King County’s road system, all 1,486 miles of it, is in crisis. The system’s annual maintenance needs are about $350 million, but the current funding mechanisms only bring in about $90 million. That’s a huge gap, and every year the backlog of needed repairs and maintenance is growing.
We’re talking about a roads system that handles 1 million vehicle trips a day as people travel to work, school, shopping and recreation. Lest the problem be seen as a rural one, know this: on the county’s high-volume roads, half the trips are made by residents of cities or originate from other counties. These are critical roads for commuting, commerce, and community life.
King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert, who has been a real leader on this issue, told KUOW in April, “This is a crisis. The numbers show it’s a crisis. It’s never going to get cheaper. So if you want to save money, you spend it now before it gets even more expensive.”
With roads, falling behind on maintenance is expensive
Thanks to a confluence of factors (the Growth Management Act, annexations of county territory into cities, the last recession, a reliance on property taxes), revenues devoted to county roads aren’t even close to meeting needs. Some roads and bridges are beginning to deteriorate to the point that repairs and maintenance are much more expensive. From that report by KUOW:
With each passing winter, the rate of deterioration accelerates. Cracks left unpatched turn into bigger cracks. Unmowed shoulders prevent roads from draining rapidly. The water creeps under the road bed and breaks up the road when it freezes. As time passes, the cost of repairing those roads increases dramatically. Many roads are approaching the point of no return, where they can’t be repaired, but must be completely rebuilt.
“It is dramatic,” says Brenda Bauer, chief of King County’s Roads Division. “We’re thinking things no one is thinking about nationally. Like how to sensibly close down a system and how to talk with people about that.”
Clearly $90 million a year is not enough to maintain this system, let alone repave or rebuild some roadways, deal with deficient bridges (30 of which need to be replaced by 2030, at a cost of $190 million), or add new capacity. While it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, it’s worth knowing that the county road system, with its 1 million daily trips, receives a $90 million budget while the Metro transit system’s budget is $1.4 billion – 15 times more funding (you can view Metro ridership statistics here).
What the solution?
The state’s Growth Management Act encouraged annexations of county areas into cities and directed new growth to occur in cities. The law did not include a mechanism for new roads funding to make up for the loss of that property tax base. As one report put it, “During annexations King County retained 73%of the roads and 0% of the tax base.”
That’s a problem, and it leads to some absurd results. For instance, consider a Duvall resident who commutes daily to Woodinville via Woodinville-Duvall Road. Their property taxes would help maintain streets and infrastructure in Duvall, but none would go toward maintaining the road they use every day to get to work. That’s a broken model.
The problem is somewhat unique to King County. Only about 12% of the county’s residents live in unincorporated areas – no other county in Washington is even close to that low percentage. Other counties have a rural property tax base to support county roads.
Kathy Lambert believes the solution might be the creation of a Transportation Benefit District (TBD). That would require a change in state law – under current law, the TBD couldn’t be countywide. Under an expanded TBD, all drivers in the county, not just those in unincorporated areas, could contribute to maintaining the county’s road system. Our hypothetical City of Duvall commuter would help support the roads they use every day.
Something must be done. The do-nothing option is clearly not a good one. “Over the next 25 years, without funding for repair or maintenance, 35 bridges and 72 miles of roadway may need to be restricted or closed due to severe deterioration.” Speed limits will be lowered, washouts will occur from stormwater system failures. That’s the definition of penny-wise, pound-foolish.