Detail from the draft Regional Roads Network Map

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.

Next Steps for the Elected Officials Committee

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.

35 Replies to “Is a roads ballot measure in our future?”

  1. Time for transportation utility fees.

    http://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/conferences/2014/Finance/30.Turley,Carole.pdf

    Even a partial implementation of the Trump federal transportation budget will result in drastic cuts to transportation funding for all states, combined with a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that is focused on oil pipelines and improving internet connectivity at luxury high developments using funding that is “marketed” for roads and water, will result in major transportation funding challenges over the next 4 years.

    We can keep going the regressive route of expanding our current tax structure or consider a utility option which could be made much more progressive by focusing the costs on destinations (work) rather than origins (housing) and could be used to incentivize employers to encourage employees to use lower cost transportation options.

  2. I would have a hard time voting for anything which expands 2 lane roads to 4 lane roads. If the measure was going to add bike lanes and sidewalk instead, I’d be much more interested. But on a more realistic level, why can’t we just have a measure to cover the maintenance gap? As far as taxes go, I’d be more inclined to vote for something which taxes cars, be it mvet or gas tax. Mostly because I think it important that the cost of cars’ negative externalities be paid for upfront, but also because I won’t have to pay anything because I don’t have a car.

    1. I think that supporting maintenance costs is fundamentally still supporting sprawling road expansions. In my political calculus, knowing that voters will cover maintenance costs makes it significantly easier to authorize capital construction (without asking voters). Otherwise, maybe they would have made long term operations and maintenance part of the initial authorization for the construction, like they did with ST3 (that was sent to voters).

      1. As far as capitol without maintenance, politicians sometimes make short sighted decisions, like getting capital funding but neglecting maintenance, but this isn’t that. This was caused by many of the denser areas of the county incorporating thereby ceasing to pay taxes for county roads connecting the now incorporated areas. But even supposing we vote no for maintenance, do you really see these politicians who didn’t even vote on the old capitol going, ahh, now I see the error in our exuberant capitol spending ways? I suspect they will do like they are doing on McCleary – badly. Meantime, they will keep looking for splashy capitol projects to cast as necessary.

        As far as enabling sprawl, who do we think is going to look at the county roads constraints and go, lets raise some money for capitol projects without asking voters? The feds have been reducing highway investment. The state as a whole views King county with suspicion and county roads are not exactly a glorious cause. Do we think King county will do the expansion? Can the county even legally raise taxes for capitol without asking voters? This state tax police in WA are very vigilant to make sure Yakima residents don’t have the imposition of King County residents taxing themselves. Maybe some of the cities will manage to get a little cash to do a nearby project, but only if it is really important to them. Overall I don’t think paying for maintenance will result in more sprawl.

    2. Something like Auburn-Black Diamond Road is probably what this is referring to–it’s a two lane regional connector. The linked point on the map is half way on a 3 mile stretch between two intersecting arterials where there is more or less only one destination. Adding sidewalks just to this three mile stretch would cost millions and have essentially zero ridership since there is no walkshed; let alone access to this stretch of road is virtually impossible via foot.

      1. I was mostly joking about that. There are some roads that I’ve been put on by google maps that I wish had some shoulder. Here is a Snohomish road googles bicycle directions put me on. It was very uncomfortable to ride on. I’m mostly glad I’m not dead. Here is a great one from Bellevue. Look how much shoulder is on most of the northbound side. Google put me on this years ago, but as you can see from the street view, I’m not the only chump. While neither of my two examples are from unincorporated King County, if there are any like this, I would appreciate them getting at least a shoulder.

      2. West Lake Sammamish at this point is actually in the City of Bellevue. Really dangerous to ride northbound but I do it all the time if I can get out early on a weekend morning. I’ve noticed that Bellevue, in particular, is now a big fan of the hokey one side bike paths, they installed one a couple years ago just past Vasa Park heading south on W. Lake Sammamish Pkwy. They left absolutely no room for shoulder riding southbound so you get to ride with the kids on training wheels etc. on the sidewalk. I see they are proposing the same thing for Newport Way, which is a HUGE bike route (as is West Lake Sammamish despite the lack of infrastructure).

        Just because they have funding doesn’t mean they do anything sensible with it.

    3. I’m with you Ben. I would much rather support a package that was focused primarily on maintenance. I’m OK with minor improvements here and there (additional ramps, overpasses and the like) because those types of things can really make a big difference for the money spent. But major expansions are really not a great idea.

      The state had the same problem. They could have produced a much leaner, much more appropriate set of proposals if they simply killed the 509/167 project, but for political reasons (it runs through swing districts) they went ahead and built it. The result was a much more expensive package that not only adds to sprawl, but will mean having to spend more on maintenance later.

  3. We should not accomodate sprawl, because accomodated sprawl leads to more sprawl. If the commute from rural King County is less congested, more people will make that commute. Why should regional tax payers subsidize such a terrible investment when there are better investments for the buck? If people want roads built just so they can live in the mountains and work at the sea, they need to be paid for by user tolls.

    1. 2/3 of the county’s voters are suburban so you’re outvoted. Enjoy your roads. The way to stop sprawl was to prevent it in the first place.In the 1960s when the freeways were built, around 90% of the population was in Seattle and the commuter ring was basically Lynnwood – Bothell – Redmond – Renton – Kent – Des Moines. A few people commuted from Woodinville, Issaquah, Auburn and Tacoma, but few people lived there. Boeing workers were the exception, since they commuted from everywhere to Renton and Everett, and the company switched them between plants without much notice so they’d buy a house in one community and then get switched to another and they’d have a long drive.

      In the early 1980s the county deliberated where to channel growth. There’s a KOMO documentary from that time that has been posted here. The three choices were “metro towns” (satellite cities), concentrating everything in Seattle, or concentrating everything in north-south trenches (as they looked on the map, so imagine a Bothell-Factoria one and a Redmond-Eastgate one). It’s impossible to imagine now because it looks like wall-to-wall houses everywhere, but then area had just transitioned from rural. So the 1960s would have been the best time to prevent sprawl, and the 1980s could have prevented it from going into hyperdrive. Germany did it when it rebuilt after WWII; it stuck with the compact town model. But the people in the 80s merely passed the urban growth boundary and patted themselves on the back for saving farmland.

      A follow-up to the documentary said that the “metro town” model had won out and what we have now is pretty much what was envisioned. Ayayay! There are certainly substantial cities in Bellevue, Redmond, and Renton, and the first two have succeeded in densifying their downtowns, but what about the peanut butter spread of houses in between? Apparently the satellite cities they envisioned just meant concentrations of density, not keeping the in-between areas green and free from subdivisions and cul-de-sacs. And now Seattle has gone from 90% of the county’s population to 20-30%, and with it has gone Seattle’s political power to argue for an unsprawly future. The best we’re going to get is job density and apartment density in the suburban downtowns and industrial districts, but the vast number of houses in between them will remain bedroom communities.

    2. If the UGB isn’t expanding, increasing road capacity is necessary because the current suburbs are getting denser, not because we are building new suburbs. In the context of a rapidly growing county, that seems to me to be reducing sprawl, not increasing it.

      1. I think you are giving the urban growth law too much credit. As mentioned below, there is a proposal to add over 6,000 houses to Black Diamond (current population, 4,153). That would greatly increase the number of people who live in the area (and use the roads).

        Both the market and the rules help reduce sprawl. It isn’t clear how much the market is hindered by lack of road capacity. For example, if they improve 169, will it lead to new development that is not economically feasible right now? It seems to me that it would, which is Gwed’s point.

    3. Small areas in the suburbs are getting denser. The vast majority of the land is single-family subdivisions that have some kind of anti-density teflon painted on them that has so far succeded. The suburbs are in the same position as Seattle of letting the majority of their land off the hook for absorbing the population increase. To me “sprawl” is these quarter-acre subdivisions and cul-de-sacs. If Totem Lake and western Issaquah want to densify, great. If new urbanist compact developments want to go into the periphery, um, that’s maybe tolerable but they really should be closer in, but if they do get built they should have good transit — none of this #208 90-minute frequency ending at 7pm. This single-family land that we’re protecting is exactly where these new urbanist neighborhoods should be going into.

      1. It is hard to define sprawl. One way to look at it is if you have green field development. Generally speaking, what doesn’t have a house on it now, is likely to be way out in the boonies. To me the change from rural to suburban (e. g. farm to track house) is sprawl.

        In those areas, I have no problem with requiring big lots. There is no way to guarantee a rural use, but it at least cuts down on the traffic that comes with sprawl. For example, Black Diamond is in a big fight over whether to allow a large housing development there (http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/eastside/city-hall-warfare-over-development-holds-black-diamond-hostage/). If this was in Seattle, I would be on the side of the developer. But in a place where everyone will drive, I am on the side of the preservationists. If they reached some sort of compromise that allowed some development, but required really big lots, I would be happier with that, since there would be fewer houses there.

    4. >> 2/3 of the county’s voters are suburban

      I’m not so sure about that. I suppose it all depends on how you define suburban. It is hard to measure, as there are parts of Seattle (e. g. West Magnolia) which seem very suburban. But they are still part of a big city. On the other hand, there are very urban parts of what were once considered classic suburbs (e. g. downtown Bellevue). There are also plenty of rural places, but from a population standpoint, those are probably insignificant (e. g. Skykomish).

      If you start counting cities, then it gets interesting. As of 2010, there were 1.9 million people in King County. About 2/3 live in the top ten cities (listed in order):

      Seattle, Bellevue, Kent, Renton, Federal Way, Auburn, Redmond, Shoreline, Kirkland and Burien.

      Some of these are very suburban. But others are more of a mix. At least they are from the perspective of road use. Burien may be suburban from an employment perspective, but if a significant number of people live close to a bus line (and use it) then it doesn’t really matter. As you said, a lot of them are trending towards being more urban. It wasn’t too long ago when Shoreline or Burien would be considered all suburban, but now have some big apartment clusters. Redmond has gone from being a sprawling suburb to a sprawling suburb with a fairly large urban core in a short amount of time.

      On the flip side, you have about a quarter million living in unincorporated areas and my guess is most of those people are suburban.

      The point being that if folks vote their self interest, and have to choose between supporting something designed to improve the cul-de-sac experience or something designed to benefit the more urban resident, my guess it would be a very close vote (about 50-50).

      1. “2/3 of the county’s voters are suburban”

        “I suppose it all depends on how you define suburban.”

        In this case I meant outside the Seattle city limits. When I say suburban I either mean that or the post-WWII style of development with low-density residential-only neighborhoods with no corner stores, usually with superblocks and 4-lane arterials. In King County the two are practically the same: Bellevue is urban in some aspects but everything is still automobile-scaled and it’s still building 5-lane roads just blocks from downtown (120th and 124th). The suburbs are willing to build quasi-dense developments downtown or on commercial land and break up a couple superblocks downtown, but no more than that. In Seattle we talk about upzoning our single-family land to allow duplexes and row houses and small apartments, but the point is that we actually have a chance of succeeding. In the suburbs these are still completely off the table. When you listen to people outside Seattle most of them want more roads and highways, and commuter trains and buses, and no tolls. This is how they vote, and since they’re 2/3 of the population, what they say goes. This is why ST is building light rail to Everett and Tacoma and Redmond and Issaquah but not the 45th line or Metro 8 line.

  4. Seattle should demand subarea equity be enforced. Especially since we are already paying a roads levy for city streets (Move Seattle).

      1. It’s not parochial to expect a tax increase to benefit the people who pay it. There is no reason that Seattle should subsidize road improvements for unincorporated King county. I would not accept any roads levy that did not ensure money raised in Seattle stayed in Seattle the way the suburbs did for Sound Transit. If it is good enough for transit, it is good enough for roads.

  5. I want to fight this (or at least encourage reasonable reforms like only use tolls/impact fees and have subarea equity, or something). How do I fight this?

    1. It’s interesting to game out either way. This doesn’t look like the program to win Seattle votes. If it’s suburbs only, you’re up against the usual tax aversion. Suburbanites don’t like paying for stuff, even stuff they like. So where’s the coalition to make this happen?

      It’s tempting to think Roads+Metro Connects could be a winning formula, but the roads+transit ballot measures haven’t done well (including King County Prop 1 in 2014, also a 60% buses, 40% roads package).

      1. The Metro Connects part *is* roads. Nobody is expecting it to pay for the extra buses that will be needed. It’s just asking the policymakers to prioritize the roads that Rapid, Express, and Frequent routes will be on, and to give them adequate bus thoroughput. If they also improve them for cars too, that’s fine with me.

      2. That could be a workable argument. The Metro LRP added the red lines to the map, and overlaps with some of the others.

        So if I’m a council member in Bellevue or Redmond, and I don’t want a lot of widenings, but I do want BAT lanes and queue jumps, is this the ballot measure that helps to fund those?

        There were some mayors at the Issaquah conference, some from surprising places like Sammamish and Newcastle, that might be on board for this. They argued for more HOV lanes on streets out of their cities because otherwise “there is no point taking transit because the buses sit in the same traffic as everybody else”.

    2. It’s an interesting paradox: the suburbs have the majority of voters but also the majority of tax-haters. Maple Valley may be keen for its highway but it may need Seattle voters to get it passed, and that depends on enough Seattle voters not saying “Just say no to suburban highways”. Although we do have a 45th line and a Metro 8 line to fund, hmm.

    3. I agree with all the comments. I think this will be hard to pass. The devil is in the details, and all it takes is organized environmental opposition (e. g. the Sierra Club) and the thing will fail. That is what killed “Roads and Transit”.

      I could see the same thing happening with this. Generally speaking, county voters haven’t been eager to raise taxes to pay for road improvements. I think a proposal that basically focused on maintenance and transit based improvements stands the best chance of winning. For rural areas, that could mean the conversion of a road from 2 to 4 lanes, but with the new ones being HOV only. Those tend to be popular with everyone. Meanwhile, Seattle could use more money to spend on similar projects, as it is fairly clear that Move Seattle doesn’t have nearly as much money for things people want (like bus lanes and sidewalks). Places like Bellevue and Redmond are becoming more like Seattle in terms of priorities, so I see a package like that as having a good chance of passing, especially if it was held during a general election year.

      I think adding a “subarea equity” type clause might improve the chances of passage as well. There are plenty of suburban voters who are highly suspect of urban interests, and at least for this issue, the reverse is true of well.

  6. Metro’s long-range plan has a dozen more RapidRide lines in the suburbs and several Express lines in the more peripheral areas. It has said it needs external funding to complete these. So at minimum the roads package should complete all those, putting in transit/BAT lanes all over the place. For instance, in Kent/Auburn the 164, 166, 169, 180, 181, and 183 will be more or less converted to RapidRide lines, with one on Kent-Des Moines Road to get quickly to the station. Express routes are planned for Auburn – Covington – Maple Valley – Snoqualmie; Auburn – Enumclaw; Enumclaw – Renton; Maple Valley – Issaquah – Bellevue; etc.

    KUOW’s Region of Boom series did a month on Black Diamond, and in one of the episodes residents talked about the acute need for widening the Maple Valley highway which is very backed up, and there’s a development in the permit process which would triple the size of Black Diamond. One person said, “They offered us buses but they won’t help because they’ll be stuck in the same traffic as the cars.” So if the widening occurs it better have transit/HOV/HOT lanes of some sort. The mayor at the time said that there was talk of a county roads package funded by a supplemental tax, and that all the mayors around wanted it.

    Basically, everywhere that needs road improvements needs bus improvements too, and any roads package should focus on streets buses use, and if there’s a significant project beyond just resurfacing that doesn’t have a bus on it, then the planners should look at whether it needs an all-day bus too. If the projects add transit lanes and related facilities and also add car capacity too, that’s fine with me as long as the transit is first-rate.

    “$100 MVET with voter approval.”

    That will go over like a lead balloon. If there’s one thing people feel as strongly about as widening roads and having trains for commuting, it’s that MVET is bad. So it will be interesting to see how those two impulses interact. A $20 or $40 MVET might be overlooked, but a $100 road fee on top of ST’s $80 fee or whatever it is, and Seattle’s fee and the state’s $30 fee… that adds up to $200-300. Expect a lot of bitching about that. Even if it comes out to only $25 a month, aka 1-2 tanks of gas. The fact that it comes all in one annual bill makes people shocked, shocked, that their roads and trains cost money to maintain and build up.

    1. Good point about HOV/BAT lanes. A good example is Lynwood’s widening of 196th St from 5 to 7 lanes to add a BAT lane in each direction. Urbanist were horrified at Lynwood expanding a ‘stroad’ in their future downtown, but I think the STB commentariat were generally supportive b/c they (and I) view the addition of BAT lanes for a future SWIFT lane a good reason to widen a suburban road.

      There a plenty of opportunities to put in HOV & BAT lanes in suburban King County, and that might be a satisfactory compromise between the pro-transit crowd and the “we need more roads” crowd.

  7. Serious question/thought experiment: do we think this will affect Seattle much? None of this money is going to increase the capacity of any freeway into the city, or of any surface street in the city. Making it easier to drive from (say) Black Diamond through Renton will stimulate more driving, but I wonder how much of that will make it to our streets.

    1. So suppose it passed, and Seattle got to spend its share on sensible Seattlish stuff, i.e. roads maintenance and strategic improvements, but not monster widening projects.

      Seattle tax capacity could get redirected in positive ways. Let the TBD do stuff like the Lander St overpass, and put the corresponding Move Seattle money into sidewalks and Rapid Ride etc.

      The suburban roads will make driving into the city somewhat easier. But primary responsibility for managing the flow of suburban cars must rest with the city. Suburbanites won’t do it.

      1. Curtain toll every freeway exit and at the major topographical discontinuities as near Seattle’s periphery as possible. Then issue a Good-To-Go with a certain flag in its software that identifies a car as “Seattle” to every address in the city with a car registered to one of its inhabitants.

        Amazingly enough, there are enough street discontinuities just inside the City Limits between I-5 and the lake to make this work even at the Southeast Seattle boundary. The north border is harder, but still a finite problem.

      2. @Richard – I think a more reasonable starting point is congestion charging downtown, roughly bounded by Denny, I5, and Yesler.

        I don’t really see any merit in a toll that penalizes someone for driving from Shoreline to Lake City but not someone driving from West Seattle to SLU.

    2. “Let the TBD do stuff like the Lander St overpass” – bridges might be the way to Seattle’s heart.

      Let’s say this TBD fully funds Lander Street, a new Ballard Bridge w/ great bike lanes, (assuming Link goes under Ship Canal), a new bridge near Fremont to convert the current one to bus/bike only, and a few other similarly sized projects. That would be a huge expense to balance out a bunch of suburban projects.

      Would that project list be enough to get support in Seattle? It’s very easy to spend >$100M in Seattle without widening a single road.

  8. Have read that around the early turn of the last century, bicyclists were a major lobby for pavement in the first place. Remember that a wagon wheel was could handle mud and some other squishy vehicle-related substances a lot deeper than bicycles could. Giving cyclists and motorists common cause.

    Though bicyclists did receive some extra courtesy from the great Horse Drawn. No legislature ever passed a law that whenever a cyclist saw an approaching horse, he had to swiftly dismantle his bike and bury it.

    Which could easily be revived to specify that any car trapped on a freeway for more than three days can simply be paved over for a new road surface. Quick, somebody get on Twitter and say it’s already just about to pass and so immediately call your Republican legislator.

    Mark

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