Roads Director Rick Brater said the county prioritized repaving Vashon Highway last summer, but as money for capital improvements to roads and bridges runs out, other paving projects and asset preservation work will have to be shelved. Above, the intersection outside the Burton Mercantile (Paul Rowley/Staff Photo).

Roads Director Rick Brater said the county prioritized repaving Vashon Highway last summer, but as money for capital improvements to roads and bridges runs out, other paving projects and asset preservation work will have to be shelved. Above, the intersection outside the Burton Mercantile (Paul Rowley/Staff Photo).

Lack of funding spells trouble for county roads

“This problem puts people miles out of their way.”

Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series about road maintenance on Vashon.

King County has not been able to proactively maintain its roads since an investment funding crisis began more than a decade ago, according to Roads Director Rick Brater.

On Vashon, the county’s limited means to maintain its roads hasn’t been much of a problem so far — but as the money for capital improvements to roads and bridges runs out, the situation in unincorporated areas could get worse before it gets better.

In its 2019-2020 budget, King County Roads, which is overseen by The Local Services Department, prioritized core road safety and regulatory environmental compliance work above maintenance and asset preservation. Declining gas tax revenues and a smaller property tax base have brought on severe financial constraints, amounting to an annual estimated funding gap of $250 million to $400 million. Significantly more funding is needed to maintain, replace and improve county bridges and roads, as concluded by the Bridges and Roads Task Force, which last convened in 2016. An independent consultant found that the annual shortfall is even greater. As it now stands, the county is unable to address a growing backlog of critical needs, and the costs are expected to increase.

Brater said that for more than 10 years, these circumstances have set the tone of the county’s response to needed infrastructure improvements for roads — it can only focus efforts on keeping them safe to travel on in their current state while minimizing damage to them as much as possible.

“[We] basically had to go to a risk management type of plan to manage our roads versus an asset management plan for our roads,” he said. “Clearly, roads that have a high traffic volume — roads that provide access through the county — those main arterial roads are the roads we have focused on.”

At the onset, the county determined that some residential streets, including on Vashon, may be allowed to degrade to gravel, as Roads could no longer fund smaller paving projects in unincorporated areas and neighborhoods. By and large, that predicament has not changed, said Brater, though he noted it would be unlikely for Local Services to allow for roads to turn to gravel, citing the county’s perspective on risk management.

To that end, Brater said paving Vashon Highway last summer had been at the top of the county’s maintenance list for some time.

“We invested some of our preservation dollars into [paving] Vashon Highway, and so those types of roads are where you’ll see greater attention. But the residential streets, the smaller, low traffic roads … are not going to see a repaving project in the foreseeable future,” he said.

Brater emphasized that only a small portion of what county residents pay in property taxes funds Roads. He said the county will continue to use its resources to keep roads and bridges safe to cross. But heading into 2025, he said, that will become more difficult.

According to Roads’ 2019-2020 Line of Business plan, by mid-2025, there will be no remaining funds to support capital improvement projects.

In the department’s proposed budget for the current biennium, capital investments include repairs to aid drainage along roadways, replacing culverts, refurbishing guardrails and maintaining older bridges. The costs for undertaking such projects at the necessary scale in the county will run well into the millions. Going forward, said Brater, similar projects will have to be scrapped, and there will be less money to support preventative maintenance work as the county’s road system continues to age.

“We are managing the decline of the unincorporated King County road network, and it is a reality that the conditions are going to decline,” he said, adding that the effects of the revenue shortage will be felt everywhere. “We will have to potentially close roads, close bridges; we may have to reduce speeds on roads because the condition does not allow them for cars to go the speed limit.”

For now, the major roadways on Vashon are in relatively good condition. Vashon Island Fire & Rescue Chief Charlie Krimmert said he could not think of any cases where poor roads have impacted the department’s response to an emergency.

“Our concerns are usually less road-oriented and more driveway-oriented,” he said. “I can’t think of any road conditions that have impacted us negatively.”

Islander Ron Smothermon lives on Maury Park Road, which the county designated in 2011 as a lower priority for maintenance — it was earmarked to turn to gravel over time, according to previous coverage in The Beachcomber. The road is currently paved and in decent condition aside from normal wear and tear, said Smothermon, adding that some spots could afford to be patched up. But Smothermon said he could not imagine the county letting his street deteriorate so badly, calling it a disservice to the community, as he said would be the case anywhere.

“The thought of them just letting maintenance deteriorate to the point where it would turn back to gravel, it just doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Joe McDermott, who represents Vashon on the county council, said a solution is overdue.

“The crisis has been growing over time and just continues to compound itself,” he said.

McDermott said a failed 2014 King County ballot initiative that would have funded bus service, road safety and transportation improvements was a major blow. Only months later, Seattle residents voted in favor of raising taxes to avoid service reductions to King County Metro Transit routes, according to the Seattle Transit Blog. But as that measure will expire next year, McDermott said there is an opportunity to turn things around — he hopes local legislators can collaborate and find a way to fund both public transit and the budget for maintaining county roads together.

“The replacement for transit funding needs to recognize and include [county] roads as a short term way to address the issue,” he said, “and we have to continue to press the case in the Legislature for new progressive funding that keeps up with expenses over time.”

Some council members have been advocating for practical solutions to the funding crisis for roads in the county. McDermott met with the Washington State Transport Commission last March to discuss broad challenges facing transportation in King County, including the issue of funding road maintenance. He said the state’s involvement in finding a workable, permanent solution will be critical.

“Whether it’s a road on Vashon or a bridge in [greater] King County … this problem puts people miles out of their way,” he said.

This version of the story clarifies a comment made by Rick Brater about county property taxes.

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