King County approves roads, bridges funding

The capital projects funding is significantly less than previous years.

Road closed warning sign. File photo

Road closed warning sign. File photo

A new six-year roads and bridges capital improvements plan was approved by the King County Metropolitan Council with far less funding than county officials say is needed to preserve existing infrastructure.

The total six-year plan (CIP) assumes there will be $61.4 million available to undertake a variety of critical safety programs. This is a nearly 80% reduction from two decades ago when the budget was around $500 million annually, said director of the county’s Roads Services department Rick Brater. The 2019-20 county budget for roads and bridges was $108.2 million annually.

“Some of it was annexations and some of it was just due to our funding structure,” Brater said at a Nov. 18 Budget and Fiscal Management Committee meeting.

That funding structure means that the majority of roads funding comes from property taxes from the roughly 230,000 people who live in unincorporated portions of the county. With the reductions, Brater said safety projects are undertaken first, while regulatory compliance and preservation come second.

“In this program we have bridges, some paving, some drainage work,” he said.

King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert said in recent memory the county could undertake 17 major projects in a year. Two years ago the county did zero, and last year they did one. In this CIP, the roadway preservation budget is dropping to around $6 million from $17 million.

“So when people say why is this not happening, why is that not happening, it’s because the money’s not there,” Lambert said.

Councilmember Rod Dembwoski said finding more funding for roads and bridges is one of their top priorities going into the 2020 state legislative session. Other significant reductions include high collision area safety projects, which will drop from around $1.8 million in 2019 to $100,000 next year. Flood control district funding will drop by more than $1 million, and the county’s quick response program will see funding reduced from $5.1 million to $1.5 million.

In total, the six-year plan is projected to need some $246.9 million.

The recently approved Initiative 976, which sought to reduce car tabs and put restrictions on transportation taxing districts, could also impact the county if its share of state funding is affected. King County officials have around five years to figure out how to continue funding roads and bridges maintenance and projects. It is projected that by 2025, the county will run out of money for capital projects.

Because of declining revenue between 2012 and 2018, there has been no new stand-alone bridge replacements since 2014. An independent analysis from 2015 found the county could use up to $500 million each year to fully fund transportation infrastructure projects.

By 2040, it’s expected that 72 miles of county roads may turn to gravel and multiple bridges could be closed. Ways to bridge the gap have been floated by Lambert, who said the county could create enterprise zones where the county would actively recruit businesses to unincorporated areas. It could also ask the state Legislature to change its revenue formula to direct more funding to rural roads, siphoning some tax money generated in cities.

The state is also exploring a pay-per-mile tax scheme to study the effects of replacing the gas tax.

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