In East King County, a critical piece of infrastructure is falling apart: the county road system. That's 1,500 miles of mostly two-lane roads. Stretched out, they would reach from Canada to Mexico. There’s no money to repair them properly. So the county’s going to have to lower the speed limits and eventually shut some of them down.
It comes at a time when county roads are more heavily used than ever.
It’s common, in East King County, to live in one place and work in another. Karen Dawson and her two boys had just moved to their first home in Maple Valley. It was a place they could afford, close to Seattle and the airport. The kids’ school in Bellevue was 35 miles away. On the very first night of their commute, they saw how vast that distance really is as they crawled along in bumper-to-bumper traffic most of the way home. At one point, Karen's youngest son cried out from the back seat, "Why did we move so far?"
"I felt awful," Dawson says, "because I didn't think it was that far.” But Dawson soon learned her family’s commute would take 1.5 to 2 hours every evening.
They try to make the most of it. "We have really good conversations," says Dawson, "and I am really close with my sons." Sometimes, her sons will sleep. One of them turns on the light and does his homework.
Karen quickly learned a strategy employed by many suburban drivers. When the state highways get completely backed up, you pull off and take county roads. The picturesque route can shave off a few minutes. Along the way, Dawson says, it's horses and cows and people that clearly intentionally moved to a rural area, "and they've got bumper-to-bumper traffic all morning long."
The country road system isn’t designed for this kind of traffic. In fact, it was never designed at all.
The county inherited its network of rural roads from logging companies, mining companies and developers who said, “Here, have a road. Now you take care of it.”
Some of those roads date back to the 1880s. Many were built in unstable places, next to rivers and on hillsides. Many weren’t built to modern standards.
Tony Ledbetter is in charge of maintaining those roads. He figures that in his time with King County, he's walked every foot of them.
He's in his truck, checking up on different job sites, starting with a spot where half a road broke off and fell down the hill. Traffic has to take turns navigating the single lane that remains. With the traffic cones behind us, Ledbetter grows thoughtful. "You think, 'This is pretty rural, it’s wooded and all that.' And then, you come around the corner and you see ... developments." On the ridge of a hill in front of us, hundreds of roofs come into view. "Look at the houses up there."
Drivers from those developments have worn these county roads down. Trucks serving farms and gravel pits nearby have accelerated the problem. Next, Ledbetter drives me out to Maxwell Road Southeast, just west of Tiger Mountain. "This road is in quick decline," he says. "If we don’t catch it now with the resurfacing, it’s gonna be even worse."
But the county doesn’t have money for that kind of work these days. So instead, Ledbetter’s workers shovel steaming piles of asphalt on the potholes. Many of the workers in this crew used to be in charge of crews of their own. After years of laying off less-experienced staff, only these veteran road workers remain.
As for the road, "it’ll just become a patch quilt of potholes," says Ledbetter, shaking his head. "Is it the way we'd like to do it? No. Is it the way we're able to do it? Yes."
Pothole repairs won’t stop the road’s downward spiral. With each passing winter, the rate of deterioration accelerates. Cracks left unpatched turn into bigger cracks. Unmowed shoulders prevent roads from draining rapidly. The water creeps under the road bed and breaks up the road when it freezes. As time passes, the cost of repairing those roads increases dramatically. Many roads are approaching the point of no return, where they can’t be repaired, but must be completely rebuilt.
"It is dramatic," says Brenda Bauer, chief of King County's Roads Division. "We're thinking things no one is thinking about nationally. Like how to sensibly close down a system and how to talk with people about that."
Bauer says the county looked at letting some roads revert to gravel. But many are too hilly and too heavily used for that. The plan was rejected because it was too expensive.
Why is there so little money? The recession bears some of the blame, during which property values fell almost 40 percent. They've since risen again, but property taxes, which also fell, have not been able to recover, because state law only allows them to rise 1% a year. At that rate, it'll take the county at least 40 years to shake off the recession's grip.
"This is actually just one part of a bigger picture," says Todd Litman. He studies how transportation systems work for the Victoria Transport Institute in Canada. Litman says that while the recession may have contributed to the money shortage, there's also a long term explanation for King County’s money problems: "Low-density development, commonly called sprawl, has very high infrastructure costs per resident."
Washington’s Growth Management Act of 1990 attempted to curb sprawl. It began shifting the balance of power and money to cities. Cities annexed outlying areas that once paid taxes for county roads. That left fewer people in the county to pay for a relatively costly road infrastructure. And as important environmental and safety regulations on road crews have increased, the limited income that remains doesn't stretch as far.
Which leads to a big question: Do we need all these roads?
"Well, we have houses out there," says County Council member Kathy Lambert. "So it’d be very difficult to say that I’m not going to have a road to my house. And we have freight that needs to get across the state."
Lambert represents northeast King County. She's pushing state legislators to add money to the state transportation package for county roads. She also wants legislators to approve a countywide transportation benefit district, so it could raise funds through a car tab increase, for example. (Click here to read her proposal.) That would allow cities to share the cost of maintaining county roads.
She leafs through graphs documenting the roads' decline.
"This is a crisis. The numbers show it’s a crisis," she says. "It’s never going to get cheaper. So if you want to save money, you spend it now before it gets even more expensive."
Correction 4/15/15: An earlier version of this story misspelled Todd Litman's name.