Will help develop transportation planning efforts
More than half of Okanogan County’s roads are gravel, but the county doesn’t have a solid grasp of how people use that vast road network.
Learning more about how people use these roads — for day-to-day travel, recreation and emergencies — is the top priority of a transportation planning organization in the county, which is launching an in-depth primitive-roads study. Among other things, the study will help develop maintenance priorities for roads vital to public safety.
This week, the Okanogan Council of Governments (OCOG) issued a solicitation for consultants to conduct a primitive-roads study that will provide “the only comprehensive profile” of the county’s gravel and primitive roads, according to the “2040 Regional Transportation Plan for the Okanogan Region.”
The transportation plan, which was adopted in 2017, outlined gaps — including the need for a thorough understanding of the county’s primitive roads, said Josh Thomson, the Okanogan County engineer.
The primitive-roads study will gather maps and data on all gravel roads. More essential than looking at every road is public outreach to determine which roads are most important for recreation, evacuation, access for emergency vehicles, and future development, said Thomson. That information will help the county set priorities for potential road upgrades, he said.
Fifty-three percent of Okanogan County’s 1,376 miles of roads are gravel, and a majority of those — 79 percent — are designated as primitive roads, according to the transportation plan. In addition, thousands of miles of primitive roads in the county are owned by the Colville Tribes or by state or federal agencies. The study should also improve coordination among the agencies that manage the roads.
The transportation plan notes the distinct role of primitive roads. “They are a uniquely rural category of roads and as such, are often dismissed in some circles as unimportant. Yet they play a vital role in the rural transportation system in terms of access to public lands, transport for resource-based industries, and emergency access and route redundancy,” it says.
The primitive-roads study will help fulfill goals set out by the transportation plan. These goals include road safety; better preparedness for catastrophic events like wildfires; support for walking, biking and public transportation; and economic development — and stretching limited funds to achieve these goals.
Particularly after recent wildfires, public-safety needs became the county’s No. 1 priority for transportation planning, said Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody, the chair of OCOG. Meeting those needs requires mapping primitive roads crucial for ingress and egress, she said.
OCOG, which has members from all towns and cities, handles a variety of county issues in addition to transportation. It oversees the county’s own regional transportation planning organization (RTPO), which was authorized last year.
Objectivity and inclusiveness
At its last meeting on Feb. 11, after considering a proposal from Okanogan County to have the county’s planning department do the primitive-roads study, OCOG voted to hire an outside consultant. A request for qualifications was issued this week.
Although doing the study in-house would have allowed the work to start right away, OCOG decided that having an independent consultant conduct the study would be the best way to ensure objectivity, inclusiveness and outreach, said Ing-Moody.
The study will identify and map critical roadways with an eye toward safety, mobility and preservation. It will collect data from government agencies on road characteristics and seasonal closures. It’s expected to include public outreach to ascertain the use and importance of primitive roads. The consultants will also look at current and potential development along unpaved roads and any need for upgrades.
OCOG plans a separate study of main streets and highways in the county, said Ing-Moody. The objective of that research will be to analyze situations where state highways are also the main street of a town. That study will look at economic development; safety concerns for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists; public transit; and specific concerns such as the four-way stop in Winthrop.
Broad interest in back roads
This isn’t the first time the county’s back roads have drawn attention. A few years ago, the county commissioners launched an effort to reconcile the county’s road map and list of roads from 1955. As a result, the commissioners closed three roads that no longer had any trace on the ground. They determined they needed more information to make decisions about eight other roads.
There’s no direct correlation between the effort to clean up the road log and the primitive-roads study, said Thomson. The review of the road log is currently on hold, he said.
Over the past two decades, landowners have also petitioned the county to vacate roads, generally to protect their land from trespassing and vandalism. Many of these proposed closures have generated opposition from people concerned that closing the roads would cut off access to public lands or to evacuation routes. Half a dozen roads have been vacated by the county commissioners.
Two years ago, a group of citizens formed the Okanogan Open Roads Coalition to advocate for keeping roads open to the public. The coalition is an intervenor in a lawsuit filed against Okanogan County by property owners who say part of French Creek Road is their private access road. When the county decided not to defend the lawsuit, the open roads coalition intervened. The coalition contends the property owners have placed illegal, locked gates on French Creek and Texas Creek roads.
This story was updated on Feb. 21 to correct details of the lawsuit over French Creek Road.
Charting a new course in transportation planning
Okanogan County’s regional transportation planning organization (RTPO) was formally chartered last fall, after several years of planning at the local and state levels, ultimately obtaining designation in state law, said Soo Ing-Moody, chair of Okanogan Council of Governments (OCOG). Although Ing-Moody is the mayor of Twisp, she serves on OCOG as part of a regional planning effort.
Okanogan County was initially part of an RTPO with Chelan and Douglas counties, but when those counties grew large enough to become their own organization, Okanogan County was left without any transportation-planning group, said Ing-Moody.
In 2017, the state Legislature approved a bill sponsored by Sen. Brad Hawkins (R-East Wenatchee) that changed population and geographic-area requirements for RTPOs, making Okanogan the second county in the state to become its own RTPO. The sheer size of Okanogan County made it important for the county to do its own transportation planning, said Ing-Moody.
A key difference between Okanogan County’s RTPO and RTPOs elsewhere in the state is the focus on rural transportation needs. The county emphasizes safety and emergency preparedness, not solutions to congestion. It focuses on strengthening local economies and increasing travel choices for a far-flung population, according to the transportation plan.
As an RTPO, Okanogan County gets money for planning, which will be used for the primitive-roads study. The current allocation is $74,000 per biennium, with $20,000 earmarked for administration.
The appropriation expires at the end of the fiscal year on June 30, said Ing-Moody. The expectation is that subsequent phases of the primitive-roads study will be done in coming fiscal years, she said.
OCOG meetings are open to the public. The next meeting is Monday, April 8, at 5 p.m. in the TranGO office in Okanogan.