County’s regional arterial network is aging, needs work, and big bucks to make it happen

To call King County’s regional network of major and minor arterials “critical” is an understatement.

It supports millions of trips each day by people traveling to work, to school and to recreational activities. Farmers and businesses rely on regional roads to deliver their goods and services, first responders deliver life-saving aid on it, and utilities deliver critical infrastructure.

But the traffic it carries in this expanding economy is stressing those essential-but-aging corridors, and they need attention, in terms of capacity and maintenance and preservation.

Which is an enormous problem for local jurisdictions in an era when the federal dollars that were once available for such projects have all but dried up.

Where to find the bucks – considering King County’s population is already taxed to the teeth and still smarting from the passage of ST3 in 2016 – is the principal concern of the Regional Transportation System Initiative.

On Monday, City Engineer Ingrid Gaub, Kevin Snyder, director of Community Development, and Brian Perry, senior policy analyst of the Sound Cities Association, briefed City leaders about the RTSI to sound them out and give Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus questions to bring to the RTSI’s next meeting on Feb. 2.

Council member Bill Peloza voiced the concern on everybody’s mind: “more taxes.”

King County and the Sound Cities Association convened the RTSI last year to define the regional transportation network and its unmet needs, and to identify ways to improve network performance on the roads, streets and routes that connect communities.

The project began in earnest last march when King County and the Puget Sound Regional Council created its two advisory bodies: a technical committee composed of individuals from the incorporated cities of King County, the SCA and the PSRC, the Washington State Department of Transportation, regional transit agencies and King County; and an elected officials committee composed of elected officials from King County and cities within King County.

The technical committee has met seven times, most recently on Nov. 3, 2017. The elected officials Committee has met once, on June 3, 2017.

Under current law, Gaub said, what the local jurisdictions can already raise in total in King County is about $9.5 billion, leaving a shortfall of about $7.5 billion in the $19 billion the RTSI estimates would be required between today and 2040 to increase capacity and perform basic maintenance and preservation.

That’s why the RTSI is considering a dual request: asking each of the 39 cities in King County and the county itself to raise their share of the revenue in ways of their own choosing; and then going to the state legislature with that money in hand to seek the rest of the funds.

“What you are looking at with the RTSI program is more about how do we go to the legislature as one voice, with 39 cities and a county talking about what our overall need is, without devolving into focusing on what Kent wants for one project, or what Auburn wants for one project, because that is not going to help us get the message across to the legislature about how great that need actually is,” Gaub said.

“… There are some interesting regional choices in front of all the regional communities, because this is a large issue … the numbers are daunting and will require a regional effort. Individually, (the local jurisdictions) will never overcome some of this, so that’s why the regional conversation has been happening,” Snyder said.

“This is also an economic development issue,” Snyder said. “The longer that these infrastructure issues are not addressed, the more the regional economy [will be] challenged to keep up with the growth, to keep up with the transportation needs associated with that growth, to move people and goods around.”

The Port of Seattle and the Port of Tacoma have already voiced concerns about the deterioration of the regional traffic network and the barriers that presents to getting goods from Point A to point B in a timely fashion, which, they say, puts the region at a competitive disadvantage with respect to other ports in the country.

No specific projects have been identified, only types of corridors, but here is what is on RTSI’s radar: principal arterials, which are federally-classified roads; federal, minor-arterial classified roads, which make up a fairly significant portion of corridors through Auburn; and all T1 and T2 freight routes, which are major connectors between various jurisdictions.

It is also looking at anything that is part of the national highway system but isn’t a federally-classified road, such as frequent transit routes and King County’s arterial road network.

Two federally-classified, principal arterials in Auburn are 277th and Peasley Canyon Road, while all of Auburn Way North to Auburn Way South, R Street, West and East Valley highways, 15th Street across the valley to Lea Hill Road and Lea Hill to Highway 18 are federally-classified minor arterials; and 37th between West Valley Highway and Auburn Way North and C Street Southwest and Northwest are T1 and T2 freight routes.

The idea is to figure out, taking into account lights, bridges and traffic signals on those roads, the preservation cost for those roadways, and what would be the cost of effecting capacity improvements on them.

“We (Auburn) were part of the conversation to come up with what those roads were,” Gaub said.

Fifty seven percent of the revenue would be needed just for basic preservation and maintenance.

Among the many revenue raising options are: indexing the fuel tax to inflation; implementing a carbon tax on motor fuels; increasing the sales tax on motor fuels; raising parking fees and taxes; increasing vehicle license fees; or putting a road usage charge in place.

All of which, Deputy Mayor Bob Baggett noted, involve taxes.

“It looks like one heckuva lot of tax increases coming down the line to accomplish most or any of this,” Baggett said of the list. “…We’re going to be taxing everybody out of existence if we’re not careful. “

“A lot of those may take legislative action. Some don’t take legislative action, they take local action to enact,” Gaub responded.

And if tax increases are taken off the table?

“Well, then, you are going to have crumbled roads,” Backus said.