Last week, the Independent spoke with Port Orchard Mayor Rob Putaansuu about significant achievements made by the city in 2021. This week, the conversation turns to upcoming goals and projects the City of Port Orchard anticipates in this new year.
PORT ORCHARD — For those of us living in Port Orchard, the good news is the economy is going gangbusters and this region is seeing tremendous growth.
And the bad news? The area is growing. And that translates into increased traffic congestion, higher costs for housing, and added disruption to our daily lives.
But Mayor Rob Putaansuu only sees positives when addressing the issue of growth.
He acknowledged that a growing community presents challenges to city government, but says that “at least that growth is providing revenue and resources for us to address these challenges. If we had a declining economy, I wouldn’t have any resources to even consider necessary improvements,” the mayor said. “Overall, I think we’re doing exceptionally well.”
Port Orchard is dealing with that double-edged sword when it comes to transportation needs. The mammoth $20 million Tremont Street widening project for one of the city’s three arterials leading into and out of the city, with a new set of roundabouts, has eased traffic congestion, provided upgraded stormwater systems and utilities along the route, and beautified the connector roadway with State Highway 16.
But the Tremont improvements have alleviated just a portion of the city’s traffic congestion. And Putaansuu acknowledges additional improvements won’t happen overnight.
“It’s probably going to get a little worse before it gets better,” the mayor said of Port Orchard’s traffic situation.“Our traffic improvement plan involves using traffic impact fees, which comes from development paying for capacity improvement.”
Those fees, he said, are the keystone to funding those improvements to the city’s transportation corridor.
“The only effective tool in our toolbox to solve this is through traffic impact fees. In turn, we’ll collect those fees and leverage them as they are matched toward grants. We’re doing what we can to solve those problems, but they aren’t going to get solved overnight.
“I work very hard to find other people’s money — grants and awards — because we can’t solve issues with local money,” Putaansuu said.
With Tremont’s completion a few years ago, the city’s attention has been redirected to the north-south Bethel Avenue thoroughfare, which has experienced a buildup of congestion along the route, especially at mid-afternoon on weekdays.
All told, plans to widen and optimize the Bethel corridor have a hefty price tag: estimates in 2018 pegged the costs at $54 million. That’s a project the city will take on in coming years through a piecemeal, multi-project approach. Part of solving the congestion is a series of roundabouts for Bethel. Putaansuu said the city continues to lobby the state to solve the congestion problem at Sedgwick and Highway 16, both of which are state highways.
The Bethel roundabouts were in the most recent transportation funding plans that the state Legislature failed to pass. Funding for those roundabouts is in the funding proposal this session, however.
“Whether they [the Legislature] takes action or not, we’ll have to wait and see,” the mayor said. “We’re going to continue to advocate and lobby to make sure that the state takes responsibility for solving [the transportation issue].”
But in the immediate future, two roundabouts on Bethel are taking shape on the drawing board. Planning has been underway for some time for roundabouts at Bethel’s intersections at Lincoln and Mitchell streets. Ground will be broken this year for the Bethel-Lincoln roundabout, which the mayor said will not only alleviate afternoon congestion but will make the road safer for motorists who travel the route.
Safety concerns, rather than congestion, enabled the city to get $1.2? million in grant funding for the roundabout project.
“The Bethel-Lincoln roundabout probably wasn’t our biggest need, but because of accident data, [the project] scored well” with Washington State Department of Transportation project evaluators, Putaansuu said.
Sea level rise a concern
Since Bay Street, which runs through Port Orchard, is a state highway, Putaansuu said the city also is seeking state funding to raise the street level so that portions of downtown aren’t impacted by flooding from heavy rains and high tides (stretches of Bay Street were closed for a portion of one morning last week because of flooding from record overnight rainfall).
“We’re starting a project there to fix that by raising the street [near the location of the new community events center] by about a foot and a half,” Putaansuu said. “We’re starting from Geiger to Frederick streets to analyze what height the road level needs to be so that when we build these new buildings downtown, we’re building them at the proper height to accommodate sea-level rise for the foreseeable future.”
The mayor said city planners are also looking at improvements to the street frontage there, including rebuilding it to accommodate trees along the street and to include stormwater infrastructure and underground utilities.
“We only have one opportunity to build this and get it right,” Putaansuu said. “We’re trying to get out in front of the design for the [downtown master plan project] streetscape.”
Another long-term project the city hopes to complete in the next few years is the pedestrian pathway, which starts near the downtown waterfront, winds along Sinclair Inlet and finishes at Annapolis. The mayor said the city is working to gain right-of-way acquisition this year for the final portion of the pedestrian pathway.
“I certainly hope we can complete those property acquisitions and start construction potentially next year. Construction is probably a year away.”
While it’s not the biggest looming project this year, the improvement to the McCormick Village Park’s splash pad is likely the most popular with a segment of the city’s population.
“It was such a phenomenal hit with the community,” he said of the waterworks feature at the park. “We never fathomed that it’d use as much water as it did because it didn’t have a circulation system. We had a couple of hiccups in the design, but I think we’re getting close to [incorporating a circulation system] there this spring.
“And this summer, for sure, we’ll have that facility back online for those hot days for the kids to play and cool off.”
Homelessness at Veterans Park
One issue Putaansuu and the neighbors who live next to Kitsap County’s Veterans Park hope will get resolved is the proliferation of homeless encampments there. Tent enclosures and temporary structures have not only created a blight amidst the park setting, but the impact of the people living there has also created a health and environmental hazard.
“We’ve got public water infrastructure in that area, and have streams and wetland that are being destroyed by human waste and garbage,” he said. “We’ve taken code enforcement action against the county to solve these problems. We’re very serious about getting the park cleaned up and resolved.”
Port Orchard officials met with the Kitsap County commissioners in December to complain about the problem and seek remediation. Following that meeting, county officials gave their city counterparts a roadmap and timeline for cleanup activity at the park. In the meantime, Putaansuu said city code enforcement staff continue to visit the site to ensure the promised actions are taken.
“We are very serious about the public health and safety problems that [the encampments cause]. It’s simply not fair to the community and the neighborhood that surrounds the park if the situation continues,” he said. “If you lived around that park, you’d feel the same way.”
Finding the funding
Major construction projects not only require a major time commitment of city government officials, they demand considerable funding requirements. For cities such as Port Orchard that have limited sources of revenue, those officials must search for funding sources at the state and federal levels.
Putaansuu said the city was successful in securing $1.2 million for the South Kitsap Community Events Center project from the state Legislature. That money was critical in the city’s efforts to buy the land on which Kitsap Bank currently sits. The parcel is to become the site of the community events center.
“It was a Herculean effort to get $20 million for the Tremont project,” which he reminded relegated the city to the back of the funding request line with the state for a few years. Since then, though, Port Orchard has gotten grant awards, albeit in smaller chunks.
“We’ve gotten awards for more than $1 million each over the last two years,” he said. “There is money out there, but you’ve got to do your part. Having a ‘wish sandwich’ is difficult to get funded. If you’ve got a plan and a design, and you know what [your project] is going to cost, you’re going to be much more successful than if you just come in with an idea.”
The mayor said the city is leveraging the funding it does have and is advancing designs for several projects while pursuing grants.