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This year is different Check your snow routes Prepare for winter storms

Winter weather brings challenges for transportation in King County. The county’s resources to plow and sand roads have been significantly reduced since the region’s last major snow storm in 2010. Many roads in unincorporated King County that were plowed or sanded then are no longer primary snow routes. There is a greater chance you could become snowbound or disconnected from the road network.

Check your snow route

Will your route be clear this winter?

Primary routes for plowing and sanding in a countywide snow and ice event

2015-16 Primary snow and ice routes in unincorporated King County

Why are there fewer snow routes?

King County crews respond to weather events that affect the bridges and roads of unincorporated areas – the network that keeps communities connected. In past years, the county was able to plow and sand critical snow routes. But the county is no longer funded to plow and sand as much as it used to.

Average assessed residence value in unincorporated King County fell by almost 40 percent after the recession from 2009 to 2013, and future growth in revenues is limited by state law. Estimates show that it would cost $350 million annually over 10 years to fully address the current backlog of needs and bring county roads into a state of good repair. Forecasts say the county will generate $90 million annually under the current revenue structure – a structural funding gap of $260 million a year.

With fewer resources, the county had to dramatically reduce service levels for maintaining roads and bridges in unincorporated areas, and cut back on plowing and sanding services.

Reduced resources mean that the miles of roadway that are treated in a major winter storm will be reduced by more than half from just a few years ago. The county used to plow and treat 30 percent of county-managed roads, but this year there are only resources to plow 15 percent of the county's 1,500 miles of roads.

Learn more about Road Services future and what's at risk.

Read the Strategic Plan for Road Services (SPRS) update and the Line of Business Plan.

Roadwise

drivingDriving in snow and ice

  • If bad weather is predicted, check the forecast before heading out and adjust your travel plans if you can. If possible, consider postponing your trip.
  • When traveling, be aware of ice hazards, especially on shaded roadways, bridges or in high elevation areas prone to freezing. Be on the lookout for black ice as well as snow.
  • If you must abandon your car during a snowstorm, pull as far off the road as safely possible to avoid blocking other vehicles and snow removal equipment. Cars left in travel lanes may be towed and impounded.
  • When key roads are closed due to snow and ice, access to communities can become severely restricted. Monitor road closures in your community and have a family back-up plan in case you are not able to get home.
  • Equip your vehicle with all-season tires and carry tire chains.
  • Dress for the weather in case you become stranded and have to walk.
  • Use caution when following a snowplow or sander by allowing at least two car lengths distance.
  • Allow ample time to reach your destination.
  • Sign up for Road Alerts to receive timely information about road closures or hazardous conditions.

Frequently-asked questions about snow and ice response

The county's response to snow and ice will be different than it was during the last major snow and ice storm in 2010. There are only enough resources to plow 15 percent of county roads, compared to past years when plowing and sanding could keep 30 percent of key routes open. Top priorities for snow removal are principal arterials and emergency routes.
Funding for King County Road Services is spent to replace, operate and maintain roads, bridges and drainage structures. That funding has decreased significantly since 2009 due to declining property and gas taxes. This winter, Road Services has enough year-round staff members to plow 15 percent of the road network during a countywide storm.
Most of the funds the county receives can only be spent for the purpose for which they are collected (for example, your sewer bill pays for sewer work). General county revenues that can be used for any purpose have also declined, so other county services have also been cut back.
The county employs year-round licensed and trained crews that are experienced at operating snow and ice equipment. These crews also provide support for maintaining and preserving roads and bridges throughout the year.

Plowing public roads is dangerous work. Crews need to be proficient in avoiding a variety of hazards, including extreme weather conditions, out-of-control vehicles on slippery roads, abandoned vehicles, children playing near or in the road and steep terrain. With fewer resources, there are only half as many crew members available to provide snow response as the last time there was a major winter storm.
There are two problems with hiring crews on a seasonal basis. First, Northwest winters are unpredictable. Some years the county receives very little snow, while in other years the region must contend with multiple countywide snow and ice events. Even in bad years, the need for snow response is typically short-term, lasting only a few days per event.

Second, there are a very limited number of individuals in the region who are licensed and trained to drive snowplows on county roads under dangerous conditions. The employees who do this work are intimately familiar with county road conditions, hazards, and snow routes, and are experienced in driving graders or 10-yard trucks with plows, sanders, and ice treatment equipment attached. The unpredictable nature of winter storms, the scarcity of licensed and trained workers, and the limited nature of this work combine to make hiring a seasonal workforce challenging.
Everyone – including police, fire, hospitals, cities, businesses and residents – wants to understand what routes they can likely use if there is a significant storm. The county develops priority routes every year based on the available resources and publishes those routes in advance to help with public safety and personal planning. It would be inappropriate to develop maps to guide emergency services, businesses and the public without some certainty that there are resources to clear those routes.
With the unpredictable Pacific Northwest winter weather, there is little to no market here for private snowplow contractors. There may be individuals or businesses with small trucks with plow blades that are contracted to plow private parking lots or driveways in the winter, but their equipment is too small and fragile to plow long distances on public roads in dangerous conditions. The most effective way for the county to provide a reliable snow and ice response is by having licensed and trained maintenance employees on the job year-round.
The county cannot authorize private citizens to plow public roads. Plowing is dangerous and difficult work. Private individuals without licensing and training who plow a public road risk significant personal liability if someone is hurt or killed, or if property is damaged. Under Washington law, county governments are also responsible for accidents, injuries or damage where the county has authorized work on the road.
County emergency managers are in close contact with both police and fire/rescue agencies during winter weather events. Calls from first responders take precedence over non-emergency calls for assistance. The county's priority snow routes connect police and fire stations, hospitals and emergency centers. Plows will be dispatched to help emergency vehicles gain access into neighborhoods for emergency response.
Each snow and ice storm is unique. The primary snow routes shown on the county's map are the ones that county crews will work to keep open throughout the event by plowing and sanding. However, fallen trees, extraordinary public safety needs, downed power lines or other unforeseen circumstances could result in delays in clearing all roads even in the primary snow route network.

Communities should not expect that roads other than primary snow routes will be plowed and sanded in a countywide snow and ice event. The county works with first responders to clear routes when there are extraordinary public safety issues, but otherwise the county is not likely to have the resources to get to additional roads. Travelers are advised to plan ahead before venturing out during a storm.
A countywide snow and ice event affects most or all roads in King County. Response crews are needed in most or all communities in the county and cannot mobilize to leave one area to assist another. In localized snow and ice events, where snow and ice affects just one or a few parts of the county, response crews may be able to mobilize resources to sand and plow more than just primary routes. However, additional roads are unlikely to be plowed in a countywide storm event.
The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) manages state highways and freeways. Check WSDOT's snow and ice page for news and information. For snow removal in cities and towns in King County, visit the city or town's website (here's a list of links) and look for snow and ice information or plow routes and maps.
King County is partnering with other seasonal preparedness campaigns such as Take Winter By Storm. The county is also enhancing coordination with police and fire districts, cities, schools and local emergency operation centers. See the preparedness page for more information on getting ready for freezing temperatures and snowfall.
Call us:

206-296-8100 or 1-800-527-6237 (1-800-KC-ROADS)

Questions?

Send us an email.