75 million, about half of the Measure U annual proceeds, should pay for a bond, which is basically a loan. A common strategy for public infrastructure projects, a bond would give the city funds up front to address deteriorating streets. It would allow the city to get “ahead of the curve,” according to staff, as the cost to fix streets mount the longer they’re left to deteriorate.
But a staff presentation on several bond strategies made Richmond Progressive Alliance members, three of whom are council members, uncomfortable.
The bond strategies, according to staff, would both raise enough money to fix neglected streets and also lead to significant improvements to Richmond’s roadways in the next five-to-10 years. By 2020 and through 2025, the overall state of Richmond’s roadways would increase from a “fair” rating to “good.”
RPA members took issue with the bond strategies, however, because of what the chart below states. It indicates the bond strategies would not sustain “good” streets after 30 years. For that reason, they believe the bond measure would needlessly put the city in debt.
The RPA expressed interest in using the pay-as-you-go strategy, where the $3.75 million would simply be added to the city’s current annual budget for road repair. That would amount to $6.25 million annually for maintenance, a sum that would keep the streets in the same condition they are today in the next 5 to 10 years, with a slight improvement over 30 years.
“If we have a certain amount allocated for street funding, during a good [economic] period we can put in a little bit more [for streets], and during a bad period we can cut back,” Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin said. “We don’t have that option with having to pay a debt payment every year.”
Mayor Tom Butt and Councilmembers Jael Myrick and Nat Bates leaned toward the staff-recommended bond strategy, as it was the only strategy staff presented that delivered on a promise made to voters to improve streets.
“We promised the people that we were going to fix their streets,” Bates said. “That’s why they voted for this.”
With a bond strategy, Butt said, city residents will be able to “see, feel and appreciate” improved streets over the next 5 to 10 years.
City Manager Bill Lindsay also warned against the “pay as you go” strategy.
“Using the pay as you go without the upfront infusion of capital in the street program, you never reach a good PCI (Pavement Condition Index); you always stay below that good mark,” City Manager Bill Lindsay said. “Your streets are in better shape for roughly 20 years using [the bond] strategy, where you do the influx of capital. It’s not just about where you end up 50 years from now. It’s where you are for the next 10, 15 or 20.”
A bond measure, according to city staff, would also prevent future Richmond City Councils from stripping funds meant for road repair for other projects.
The Measure U tax that voters passed on Nov. 4 was initially intended to be used solely for street repair, as residents have been decrying their continued deterioration. Worried the measure wouldn’t receive the two-thirds voter-approval needed for a specific purpose tax, the council opted instead to make it a general tax.
While that led to the tax measure’s passage, it meant the money could be shifted to other general fund purposes, including plugging the city’s budget deficit.
Before the election, the city took several steps to publicly promote Measure U as a tax that would be used for both streets and other programs involving public safety and youth.