Walla Walla Residents Value their Roads

Spring is upon us and it is pothole repair time in the Valley. This is the season that brings brightly colored and large machines to our roadways, creating detours, blocking traffic, perhaps raising our blood pressure, but engaging in needed repairs both major and minor.

It turns out that Walla Walla spends quite a bit of its public purse on these activities, an aspect of life that Trends indicator 5.2.3 shows. The bars depict per capita expenditures on roads owned by all jurisdictions in the county. It is clear that per capita amounts are much higher than the average of local jurisdictions throughout the state. For the most recently available year, spending here on local road maintenance & operations (M&O) amounted to $161 per person vs. a state average of $109.

These totals do not cover any new road construction.

Since local revenues usually determine expenditures by municipalities and since local revenue depends closely on person income, the graph also displays road expenditures on an income basis, or here, per $1,000 of personal income. In Eastern Washington municipalities, per capita expenditures are almost always lower than the state average, largely because incomes are lower here. We observe this, for example, also in the amount of money spent on law enforcement in all jurisdictions in the county. The per capita amount is (slightly) lower here. See Trends 6.3.2.

But as with local law enforcement, the share of county residents’ pocketbooks that goes to road maintenance is considerably higher than the average of all Washington jurisdictions. Walla Wallans support their roads! While not directly voting on this spending, the electorate puts in place commissioners and council members who allocate substantial resources to roads. For the most current year, nearly $3 of $1,000 of personal income went to road M&O. The state average? About half, or $1.49.

As the accompanying graph reveals, the pattern of per capita spending has risen over the past 15 years, with 2020 notching a high of about $182 per person. On an income basis, however, the share has declined over the same interval, from $4.15 per $1,000 of personal income, to approximately $3, or from 0.4% to 0.3% of personal income. This because Walla Walla has benefited from rising (nominal) incomes over the same period, seen in Trends indicator 1.1.1 tracking per capita personal income.

Among eastern WA metros, this local support for road M&O is among the strongest. Only the combined counties of Chelan and Douglas (greater Wenatchee area) show per capita expenditures currently higher than those of Walla Walla. On an income basis, Walla Walla also places second, behind the greater Wenatchee area.

In most jurisdictions, road maintenance & operations lands among the top three major line items in annual budgets, following public safety and water & sewer. Why it is so high in Walla Walla is a bit of a puzzle.

If we look at the “density” of roads in the county, Walla Walla doesn’t stand out with very high miles of road way per person. The Vitals, from the AWB Institute, tracks lane miles/person for all the counties in the state. A glance at the map giving the latest inventory (2020) doesn’t show the county as an outlier. In fact, its lane miles per person lies well below Grant and Douglas Counties, not to mention very sparsely populated counties such as Ferry, Garfield, or Lincoln.

The reasons for relatively high local spending on road M&O, then, must lie elsewhere. Undoubtedly one is the preference residents show for road quality. The willingness to spend on road improvements, through the indirect route of voting for local officials, must be high. In light of the quality of other Walla Walla amenities, such as parks and public schools, this shouldn’t be too surprising.