Sept. 12, 2011
Deteriorating roads and declining revenues compel County to propose new maintenance priorities
Most-used roads would be maintained at high levels while smaller roads would receive less care in coming years
Steep declines in the revenues supporting the King County Road Fund - accompanied by ongoing deterioration of aging road surfaces - will require implementation of a tiered system of prioritizing road maintenance, storm response and snow removal, under the 2012 County budget to be proposed Sept. 26 by King County Executive Dow Constantine.
"The ambitious reforms we've brought to King County government are helping us sustain public services in the General Fund. However, the County Road Fund hasn't been revisited in 25 years, and is no longer equitable or adequate," said Executive Constantine. "With fewer revenues, we must manage the most pressing problems that affect the most people with the resources we have. It is, in essence, triage."
"These are financially difficult times throughout the county, and the Road Fund is struggling to keep up with our citizens' road needs," said King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert, who represents Northeast King County. "Revenues for our roads system will continue to greatly decrease as over half of the unincorporated population will ultimately be annexed into cities' jurisdictions. Unfortunately, despite these annexations, the roadway infrastructure the County will have to continue to maintain will remain largely the same. We must prioritize how we spend our revenues in the unincorporated areas so that we can keep our roads as safe and productive as possible."
The County Road Fund is supported mostly by the local property tax, through a separate Roads levy of $2.25 per thousand of assessed value. Under the state Growth Management Act, the annexation of urban unincorporated areas into cities is leaving a dramatically reduced base of property tax revenues for County roads in the unincorporated areas.
Over the past three years, a combination of annexations, lower property valuations, and declines in gas tax revenues has led to an 18 percent decline in the Road Fund, from $128 million to $106 million. As a result, the County's Road Services Division has been compelled to eliminate 81 positions this year alone. The 2012 Executive Proposed Budget will call for elimination of an additional 30 positions in Road Services - an overall 18.6 percent reduction of these road crews and the staff that provide support since the first of this year.
King County's recently adopted Roads Strategic Plan set the priorities upon which the tiered approach to roads maintenance has been built: the most-used arterials would receive the highest level of maintenance, storm response and snow and ice removal, while the lowest-priority roads could be downgraded to gravel. If approved by the County Council as part of the 2012 budget process, the new service approach would take effect in January, 2012.
The new system outlines objective criteria for the ranking of each of the nearly 1,600 miles of County roadway into one of five service levels, using criteria such as volume of use by motorists, safety requirements, detour length, and whether the road is considered sole-access, a lifeline route or important for buses:
Tier 1 (50% of the daily trips in the system) - The spine of the County road system with heavily travelled arterials connecting large communities, major services and critical infrastructure. Provides consistently reliable access and the highest level of storm response, including the first roads to receive snow and ice removal. Users of tier 1 roads should expect good road and bridge conditions and well-maintained drainage. These roads will receive the highest level of maintenance and preservation.
Tier 2 (20% of daily trips) - Heavily traveled roads serving less populated areas and that provide alternate routes to tier 1 roads. Provides generally reliable access, however users of tier 2 roads can expect to see a lower level of storm response and snow removal. These roads will receive maintenance to keep them in good condition, with preservation efforts to be reactive and prioritized based on the level of risk and availability of funding.
Tier 3 (15% of daily trips) - Highly used local roads that serve local communities and large residential areas. Provides somewhat reliable access with little to no storm and snow response, especially during significant storms. Maintenance and preservation are provided to slow deterioration, but users of tier 3 roads should expect to see wear-and-tear to roadways, possible load limits, lower posted speed limits, and long-term partial closures.
Tier 4 (5% of daily trips) - Local residential dead-end roads that have no other outlet. Provides less reliable access with virtually no storm and snow response. Maintenance is limited to work that preserves access. Users of tier 4 roadways may see a number of one-lane roads, with some downgraded to a gravel surface, depending on the level of deterioration and availability of funding.
Tier 5 (10% of daily trips) - Local roads that have alternate routes available for travel in case of road closures. Provides least reliable access with virtually no storm or snow response. Limited maintenance will lead to more road deterioration. Due to poor conditions, users of tier 5 roads can expect to see some closures, which may result in longer detours and difficulty accessing property. These roads may be downgraded to a gravel surface, restricted to one lane, and have load limits and lower speed limits.
"A robust economy requires a well-connected region. Rural roads are integral to our regional transportation system. This strategic plan puts our limited resources to their best use, but it is alarming that our infrastructure is at risk," said Councilmember Joe McDermott, who will chair the Physical Environment Panel during the Council's budget process. "I am hopeful the work of the Governor's task force championed by colleagues like Councilmember Lambert will identify a solution that uses tax dollars efficiently and keeps our region moving."
In the last year, the Road Services Division has downsized its organization and reduced its operating budget by $14.6 million, resulting in an agency that is nearly 18 percent smaller. The division has also reprioritized its capital program to fit the proposed tiered service levels that focus on safety and preservation. No projects to provide more traffic capacity are programmed for the future. Due to the decline in revenues, the proposed six-year program has been reduced by $172 million or 57 percent compared to the 2010 adopted program.
Roads in the county's rural area are some of the oldest in the system, and are the most vulnerable to winds, floods and snow storms, running as they do alongside rivers and streams, through heavily wooded areas and at higher elevations.
The Executive said the solution for local roads will lie with the Governor's Connecting Washington Task Force that is working on a statewide transportation package.
"The source of funding authorized by the state for county roads can no longer keep pace with the success of growth management and city annexations," said Executive Constantine. "Ultimately, we need a permanent and sustainable solution for local roads."
Read more about the proposed new service levels.