Drivers warned of rocky roads as county cuts maintenance budget

SEATTLE - More pot holes, fewer snow-plowed roads and longer commutes - these are just a few of the things local transportation officials say drivers can count on as shrinking budgets delay road improvement projects.

"We have lost more than 40 percent of our revenue," said Brenda Bauer, road services director for King County.

The county says crews will repave 7 miles of roadways near Redmond, Federal Way, Auburn and Issaquah over the next few weeks but that's it - that's all the road services division can afford to fix this summer.

"Our resources have to focus on really critical safety work," Bauer says. "We had planned to do zero miles but fortunately we received some grant money at the beginning of the year which allows us to do 7 miles."

Over the last two years, Bauer says her department has lost $32 million in revenue due to declining property taxes, gas taxes, and grant money. Without additional funding options she says this year pot hole filling and patching in King County will drop nearly 65 percent from what crews were able to do years ago and those are just the summertime cuts. Come winter, King County drivers will see a significant reduction in the number of roads crews are able to maintain.

"Normally we would plow and sand about 30 percent of the most significant pathways in and out cities," Bauer says. "But because of the dramatic reductions we will only be able to provide service on about 10 percent of the roads. So we are trying to pick the most traveled ones."

Earlier this summer, the state Senate decided not to vote on a $10 billion transportation package, which included a 10 1/2-cent increase to the gas tax. King County and the City of Seattle were very vocal in asking lawmakers to approve a set of local transportation funding tools which supported a 10-cent increase in the state gas tax and also would have allowed the county to ask voters to approve a 1.5 percent motor vehicle excise tax renewal fee.

According to Frank Abe, director of communications for the King County Executive Office, the road maintenance cuts the county is being forced to execute now are a direct consequence of lawmakers failure to approve a transportation package and a solution doesn't seem near.

"There is no indication the legislature will go to special session this fall just to deal with transportation," Abe says.

But the Washington Policy Center, an independent, non-partisan think-tank, says it's important for lawmakers to ensure tax dollars already collected for transportation projects are being spent efficiently.

"These roads have been crumbling for a while," says Bob Pishue, director of WPC's Center for Transportation. "It becomes a question of what are they doing with the money? Drivers in King County already get hit with a lot of taxes and fees but their needs are still not being met."

Pishue says the Center wasn't against King County going to voters but it couldn't support a funding option that gives 60 percent of the vehicle excise tax renewal fee to transit service.

"Transit is not underfunded," Pishue says. "There are 31 public transit agencies in the state which collected over $2 billion in revenue in 2010."

But Bauer says the cuts King County is currently making to road maintenance and repairs has much broader implications than just affecting local homeowners in its unincorporated areas.

"The economic engine of the state won't work if Metro Transit and King County roads and bridges are not open and functioning," Bauer says. "We plan on closing 35 bridges in next 25 years if we don't get additional funds."

To help reduce costs internally, Bauer says a third of her staff will be cut by the end of this year and the department participated in countywide cost of living freezes. But she says they can't make up for the lost revenue all on their own.

"The state controls the ability of local government to collect the resources they need to deliver services," Bauer says. "We know elected officials in King County are working closely with legislators trying to come up with some options that would restore some of the loss revenue that's necessary."

Until that happens, Bauer says King County isn't able to proactively search for and repair minor road defects which means bigger, more expensive delays down the line.

Senate leaders plan to hold a series of public meetings over the next several months focused on asking residents how they would like to see local roads improved. The meetings are planned in a handful of cities including Seattle, Tacoma and Everett starting in September.