The community had a year of change in 2014 with noticeable shifts and ones that are much more subtle that will only take years to realize.
I-5 parking lot
One of those subtle changes is the start of the construction “double Dutch” of several projects along Fife and Milton’s strip of Interstate 5 heading into King County. The work will last years and span a series of projects to expand the roadway, replace bridges and streamline on-ramp designs. Costs for the work will top a half billion dollars and is already behind schedule.
The first slate of work involves replacing the northbound I-5 bridge over the Puyallup River.
The new bridges will be wider and straighter than the current spans and will enable the roadway to have commuter lanes that will be added as well. Crews will widen northbound and southbound I-5 to four general-purpose lanes and one additional High-Occupancy Vehicle lane from Tacoma’s M Street to Portland Avenue. To do this, WSDOT will replace the Pacific Avenue and McKinley Way bridges over I-5, and build a new northbound I-5 bridge over the I-705 interchange. Work on this phase of the I-5 improvements is set to start in the spring and will last for about three years.
Dovetailing onto the northern side of the I-5 construction site will be work to improve access to State Route 167. The bridge is in such bad shape that it was moved ahead of work to reconfigure the SR-167 freeway from Tacoma to Edgewood, which will cost $2.4 billion and is not yet funded anyway.
This completion of the last leg of SR-167 would finally link shipping terminals on Tacoma’s tideflats to the warehouse and distribution hubs in the Puyallup Valley some 20 years after it was first proposed as a “vital project for economic development.”
While this state-funded work is underway, the City of Tacoma will be moving forward to replace the Puyallup River Bridge that connects Tacoma to Fife. The $30 million project will be funded through a partnership among the City of Tacoma, the Port of Tacoma, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, Pierce County, the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, federal grants and the City of Fife.
54th Avenue debate involves a classic clash of oversight
Proponents of opening 54th Avenue, which is currently blocked by a fence and massive concrete blocks have sparked debate about transportation and safety issues in the city.
At the heart of the issue is an effort by residents from Fife’s south side, the City of Fife and officials with the Puyallup Tribe, which has developable land in the area, to remove a fence that blocks pedestrian and car traffic from crossing the Union Pacific Railroad tracks by Columbia Junior High School.
The tracks were closed to traffic in 1999, when the school was built, in an agreement between the city and the Fife School District. The agreement states that the city cannot remove the fence without consent of the school district, which continues to have concerns over student safety were the crossing to be open. Negotiations with the city on that front are underway to change that stance.
With the rise of hundreds of homes on the other side of the tracks since the school was built, however, nearby residents at Saddle Creek and Radiance want the fence removed to make their commute to the rest of the city easier and to cut emergency response times by avoiding a long detour. The Puyallup Tribe wants the crossing opened to allow easier and more direct access to its recently completed Youth Center.
The city and school officials reached an agreement in 1997 with state railroad officials to have the crossing officially closed to pedestrians and vehicular traffic. The settlement required landscaping and other features to be added to the current roadway. That landscaping was never completed, so the state and the railroad consider the crossing technically open. The guard arms and lights still flash when a train comes along the tracks some 16 times a day, but the tracks themselves are blocked by a chain link fence. Since the crossing is treated on state and railroad ledgers as being open, a state review to remove the fence is not required.
But here is the rub.
Union Pacific railroad officials acknowledge that they have no authority to block the city from removing the fence and allowing traffic to flow over the 54th Avenue crossing. But UP argues that safety improvements, such as sidewalk, would be needed. The addition of a sidewalk or other improvements, however, would trigger a crossing change review by Washington Utilities and Transportation. UP is on record as saying it would oppose the addition of sidewalks as a way to keep cars from crossing the tracks.
Wrap your head around that for a minute. Railroad officials say they can’t block the removal of a fence to allow traffic over the crossing. They however, recommend the addition of sidewalks, but they state they would oppose the addition of those same sidewalks when it came to a state review.
The railroad is also moving forward with plans to add another set of trains in the area that would allow UP cars to be “sided” along the tracks, which would block the crossing for long periods of time anyway, according to internal emails. Construction on that work is set for 2015. The railroad is also conducting a review of the crossing arms and lights, although they have been already cleared by state officials during their last inspection two years ago.
The city has now formed a 54th Avenue Taskforce to ponder options.
Fife leaders resigned
There was first Fife Mayor Glenn Hull’s announcement that he was resigning his role and mayor so he could move to Georgia, where his wife had accepted a job.
He had only been mayor for six weeks.
Deputy Mayor Tim Curtis was then tapped to fill the position.
Fife City Manager Dave Zabell then announced that he had accepted the city manager position with the City of Pasco, but he would stay in Fife for two months to finish up several key projects. He had been the city manager since 2011. In his almost four years with the city, Zabell had initiated many changes, programs and processes like the city center project, south campus master plan, economic development programs, biennial budget process and jail program, winning numerous awards for budgets and public works projects and many other items thanks to his leadership and management.
In the last days of Zabell’s position, Police Chief Brad Blackburn announced that he would resign immediately. The chief had served the city for 26 years, eight years as chief.
Under Blackburn’s leadership, the department underwent a complete modernization in its equipment, training and practices.
Assistant Chief Mark Mears has since been appointed to the top cop post.
Making connections for Indian Education
The 2014 Western Washington Native American Education Consortium (WWNAEC) was held at the Emerald Queen Casino as a way for 12 tribes from around the state to promote tribal history in non-tribal classrooms.
With schools across Washington implementing the state’s newly mandated Common Core Curriculum, WWNAEC is working to get OSPI’s foundational curriculum "Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State" incorporated into classroom lessons at all Washington public schools.
The conference, and others like them, continue to weave cultural heritage lessons into classrooms.
Community Connector bus service added then canceled
Pierce Transit’s Fife-to-Puyallup Community Connector service started this year as a way to provide transit services to the smaller communities of Fife, Milton, Edgewood and Puyallup in the wake of service cuts and projected deficits.
Pierce Transit has since announced that it will cancel the service next year because of low ridership, often just two or three passengers per route.
The cities now face decisions on whether to stay within the Pierce Transit taxing district when they are not actually served by buses.
Fife mourns McCrossin’s passing
The Fife School District lost its chief champion in August, when superintendent, John McCrossin, passed away from cancer. McCrossin exemplified the ‘Fife For Life’ philosophy and will be greatly missed for years to come. Thousands of students were profoundly influenced by his steady leadership and love for the district.
He had served local children as a teacher, coach, principal, district administrator and superintendent. The school board has since renamed the basketball court at Fife High School the "John McCrossin Court" in his honor. The naming ceremony was held on Dec. 6, with the 1987 basketball team he coached in attendance.
Fife School Board had named an interim superintendent at a special board meeting on Sept. 22, choosing Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education Kevin Alfano to lead the district to allow the board time for a search for a permanent superintendent. Naming Alfano interim superintendent was the most logical option since he and Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Education Ben Ramirez had worked together to take on McCrossin’s duties after he revealed his cancer diagnosis. The permanent post was selected Dec. 22.
Cities ban marijuana
Cities in Washington began examining their stance on marijuana after State Attorney General Bob Ferguson issued a statement in January claiming that cities have the right to ban it under the wording of Initiative-502, which legalized marijuana for recreational use.
Fife, Milton and Edgewood now have bans even though one business in Edgewood and two in Fife were issued retail marijuana licenses by the state.
Fife’s rules on mini casinos aid town center effort
The closure of Fife’s only non-tribal casino two years ago, and the rising effort to create a master plan for the city’s commercial core, prompted the City Council to shift the rules concerning card rooms within the city.
The new zoning rules would allow mini-casinos of up to 15 tables only in the city’s regional commercial zone that runs along Pacific Highway and a part of 20th Avenue. These social gambling halls would only be allowed through the conditional-use permitting process and only if the gaming is part of a larger hotel complex. The hotel would have to be at least 100 rooms and must have at least three diamonds on AAA’s hotel rating system. That would put any future establishment on par with the Hotel Murano and the LaQuinta by offering conference space, a business center and other amenities.
The council approved the change just as the city’s moratorium on gambling businesses was set to expire. It had been in place since 2012, right as the city was starting its town center master planning that would create a municipal, commercial and recreational hub along Pacific and 54th Avenue.
The change raises the development standards of future construction in the master plan area by sparking interest with investors looking for larger projects rather than business people just looking at opening a card room.
The city’s zoning rules regarding gambling have no effect on Fife’s existing casino operations since the Emerald Queen Casino and BJ’s Bingo are operated on sovereign land by the Puyallup Tribe.
This is an important move as the city moves forward with economic development plans.
Utility rates jump to keep pace with costs
Fife City Council delayed water and sewage rate increases during the Great Recession of recent years to shield residents from rising costs during the economic downturn. Sewer rates, for example, hadn’t changed for a decade.
That changed this fall.
Sewer rates now jump 45 percent, from $42.01 to $60.91 a month and up to $74.36 by 2020. Water jumps about 75 cents from $39.25 to $40.01 for the average home starting after the first of the year, while stormwater rates go from $6.71 to $8.06. All totaled, average homeowners will see their combined monthly bills go from $87.98 to $108.98 in January. Apartment dwellers will see their average bills go from $81.55 to $102 a month in 2015.
More increases will follow, bringing the bills to $130.96 a month for homeowners and $122.39 for apartment renters after five years. Those rates put Fife in the middle range of utility costs in the region. The jumps backfill the utility funds for needed improvements as well as are set to then rise with the rate of inflation in the coming years to avoid such large leaps in the future. That is, after a few years of sliding rate increases that translate into about $20 more in utility costs for residential customers.
The cost adjustments came after the city hired a consulting company to review its utility cost structure as well as the expectations of future improvements. The council then reviewed utility rates at its annual council retreat this summer and then at a study session in August. The public hearing in early September prompted little public comment.
Sewer service costs about $3.9 million a year, while only taking in $3.5 million from ratepayers. The pass-through costs from Tacoma Public Utilities add to the overall rate changes.