Sitka has to figure out how to pay for its roads – and soon. That was the message delivered to the Sitka Assembly on Tuesday night (6-24-14), at a work session before their regular meeting. City staff offered a wide range of potential strategies, all aimed at keeping the city from going back to gravel.

Here’s the key number to keep in mind: $2.7-million.

According to Public Works Director Michael Harmon, that’s the amount the city needs to come up with each year, for the next twenty-five years, to maintain its existing road system.

And, Harmon said, the city needs to find that money soon.

“We’re reaching critical mass on a lot of these projects,” he said. “Where the time it takes to design them and get them built, they’re going to deteriorate quicker than we can get on it.”

Many of Sitka’s roads were paved with state money in the 1980s and 90s, and they’re reaching the end of their lifespan. The problem, Harmon said, is that the city has allowed them to deteriorate to such an extent that many now have to be completely reconstructed. That’s a lot more expensive than if the city had gone back over the roads a decade ago with a program to add another layer of asphalt before the existing layer cracked. Then the city could just grind down that top layer and replace it.

That’s what the state is doing now on Halibut Point Road. It’s worth noting that the roadwork that’s been causing the recent traffic headaches in Sitka isn’t a part of this conversation. Halibut Point Road and Sawmill Creek Road are state roads, which the state maintains. And as much as Sitkans have cursed that maintenance while taking the Lake Street detour for the umpteenth time, it’s actually a pretty good model, Harmon said.

“What you see on HPR, they’re grinding it down, they have enough thickness and pavement that they’re not getting into the subgrade and they’re putting a new surface on it,” he said. “So [it’s] a pretty good sustainable program.”

Because Sitka didn’t do that maintenance, the city is facing big costs. Harmon’s estimate, again, is $2.7-million a year for 25 years. After that, if the city embraces his maintenance plan, Sitka would spend about $600,000 a year on roads.

For now, the city is spending nowhere near that amount. The assembly set aside $1.3-million for roads this coming year. That’s less than half the estimated need, but it’s a big increase from past years, when the city allocated less than $450,000 a year, on average.

Harmon ran through several funding options, including increasing property taxes or the city’s sales tax, or lifting the sales tax cap.

Another option is local improvement districts, or LIDs, in which homeowners pay part of the cost of maintaining their street. In one arrangement, one side of the street would shoulder one third of the cost, the other side another third, and the city would cover the last third.

But Harmon said that system has its drawbacks. Certain neighborhoods wouldn’t be able to afford it.

“We can end up with a patchwork quilt, so to speak,” Harmon said. “Where you’re driving down the road, [and] you’d have a block of gravel, a block of pavement, and kind of a mishmash.”

Assembly member Mike Reif proposed the idea of a vehicle licensing fee, which could raise up to a million dollars a year.

“The vehicle is the most fair tax I can think of,” Reif said. “Everyone pays it, and it’s based on the number of vehicles you have. And obviously the number of vehicles is probably a little bit based on your affluence level, so those who have a little bit more money will pay more, and those who have one vehicle will pay less.”

Member Phyllis Hackett said she would like to see Sitka band together with other cities to push the state to raise gas taxes, and allocate that money to local roads.

“I think there’s a really solid argument for that, given that we [have] the lowest [gas tax] in the nation and our roads take a beating because of our environmental conditions,” she said.

City Administrator Mark Gorman also said that he thinks state money should play a role. He suggested that the city prioritize roads in its request to the legislature next year.

“My recommendation is the number one priority will be road funding this coming year, and Sen. Stedman has said he will assist us on this,” Gorman said, referring to Sitka State Senator Bert Stedman.

Harmon said that state money is great if and when it arrives. But, he said, Sitka needs to find a more reliable source of funding, and find it fast.

“A lot of these big picture ideas are great to work on for the long run,” he said. “Absolutely, the more we can get the state to participate the better. But we’re so late in the game, you’re going to have at least a certain window where a substantial amount of money’s going to need to go in there, or we’re going to be facing gravel roads. That’s the reality of it.”