County’s roads will decline due to lack of funds

File Photo Signs such as this one at Dockton Road last winter could become more common as the county struggles with a declining road services budget. - File Photo
File Photo Signs such as this one at Dockton Road last winter could become more common as the county struggles with a declining road services budget.
— image credit: File Photo

King County’s roads division is facing a funding crisis of such magnitude that nearly 75 miles of roads on Vashon and more than 1,000 miles countywide will get little to no maintenance and be allowed to deteriorate over time.

According to a plan the division put together last month and is just starting to release publicly, some county-owned roads will likely face closures, some will become one lane and others will be turned into gravel as the county comes to terms with a declining tax base, an ongoing recession and a backlog of unmet need. The plan will be incorporated into County Executive Dow Constantine’s 2012 budget this fall.

“We need to start picking and choosing what we’re going to repair to ensure that there’s a backbone to the system,” said Jay Osborne, manager of the Office of Strategic Asset Management for the county’s Road Services Division. “The system is deteriorating. It’s getting older. We haven’t been able to take care of the basic infrastructure.”

Under the tiered system the division created, Vashon has one road that would continue to receive a high level of maintenance — the full length of Vashon Highway — and a handful of other roads that would get nearly that level of treatment — including Dockton Road, the Westside Highway and Wax Orchard Road.

But others — such as the Dilworth Loop, Ridge Road, Luana Beach Road, streets at Gold Beach and dozens of other residential streets — are in the lowest tier and would get very little or no maintenance. According to a definition from the roads division, those lower-tier roads “could experience significant downgrades and permanent closures that could force homeowners to travel longer routes to reach their property.”

The new approach stems from an ongoing and worsening financial crisis that the roads services division faces — one that began 11 years ago when voters approved Initiative 695, which ended the so-called car tab fee. Fifteen dollars from each car tab went to the county roads division; the end of that revenue ultimately punched a $105 million hole into the division’s construction plans, Osborne said.

Other declines in revenue and demographic changes have added to the problem, he noted: The county has lost portions of its property tax base as swaths of unincorporated King County have been annexed by existing cities. The amount of revenue the division gets from the gas tax, meanwhile, has also fallen, due to motorists who are driving more fuel-efficient cars or putting on fewer miles because of the recession and the escalating cost of gas.

All told, Osborne said, the road services division would need $240 million annually to maintain its system. Under its current funding structure, it will receive $102 million beginning in 2015. The division is in the process of laying off nearly 20 percent of its staff; another round of layoff notices will be issued in the next two weeks, Osborne said.

“The money is gone,” said Fred Jarrett, deputy county executive, adding that because of voter decisions, policy-makers are hamstrung when it comes to finding additional revenue.

“There isn’t a free lunch. We as a society are going to have to make a decision about whether we’re willing to pay for the mobility we’ve become accustomed to,” Jarrett added. “The tiered system is a way of saying, ‘Here’s a rational approach, given the resources we have.’”

The tiered system puts about 24 miles of Vashon roads into the top two tiers — meaning they’ll get the same level of maintenance, or nearly so, as they now receive.

Another 24 miles are in the third tier — including 103rd Avenue at the north end, Bank Road, the western half of Cemetery Road and Monument Road. According to the county’s definition, these roads would get enough maintenance to slow their decline but could be downgraded to chip seal and could face “long-term partial closures.”

The rest of the Island’s public roads are in the last two tiers: 31 miles are in tier 4, dead-end residential roads such as Bates Road, 220th Street and many of the roads on Maury. Those could become one-lane gravel roads over time, the county said. Another 43 miles are tier 5 roads — such as the Dilworth Loop — roads that could eventually face partial closures, forcing residents to drive farther to reach their homes.

Osborne attended last week’s meeting of the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council, where he described the situation and presented a map color-coded with the various tiers. Alice Larson, who attended the meeting, was shocked by what she heard.

“It’s going to be really bad. ... I drive the roads; I see the patching and (potential road failures). If they don’t repair those areas for several years, were going to be dodging huge potholes on almost every road on this Island,” Larson said.

People’s safety could become an issue, she noted, since degraded roads would slow emergency responders. Snow and ice removal would also be diminished under the county’s plan, she noted, raising additional concerns.

“We’ve had some pretty horrendous ice storms. If they can’t get out to sand, you’re creating a very dangerous situation,” she said.

George Brown, assistant chief at Vashon Island Fire & Rescue, hadn’t heard about the county’s proposed changes until he got a call from a reporter. He, too, expressed alarm over the potential impact.

“We already have so many areas that are difficult for us to get in, without any of this,” he said. “Wow. It will definitely have a negative impact on our response times.”

Some Islanders on the affected roads were philosophical about the situation, noting that poor road maintenance is the logical result of the lingering recession and the region’s ongoing inability to pass taxes.

“It’s understandable, given the increasing squeeze on the county’s budget,” said John Gerstle, who lives on Maury Park Road, a tier 4 road that could turn to gravel over time. “I’m disappointed, but not surprised.”

Amber Mozelski, a mother of four who lives on the Dilworth Loop, said she isn’t very concerned about road conditions. “I thought for a long time that roads ought to be downgraded and all the money put into education. Maybe people will drive slower,” she said.

Told she might have to drive farther to reach her home, should a portion of the Dilworth Loop eventually be closed, she said, “It would be an annoyance, for sure. But I could live with that.”

Others were more upset about the implications.

Chuck Fisk, who lives on Luana Beach Road, an area his great-grandfather settled nearly 100 years ago, said he would be deeply troubled by a lack of maintenance on his road. The road is serpentine and steep, he noted, and a failure to maintain it could prove disastrous over time.

“It’s a main road for the people who live here,” he added. “If you’re going do that to me, then adjust my taxes.”

Joe McDermott, who represents Vashon on the county council, said he’s concerned about the proposal. It’s a necessary short-term plan as the county comes to term with its financial crisis, he said, “But it’s not a long-term strategic plan.”

Dockton Road along Tramp Harbor, he noted, is particularly vulnerable, and at one point the county was discussing a multi-million-dollar repair of the seawall — a project now off the table.

“If Dockton Road washes out, people who live on Maury Island are in trouble. For emergency services, for safety, for time. Is that reasonable? No, it’s not,” McDermott said.

Jarrett, meanwhile, said he hopes the state will work with King County and other jurisdictions to address the issue. While King County has the biggest and oldest road system, it’s not the only region that’s struggling with a failing road system, he said.

Jarrett was recently named to a task force empaneled by Gov. Chris Gregoire. Called Connecting Washington, the high-powered group has been charged with developing a 10-year plan for addressing the state’s troubled transportation system — from its roads to its ferry service.

“I’m confident that if there’s a way, we’re going to find it,” said Jarrett, a former lawmaker.

“People are to the point that they realize there are consequences to the decisions we make,” he added. “If we can deliver services in an efficient way, I think people will step up to pay for those services, especially those that they value, like mobility.”

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