Detail from the draft Regional Roads Network Map

Elected leaders from across King County will gather on February 2 to consider legislative strategy and revenue options for the Regional Transportation System Initiative. A Technical Committee of City and County staff have identified $20 billion of regional roads improvements (in 2018 constant dollars) to be funded by 2040. With that analysis in hand, the next step is to consider how to fund this program. Many of the options before the Elected Officials Committee require approval by the Legislature and/or voters.

The RTSI was convened in early 2016 by King County and the Sound Cities Association (King County cities other than Seattle). Staff have met regularly to identify needs and funding options. The scope of the effort encompasses principal and collector arterials and state routes in the County. The RTSI effort does not include freeways and major highways, which are generally state-funded, or transit infrastructure.

The work of the RTSI has its roots in concerns about roads in the unincorporated areas of the County. The 2016 report of the Bridges and Roads Task Force identified a funding gap of $350 million per year for maintenance of bridges and roads. There is a structural gap in funding infrastructure in unincorporated areas because annexations have removed much of the tax base and what remains outside of the cities is small relative to the rural population. Unincorporated King County has 12% of the County’s population, but only 9% of the property tax base and 3% of taxable sales.

That discussion about rural roads and bridges expanded dramatically to encompass many of the roads needs of all the suburban cities. Many communities face heavy demands on their roads due to traffic passing through to other places. It was the task of the technical staff to think systematically about those demands. Bringing the traffic woes of the suburban cities into the conversation meant more local projects to appeal to more voters, but also ballooned the size of the task.

A little less than half the estimated cost, or $9.1 billion, is generally classified as maintenance and preservation. That’s a broad category that includes pavement and replacement of structures, but also enhancements such as ITS, lighting, storm water and non-motorized improvements. The remainder, $10.6 billion, are capacity projects drawn either from PSRC Transportation 2040 models or local comprehensive plan project lists.

These are generally modelled costs at the regional level. At this time, there is no agreed project list to be funded, or specific estimates of associated costs and schedules. Too much uncertainty remains around funding levels and sources to be so precise about individual projects.

Revenue Options (Image: RTSI/PSRC)

An illustrative set of revenue options suggest how this might be funded. The largest opportunity is through user fees including expanded express lanes and VMT charges. Other major options include carbon taxes, increased fuel taxes, paid parking surcharges, and several possible local taxes.

All revenue options have challenges (many identified in this PSRC staff presentation). Several require legislative approval. Expanded user fees, the largest single revenue opportunity, are vaguely defined and will take time to develop and implement. Carbon taxes are tied to much larger policy goals and tradeoffs in the Legislature. Parking surcharges have limited revenue potential in suburbs where most projects are located. A county road levy lift requires both legislative action and voter approval. Transportation impact fees exist in many cities, but are an unstable funding source because they are tied to development. Increases in the MVET are particularly unpopular and unlikely to be approved by voters.

The County or cities could also seek more conventional funding sources such as sales or property tax levies.

The staff work was to inform an Elected Officials Committee developing a strategy for a regional package that could be authorized by the Legislature in 2018. A sixty-day session of the Legislature begins on January 8. With consensus among King County’s elected leaders proving elusive, it is almost certainly too late to have the Legislature consider a request for tax authority this year.

Next month’s meeting of the Elected Officials Committee is only the second to be convened as part of the RTSI process. At this point, the initiative looks unready. Even as the funding request has expanded, there is no project list to share with legislators. The urban needs of Seattle appear poorly represented in a largely suburban and exurban program. Neither does the RTSI consider transit except incidentally (some regional roads are transit routes).

The RTSI process has been unusually invisible. The funding request is too large to proceed very far without a more robust public discussion. $20 billion is proportionately larger than ST3 taxes in King County, and larger even than the $16 billion Connecting Washington program for highways across the state. Both those programs had clearly specified project lists and timelines, which RTSI so far lacks. Work is likely to continue in 2018 to create a fully developed program for possible legislative action in 2019.

11 Replies to “Where next for King County’s $20 billion roads program?”

  1. I first hear about this ca. 2015 in reference to Black Diamond. The argument is that the Maple Valley Highway is too small for the current population size, not to mention possible growth, and putting more express buses on the existing road would be ineffective because they’d just get stuck in traffic. There was talk of an upcoming countywide roads measure that would widen this road and others, and talk of a combined roads-transit package that could also fund Metro’s long-range plan. If the transit part has now been excluded from the concept, then I’ll be interested in knowing what the transit-funding plan is or whether it has been forgotten entirely. The idea is that road advocates would hold their nose and vote for transit, and transit advocates would hold their nose and vote for roads (fortunately arterials and maintenance, not highways). That may or may not be realistic, but separate measures may or may not be realistic either, and of course a roads measure without a transit measure is unacceptable. I’ll reserve judgment on the roads plan until there’s a concrete proposal of what it would fund. The highest priority for me is street improvements on future RapidRide corridors, particularly transit lanes.

    1. There has been talk over the years too of a local TBD with Maple Valley, Covington, and some other neighboring cities. If the county measure doesn’t gain traction, maybe they’ll revive that idea.

      Black Diamond, and its impact on its neighbors, is the poster child for unplanned exurban growth. Huge developments far from job centers spilling traffic into every other city is SW SE King County. It probably demands a more comprehensive response than just building roads reactively for through traffic.

  2. “There is a structural gap in funding infrastructure in unincorporated areas because annexations have removed much of the tax base and what remains outside of the cities is small relative to the rural population. ”

    Snohomish County has the same self-induced structural problem. Arterials and roadways that were once maintained (and sometimes improved) by the county, funded by a direct county road tax, are swept up into the annexing city’s domain and become another item fighting for limited resources within that city’s tax base. The assumption has always been that the increase in tax parcels and residents’ spending will cover the additional funding needs (police and fire services, roads, etc.) but the backlog of projects that many of these cities face would suggest that the assumption was faulty to begin with and that the annexing city also inherited the unincorporated area’s baggage.

    I own property in unincorporated Snohomish County and thereby pay a county road tax, which is a sizeable tax obligation ($1.42/$1,000 valuation in 2017). My neighbors to the south of me in Lynnwood and Edmonds travel every day to Boeing on roads they do not directly pay for because they are not subject to the county road tax. The levy lid lift proposal only serves to exacerbate the structural inequity.

    1. The county road levy in King County is $2.25 per thousand according to the assessor’s 2017 rate book. Fwiw, six of the seven Seattle property tax levy codes have total levy rates under $10.00/$1,000 valuation, much lower than surrounding communities and rural areas of the county.

  3. Worst proposal ever.

    Instead of figuring out how to raise $10B for arterial capacity upgrades that no one is willing to pay, the RTSI stakeholders should spend some time reading the Strong Towns website.

    I emphasize with need for the $10B in maintenance spending, but the cost wouldn’t be nearly so large if arterials haven’t already been expanded too far. The American-style suburban built environment simply doesn’t generate enough property tax revenue to pay for perpetual maintenance of all the infrastructure required. Doubling down by further expanding capacity to meet unending demand for free car travel only accelerates the fiscal doom loop.

    1. Completely agree. I recently discovered Strong Towns, and this RTSI thing really reminds me of this. Why should we fund (or maybe even bail out) suburban/exurban infrastructure that is systemically insolvent?

      1. Because they have most of the population and councilmembers so they make the decisions. It’s not a question of whether we should but whether we’re powerful enough to influence the outcome. It could go either way depending on whether people feel more strongly about traffic or taxes at the time. Since it’s all spread out on everyday arterials rather than a few freeways for a few areas, it may have more support. And my opinion will depend on how many of these investments are bus streets and give buses a clear path (e.g., signal priority).

        I agree completely with the fiscal doom. The problem is that the majority of people believe a false vision, and the only real solution is to contract the suburbs and make them denser. That will only happen when the cities are ready to upzone single-family areas, which they’re a long way away from. All the new infill development has been in commercial/industrial zones. In the meantime we can make a big fuss about ultra-expensive freeways, but we can be moderate about arterials and maintenance. Just getting people back to supporting boulevards (stroads) rather than freeways is a significant step. And we can also argue for good pedestrian access and crossings. In some ways that’s like what Frank said in the podcast about streetcars, that we mustn’t focus too much on yes/no and not enough on how.

  4. It’s too bad this post by Dan R. didn’t get more interest from the blog community. I appreciated the piece and think the underlying subject matter is critically important. After all, transit relies on these same roads and arterials.

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