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How Washington road crews decide which roads to repair

(File, Associated Press)

The paving and chip-seal crews descend on our roads every summer. Have you ever wondered how they decide which roads to prioritize for repair?

Let’s take a look at Snohomish County, for example. It has 1,600 miles of roads to maintain, which are a combination of major arterials and smaller residential roads.

Every year, the public works department hires a rating contractor to go out and rate the roads. The county combines that information with its own observations and decides which roads need to be at the top of the list.

Jim Parker is the road maintenance director for Snohomish County public works, and he’s looking for, “cracks along the edge of the road, that’s called alligatoring. … Any kind of frequent or major potholes. Things like unraveling of materials that were put down previously. We also take a look at what’s going on with the sub-grade on the shoulders and around the road itself.”

Once they prioritize the roads, Parker and his staff have to decide how to repair them. Are the lanes bad enough that they need to be ground down and replaced with a new layer, or can they get by with chip-sealing them? Chip sealing uses a thin layer of asphalt with a lot of small rocks in the mix.  It costs about a third of repaving and can give the county seven to 10 more years of life.

“We’re going to be resurfacing 27 routes,” Parker said of the work this year. “That’s about 81 miles of chip-sealing and seven miles of repaving.”

WSDOT urging vigilance in work zones 

The roads around Snohomish, Sultan, and Granite Falls are going to see the largest amount of work this year. Snohomish County residents received a pamphlet in the mail earlier in 2021 informing them when and where to expect the road work. Parker said they also issue warnings a few weeks ahead of time to let people know the work is about to begin.

This work is also weather-dependent, so the timeframe can be a moving target.

Maintaining the roads is the biggest line item in the budget, and Parker takes it seriously.

“Snohomish County has a pretty good history of keeping our roads maintained,” he said. “We put a lot of time and effort into it, and I think it’s well worth the effort.”

You can expect this work to continue through September.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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