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King County plans to reduce its snowplowing in unincorporated areas by two-thirds this winter, to clear only the most critical roadways, because money is tight.

On the way into North Bend, crews will plow a few roads

near Interstate 90, but homes in the foothills will be even more isolated than usual.

Drivers going from Carnation to Redmond will need to find an indirect route, while Northeast Union Hill Road is left to cross-country skiers.

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White Center residents may want to stock up on kitty litter for traction, or walk with a wagon to the hardware store or the market, rather than skid along unplowed back streets.

The north-south Vashon Highway will be plowed, but not the coastline roads, nor attached Maury Island, until the weather relents enough that crews have spare time.

“People who are trying to get out to their medical appointments, or to their employment, may be isolated for longer periods of time,” said Brenda Bauer, director of the King County Road Services Division.

It might take longer for utility crews to restore heat or power, too, until plow crews can break a path, said Bauer, who will brief the Metropolitan King County Council Monday.

County officials have long warned of year-round maintenance cuts, even letting some roads revert to gravel. Reduced plowing is the latest consequence of smaller crews and budgets.

The county says it has a total of 100 truck drivers, equipment operators and laborers available, down from 171 in 2009.

The problem is the county road fund’s main source of money is a property tax charged only outside cities. This tax base has eroded by more than 40 percent
since 2009, as unincorporated areas including Panther Lake near Kent, north Juanita near Kirkland and north Highline alongside Burien, were annexed into suburban cities.

King County has relinquished unincorporated territory, while minimizing sprawl that would boost land values in the hinterlands, to follow the Growth Management Act.

Total land value in the road district has dropped from the 2009 peak. Revenue from the roads property tax fell from $83 million at the 2009 peak to $68 million in 2013 — even as road tax rates climbed from $158 to $225 per $100,000 of assessed property value.

Only 253,100 of the county’s 1.98 million people live in unincorporated areas. Among other ironies, the patchwork of boundaries means half the drivers who use major county roads live within cities and pay zero county road tax, Bauer said.

Gasoline-tax money and grants, shared by the state, are sliding due to improved fuel efficiency, she said.

Bottom line?

The road budget dropped from $128 million five years ago to $85 million this year, she said.

“It is a broken legacy tax system that is creating some significant service challenges,” said Bauer.

So the county is promising to plow only primary snow routes, 150 of its 1,500 road miles, keeping in mind emergency links, such as roads to hospitals.

Chances are a few do-it-yourselfers will bolt personal plows onto their pickups. Bauer said the county is banned from enlisting citizen help, because of liability and safety risks.

Seattle’s plan for snow and emergency response will be similar to the past few years, said Marybeth Turner, spokeswoman for the Seattle Department of Transportation. SDOT’s snow allotment will rise from $1.95 million in 2013 to a proposed $1.99 million in 2014.

After strategic lapses during 2008 and on the Alaskan Way Viaduct in 2010, Seattle
sprinkled copious amounts of rock salt in January 2012 to successfully clear its roads and bridges, except for one key block where the Third Avenue busway crosses Yesler Way.

This winter the city is adding Jefferson Street for priority snowplowing, to maintain access for local courthouses and jails, Turner said.

The 2012-13 winter was mild, but Bauer said it’s not likely the region will go too many years without a snowstorm.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or On Twitter @mikelindblom

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