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County plowing reductions could affect island in a snowstorm

Vashon could see less snowplowing service this winter, as county budget cuts mean road workers from the mainland can no longer back up Vashon’s small snow removal crew during a widespread storm.

“We’re planning for a little less, but hoping for full coverage on Vashon,” said Brenda Bauer, director of the King County Road Services Division, which provides snow and ice removal services in unincorporated King County.

“You can get pretty isolated our there,” Bauer said, referring to Vashon. “That isolation and the challenge the rest of the county faces means there won’t be anyone riding to the rescue.”

The roads division recently announced that towns across unincorporated King County will see more roads go unplowed in the event of a major snowstorm this winter, as it plans to reduce its snow  and ice removal services by two-thirds compared to recent years. The agency released a map showing that only the highest priority highways and arterials will see plowing, sanding and de-icing in the event of a countywide storm.

On Vashon, the outlook isn’t quite so bleak, Bauer said. Since Vashon is somewhat isolated and the island’s road maintenance crew is already small, she said, staffing hasn’t been reduced here in years and snow removal services will remain the same.

However, should one or more of the island’s seven county road workers be unable to get to work in a storm, or should a plow or other equipment on Vashon break, the county will no longer be able to provide backup to the island as it has in the past.

In those situations, workers would remove snow and ice on only high priority roads, potentially causing delays for emergency workers or utility crews.

“Before we may have been able to come in and provide equipment or help,” Bauer said. “Now we’re just not able to do that.”

The reduced snow removal services come as the latest cutback in the county roads division’s funding crisis. Since 2009, property values in King County have fallen by more than 40 percent and some unincorporated areas have been annexed into cities. Reduced property tax revenue as well as reduced revenue from the gas tax have hti the roads division hard, and its budget fell from $128 million five years ago to $85 million this year, according to a report in The Seattle Times.

“The gap between the amount of revenue we get now compared to what we used to get … no amount of efficiency will cover that,” Bauer said.

In unincorporated areas other than Vashon and Skykomish — another isolated community with a small road crew — the county will now remove snow and ice on just 10 percent of roads during a widespread storm, compared with the 30 percent it has plowed in recent years. While the roads division could improve its reach if former road workers are willing to work on a temporary basis during a storm, Bauer said officials there are concerned.

“I’m worried for the communities that might be isolated,” she said. “I’m worried that people’s lives might be affected by this critical network not being opened.”

On Vashon, Bauer said, there’s a good chance snow and ice removal won’t be affected and that workers will stick to a tiered system where main roads are plowed and treated first with other arterials addressed as soon as crews are able.

Should workers or equipment be unavailable, however, the county will likely plow only roads identified as high priority. This includes the length of Vashon Highway, Quartermaster Drive, the full length of Dockton Road, part of Cemetery Road, part of Westside Highway, Cedarhurst Road and Monument Road.

Under the tiered plan, fully staffed Vashon crews, when able, would also remove snow on a number of arterials, including Cove Road, Bank Road, Beall Road and 99th Avenue and 75th Avenue on Maury Island.

George Brown, assistant chief of operations at Vashon Island Fire & Rescue, said that the agency sometimes uses its own snowplow — a maintenance truck with a plow blade attached to the front — to access areas during a significant storms.

If the county’s plowing was reduced, Brown said, the department would likely have longer response times to car accidents and medical emergencies.

“It’s going to affect our response,” he said.

Bauer said county officials expect that some in unincorporated King County may decide to take their own plows to the street to pick up where the county has left off. But the county simply can’t condone citizen plowing, she said, as it’s dangerous work and county plow operators receive special training and certification.

“It’s not something anybody can do,” she said.

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