For several months, a group of King County cities and other stakeholders have been meeting as part of a Regional Transportation System Initiative (RTSI). Their goal is to identify a funding solution for County roads and regional arterials in King County. A Technical Committee is working to define the scope of the regional roads network and its unmet needs. An Elected Officials Committee had their first meeting last Tuesday, considering a strategy for a regional package with funding options that could be authorized by the Legislature in 2018.
The RTSI is convened by Sound Cities Association (SCA) and King County. SCA represents the cities of King County other than Seattle. Seattle staff are also participating. Other staff support is provided by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC).
While billed as a transportation system initiative, what is taking form is a roads program. As described by SCA, “while significant investments were recently approved for the larger system of freeways, major highways, and high-capacity transit, there remains a significant funding shortfall to address mobility and maintenance on the system of principal arterials, state routes, and collector arterials that connect communities in King County”.
The Technical Committee identified a draft regional network of some 1,366 center-line miles of King County roads. These comprise principal arterials (32%), minor arterials (54%), other freight routes (2%), frequent transit routes (6%), and county-designated arterials (6%). Those categories overlap so there are, for instance, other frequent transit routes within the principal and minor arterials.
It will be up to the Elected Officials Committee to define funding options, and to take those to the Legislature in the 2018 session. Their preferences have not been publicly discussed, but a County-wide Transportation Benefit District (TBD) is preferred by rural members of the King County Council and some mayors. TBDs have limited taxing authority, and could levy up to 0.2% sales tax and $100 MVET with voter approval. The intent to work with the Legislature suggests higher taxes or other funding sources.
Plans for suburban and rural roads investments have been evolving for a while. In January 2016, the Bridges and Roads Task Force reported on the large funding gaps in maintaining roads in unincorporated King County, suggesting the county partner with cities to address needs of both rural roads and incorporated areas. In November 2016, Issaquah Mayor Fred Butler assembled the mayors of cities in southeast King County and other regional leaders at a Regional Transportation Summit. Assembled leaders at that summit were concerned about how much traffic is generated outside of city lines. Many mayors testified traffic generated in neighboring cities impacts their roads, often passing through to somewhere else.
In the unincorporated areas, there is a lengthy backlog of basic maintenance just to keep roads open. King County Road Services currently receives about $100 million in revenue from property and gas taxes per year, but bridges and roads in the unincorporated areas has estimated needs of at least $350 million, mostly for maintenance. In the suburbs, political demands revolve more around capacity, and much of that will come via road-widening projects. At the November Roads Summit, mayors had a long list of two-lane roads they would like to turn into four to better move cars from elsewhere. The approach in most suburban cities to exurban sprawl is accommodative; widen roads so other drivers can pass through without adding to local congestion.
Pass-through traffic is a real phenomenon in suburban cities, and one must laud any effort for a more coordinated response than individual cities can muster. How much of that response should be a tax-financed expansion of major roads?
In 2007, regional voters rejected the Roads and Transit ballot measure 56-44. Since then, regional voters have approved two Sound Transit measures, one of which was the transit portion of the failed Roads and Transit measure. In 2002, the statewide Referendum 51 which would have raised the gas tax 9 cents for highway expansions failed 62-38. The state has since raised the gas tax several times, most recently for the 2015 Connecting Washington package, but without asking voters for permission again. Several local cities had successes at the ballot in November with more multimodal projects.
The political hurdles to a county-wide funding solution are large. Unincorporated King County has 12% of the County’s population, but only 9% of the property tax base and 3% of taxable sales. A subsidy to unincorporated areas is inevitable if their steep needs are to be addressed. Log-rolling the measure through 38 suburban cities will be complex. Seattle’s needs are very different, and there are few clues yet to suggest the process is favoring urban priorities. Seattle has been successful in passing its own very different transportation levies.