September 26, 2002

Building infrastructure for urban vitality

  • A weak economy, Sept. 11 and budget cutting across the state are going to make complying with GMA more difficult than ever.
    Special to the Journal

    Infrastructure — roads, water and sewer systems, electricity, telecommunications, jails, parks, and schools — form the foundation of a community’s plan for economic growth and prosperity. Investing in well-planned, properly financed public infrastructure helps accommodate and direct growth to the benefit of the whole community.



    Many communities have begun a GMA-required review and update of their comprehensive land use plans. As this process continues over the next several years, they will reassess how to site, finance and build the physical infrastructure necessary to support projected population growth.

    Greater coordination between local public works departments and planning offices will improve their ability to prioritize infrastructure projects in a way that better accommodates growth and development. Updated plans need to be specific — with better inventories, well-defined projects and more realistic sources of funding.


    A major challenge for most communities is finding sufficient funds to accomplish all of the desired capital construction.

    The state’s 1998 Local Government Infrastructure Study estimated the capital needs at the local level would total $8.2 billion for the six-year period from 1998 to 2003. Projected funding fell more than $3 billion short. But these are old estimates, which don’t reflect new growth projections, heightened needs for infrastructure security, newly required attention to secure community transition facilities, or parks.

    An update of the infrastructure study is due by Dec. 1. This update is supposed to identify all the financing sources available to local governments for infrastructure development and offer recommendations on how to enhance their use.

    Popular support over the last decade for government spending control and tax relief have made legislators reluctant to promote any new or added taxes and anxious to demonstrate their ability to “live within their means.” With the added effects of a prolonged economic recession, local governments are deferring capital construction projects and even closing existing facilities — King County is closing parks, for example.

    Levels of service

    Here’s the rub, though.

    The GMA requires cities and counties to “ensure that those public facilities and services necessary to support development shall be adequate to serve the development at the time the development is available for occupancy and use without decreasing current service levels below locally established minimum standards.” In order to conform, cities and counties have established “levels of service” (LOS) standards for various types of infrastructure.

    As a recent Perkins Coie LLP white paper explains, if essential public facilities are not adequate, communities must restrict growth. This creates a potential conflict with other parts of GMA, because local jurisdictions also “have an affirmative duty to accommodate the population growth allocated to them with adequate buildable lands, densities, regulations, and capital facilities.”

    Transportation concurrency

    In the case of transportation concurrency, state growth management law requires that an area’s transportation system have the excess capacity necessary to accommodate additional growth prior to approving development proposals. This summer, the King County Council placed additional parts of unincorporated King County off-limits to development until traffic improvements begin.

    The state Office of Community Development (OCD) says that two areas of the greatest innovation where concurrency is concerned are measuring levels of service and providing remedies for an LOS failure. Some measurement methods, like volume-to-capacity ratios or operational analysis of key intersections, can be very complex, but “they can help to more accurately measure progress toward a community’s vision for its infrastructure needs,” says David Andersen of OCD.

    Communities are trying a variety of remedies for failing LOSs, like collecting fees to help fund their capital improvement programs and implementing traffic demand management strategies. Still, according to Perkins Coie, “it is yet unclear whether GMA counties and cities are actually complying with the GMA on public facilities mainly because of the lag between capital facility planning, funding, and implementation.”

    Emerging issues

    There are several other capital facilities issues that are emerging. These include the Legislature’s recent inclusion of parks and recreation areas and secure community transition facilities among the facilities that communities must plan for and accommodate.

    In addition, infrastructure security issues, with certain exceptions like drinking water supply reservoirs, have still not received much attention, according to local or state officials. With the events of Sept. 11, we have another set of threats that must be factored more aggressively into local and state plans for capital facilities. Although many agree that local and state governments are unlikely to reprioritize funding resources to accommodate facility security, state officials indicate that federal resources for additional infrastructure security are about six months away.

    Private utility infrastructure

    In addition, there are the infrastructure requirements of essential private facilities. Electric power generation and other energy facilities and advanced telecommunications facilities that allow high-speed Internet access and capacity are necessary to the state’s economic recovery. These private facilities are increasingly showing signs of capacity overload.

    Regulatory processes that are imposed on private service providers have not been updated to accommodate the faster paced competitive environments prompted by federal deregulation legislation of the 1990s. As a result, regulation is responsible for slowing the flow of private investment dollars for capital improvements and expansion in these industries.

    Governor Locke’s Competitiveness Council also highlighted industry problems with slow processing and unreasonable charges for right-of-way easements, saying that the state should take into consideration the effect these conditions have on energy and telecommunication consumers. With the growing challenge of finding sufficient funds to pay for necessary public projects, smoothing the state and local systems that are constraining private financial capital investment becomes even more important.

    Bottom line

    While nearly everyone agrees that more funding is needed to provide the necessary infrastructure, local communities can take important steps to prioritize how available revenues are spent. By financing infrastructure projects that encourage economic vitality, accommodate growth, and provide the amenities that build better communities, communities will promote investments in job-producing private development and help to expand the tax base for other necessary public services and facilities.

    Kriss Sjoblom is vice president-research of the Washington Research Council and Elaine R. Davis is managing partner of The Simeon Partnership.

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