Bumps lie ahead for King County’s rural roads

September 20, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Leaders propose reduced maintenance, less storm response

A vehicle drives on Southeast Tiger Mountain Road at 238th Avenue Southeast. By Greg Farrar

Some streets in rural and unincorporated areas near Issaquah could receive reduced maintenance and a lower priority for snow removal under a proposal King County leaders unveiled last week — a plan County Executive Dow Constantine called “triage” for a cash-strapped and deteriorating roads system.

Constantine proposed a plan to prioritize road maintenance, snow removal and storm response on a tiered system.

Important arteries — such as Issaquah-Hobart Road Southeast, Preston-Fall City Road Southeast, Southeast Issaquah-Fall City Road and sections of Southeast May Valley Road east of state Route 900 — remain top priorities for maintenance, snow removal and storm cleanup under the proposal.

Streets on a lower tier — including Tiger Mountain Road Southeast, Southeast Klahanie Boulevard and sections of Southeast May Valley Road west of state Route 900 — could receive little or no snow or storm response, especially during major storms. Officials said motorists could expect to see more wear and tear, plus possible lower speed limits, load limits and partial closures.

Prioritizing King County roads

Using a system of tiers, the King County Road Services Division ranked almost 1,600 miles of roadway in rural and unincorporated areas. The criteria for assigning service levels included traffic volume, projected length of detours and whether the road is considered sole access, a lifeline route or important in maintaining transit and freight.

Tier 1 roads connect large communities, major services and critical infrastructure. Officials said the roads should receive the highest level of storm response and the fastest snow removal. Motorists on Tier 1 should expect good road and bridge conditions and well-maintained drainage.
Examples: Issaquah-Hobart Road Southeast, Southeast Issaquah-Fall City Road

Tier 2 roads serve smaller geographic areas and provide alternate routes to Tier 1 roads. Motorists can expect to see a lower level of snow and storm response on Tier 2 roads. Maintenance is to be prioritized based on safety risks and available funding.
Examples: Cedar Grove Road Southeast, 196th Avenue Southeast

Tier 3 roads, or heavily traveled local streets, serve local communities and large residential areas. The plan calls for Tier 3 roads to receive little or no snow and storm response. Motorists can expect to see more wear and tear, possible load limits and lower posted speed limits.
Examples: Tiger Mountain Road Southeast, Southeast Klahanie Boulevard

Tier 4 encompasses local residential dead-end roads with no other outlet. In addition to almost no snow and storm response, users can expect to see single-lane roads in the future as funding dwindles. Some roads could even be downgraded to a gravel surface.
Example: Southeast Black Nugget Road, Southeast Preston Way

Tier 5 roads, or streets with the least-reliable access, have alternative routes available for travel in case of road closures. The plan calls for maintenance to be limited and based on factors such as life safety and risk.
Example: Southeast High Point Way, Southeast Mirrormont Way

The plan calls for the county Road Services Division to pull back almost entirely from maintenance, and snow and storm response, on local-access residential roads in rural and residential areas.

“With fewer revenues, we must manage the most pressing problems that affect the most people with the resources we have,” Constantine said in a statement after the Sept. 12 announcement. “It is, in essence, triage.”

The road proposal is part of the 2012 county budget Constantine is scheduled to roll out Sept. 26.

Under the proposal, the most-used arterials receive the highest level of maintenance, snow and ice removal, and storm response. The lowest-priority roads, meanwhile, someday could be downgraded to gravel.

If the County Council approves the plan as part of the 2012 budget process, the arrangement could take effect in January.

Officials said the system uses objective criteria for ranking the almost 1,600 miles of county roadway into service levels. The criteria include volume of use by motorists, safety requirements, detour length and whether the road is considered sole-access, a lifeline route or critical for buses.

Local property tax revenue and a separate roads levy support the County Road Fund. The county collects $2.25 per $1,000 in assessed value through the levy.

In recent years, annexations of unincorporated areas into nearby cities, lower property valuations and a dip in gas tax revenue caused the fund to drop 18 percent, from $128 million to $106 million.

Cuts in federal grant programs also reduced available dollars for local projects.

Officials said the Road Services Division has eliminated 81 job positions so far this year to address the reduced revenue. Constantine’s 2012 budget proposal is expected to call for eliminating another 30 positions from the agency.

“These are financially difficult times throughout the county, and the road fund is struggling to keep up with our citizens’ road needs,” County Councilwoman Kathy Lambert, Issaquah’s representative on the council, said in a statement. “Revenues for our roads system will continue to greatly decrease as over half of the unincorporated population will ultimately be annexed into cities’ jurisdictions.”

(Lambert joined Constantine at a Road Services Division facility to announce the proposal.)

The annexation of urban unincorporated areas into cities reduces the property tax base for county roads in the unincorporated areas, even as the annexations lessen the burden on other county services, such as law enforcement and permitting.

“Unfortunately, despite these annexations, the roadway infrastructure the county will have to continue to maintain will remain largely the same,” Lambert continued. “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.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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