Last week we got a letter from a constituent asking why their water and sewer dollars would be used to help pay for the Donkey Creek project and thought it would make a good “Question of the Day.” I’ve considered writing about this before since funding for the project is about as clear as mud, but until recently we didn’t have anything approaching a final decision.
First, a little background. After purchasing Donkey Creek Park, the City held a series of community meetings to decide on a master plan for the site. Though the City did not yet own Austin Estuary and the Harbor History Museum would not purchase their property for several years, the result was a sort of master plan for the entire corner of the bay.
The main feature of this plan was to “daylight” Donkey Creek which was constrained to a small pipe from the south end of the park all the way into the bay. Though the full natural estuary could never be restored (the Museum sits on top of it), it would be the first step in restoring habitat for a number of species including salmon and an attractive park for residents and visitors.
Over the last couple of years, this vision became realistic with the help of Congress. First, Rep. Dicks helped the City with a habitat restoration grant from US Department of Fish and Wildlife for $800,000. The problem being that daylighting the creek at North Harborview would require putting traffic on Austin Street which is substandard and unable to handle that kind of traffic load. Sen. Murray was able to come to the rescue with a grant from HUD for $1.4 million for roadway construction.
Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of story. The original cost estimates were wildly off the mark due mostly to the challenges of the site. What you essentially have is a project built around a hole or creating a new one, all in mounds of old fill, far from today’s standards. We’re also not able to scale the project easily because each step makes another necessary.
I won’t go into all the ups and downs of the project but will direct you to some excellent articles here, here, and here. The short version is that the total project cost is now around $3.7 million. That price tag gave the Mayor good reason for concern, particularly in these economic conditions. He proposed a much reduced project scope that would leave most of the creek the same, trapped in a tiny pipe, and doing some minor roadway upgrades. But given the rare opportunity and low possibility of returning to finish the project later, the Council has decided to move forward.
So, how to pay for it? In addition to the grants, the City’s contribution will be:
- City Stormwater Fund $640,000
- Remaining Balance Gig Harbor North LID $140,000
- Water Capital Fund $120,000
- Sewer Capital Fund $225,000
- Hospital Benefit Zone $600,000
- Strategic Reserve $300,000
These sources may have you scratching your head. Stormwater is doing the heavy lifting because Donkey Creek carries a large amount of Gig Harbor North’s runoff into the Puget Sound. It is much cheaper to use natural capacity for that water than to build facilities for it.
The GH North LID is the remaining bond reserve used to fund Borgen Boulevard construction years ago. Its use is largely discretionary, but should be used in a way that benefits those properties that paid into the LID.
Getting back to the “Question of the Day,” what do the water and sewer utilities have to do with this project? When the new bridge on North Harborview is built, utilities will need to be moved. The water line is also one of the remaining segments of aging asbestos concrete main that needs to be replaced. We have to treat City utilities like any other. If it were a different water company, or PSE gas line, or Pen Light poles, they’d have to pick up the cost. It’s a part of the agreement to use City right-of-way for their utilities. It would be unfair to citizens who aren’t City utility customers to burden them with those costs.
The good news is that this won’t effect rates as was the concern by this citizen. These kinds of capital improvements are anticipated by our current rate/connection fee study. The only real impact is that this project becomes a priority potentially moving other’s back a bit. But it’s all in the normal process of business.
The Hospital Benefit Zone will be paying for intersection and roadway improvements at Austin. The main mission of that unique financing structure is to ensure that the Borgen/Burnham Highway 16 interchange continues to function. It’s critical that growth in GH North have alternate routes rather than all funneling into that one interchange, including travel on Burham Drive (which turns into Harborview). The intersection at Harborview/North Harborview is substandard so these improvements will greatly enhance its traffic capacity as well as reduce wait times.
Finally, the remaining dollars will come from surplus dollars in our Civic Center Debt Reserve and be repaid to the City’s new Strategic Reserve. By continually replenishing this reserve, the City should have funds available when an unexpected opportunity or crisis arises.
We’ll have to stretch a bit to complete it, but once it’s finished, this will be an amazing and unique asset to the community.