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Vashon emergency responders voice concern about county’s roads plan

Islanders are beginning to express concerns to King County officials about County Executive Dow Constantine’s decision to let hundreds of miles of roads deteriorate due to the county’s deepening financial problems.

Hank Lipe, chief of Vashon Island Fire & Rescue, wrote a letter to County Councilmember Joe McDermott last week and called a special fire commission meeting to approve it this week after he learned that Constantine’s proposal is about to become a part of his official budget request. The proposal will soon be pending before the county council.

And Joe Ulatoski, a candidate for one of two open seats on the fire commission, called on the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council to pass an urgent motion expressing its un-happiness with the proposal — a measure that wasn’t considered Monday because the council lacked a quorum.

Ulatoski, who helped establish Vashon’s emergency preparedness program, VashonBePrepared, said he was troubled by what he called King County’s failure “to do their homework.”

“They should have come to the Island immediately and discussed the ramifications,” Ulatoski said. The proposal, he added, “should be put into abeyance” until county officials understand how the program could affect Vashon.

Lipe agreed, noting that the plan could have a serious impact on Vashon, where some of the least-traveled roads are steep and circuitous and a lack of maintenance could make it impossible for large emergency-response vehicles to safely use them.

“These are basic public safety needs,” Lipe said. “Last time I checked, I thought that’s what government was all about.”

But Jay Osborne, manager of the office of strategic asset management for the county’s Road Services Division, said the way the legislative process often works is that the executive sends a proposal to the council, launching a round of public hearings and debate.

“Part of what’s going on on Vashon is a misunderstanding of the public process,” Osborne said.

The council, he noted, will now hold hearings that will give the nine-member board a chance to revise the proposal and give county residents a chance to weigh in. He also said the roads division held a meeting of emergency responders last month and will hold one this week; VIFR representatives were invited to both, he said.

“We’re just starting the public outreach part,” Osborne added.

Under the county’s proposal, 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 due to the county’s declining tax base, an ongoing recession and a backlog of unmet needs. Depending on the amount of use, some roads on Vashon and other parts of unincorporated King County will become one lane or dead-end roads while others will be turned into gravel.

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, roads at Gold Beach, Luana Beach Road and dozens of other streets — are in the lowest tier and would get little or no maintenance. According to a definition by 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.

Lipe, however, said the approach could have far-reaching impacts on Vashon, where response times to emergencies are already greater than “desired standards.” What’s more, he said, because of the paucity of fire hydrants, VIFR relies on water tenders that carry 3,000 gallons of water and weigh 55,000 pounds — vehicles that could become unsafe if roads are no longer adequately maintained.

He called on McDermott and the county council to “thoroughly study the uniqueness of the roadways here” before approving the plan.

Ulatoski, who is running against volunteer firefighter Candy McCullough for an open seat on the fire commission, said he was frustrated when he read that Constantine listed public safety as one of the considerations in establishing the tiered system.

“The main gripe I have is that they did not look at the public safety ramifications when they made the decisions,” Ulatoski said.

McDermott, meanwhile, said he was glad to receive Lipe’s letter. “I will certainly make sure they’re part of the conversation.”

At the same time, he noted, the county is facing a crisis. “Traditional funding models for transportation are not keeping up,” he said. “In fact, they’re falling rapidly behind.”

 

For more information about the county’s plan, visit kingcounty.gov/transportation/kcdot/Roads/NewServiceLevels.

 

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