WSDOT Releases Plan to Improve U.S. Highway 2

Fri January 26, 2007 - Midwest Edition
Rebecca Ragain



Between 1999 and 2006, there have been more than 2,600 collisions along the 47-mi. section of U.S. Highway 2 that stretches between the cities of Snohomish and Skykomish, Wash., including 32 fatalities.

Safety problems such as these collisions led the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to conduct a $1.3 million Route Development Plan (RDP), the first draft of which was released Nov. 13.

Funded largely by a combination of federal and state dollars, along with $100,000 from the Puget Sound Regional Council, the assessment evaluated congestion along the route, in addition to safety concerns.

Over the past several years, cities like Monroe and Snohomish have been experiencing major population surges, transforming sections of U.S. 2 from rural road to urban highway.

Snohomish alone has grown more than 34 percent since 1990; Snohomish County experts expect an increase of 300,000 residents in the next 20 years.

“Snohomish is the place to go now,” said Travis Phelps, a member of WSDOT’s communications team.

Weekend recreational traffic adds to the congestion, nearly tripling the number of travelers. Not only is U.S. 2 part of the Cascade Loop scenic highway, but it also leads to several National Forests, drawing hikers, rock climbers and other outdoors-lovers from urban centers such as Everett and Seattle.

WSDOT’s recent study addressed these capacity and safety problems, and provided a list of suggested improvement projects, broken down into four geographic segments.

Phelps explained why the plan was segmented: “Not one solution will fix all the segments together. Each carries a different kind of traffic.”

Segment 1:

Snohomish to West Monroe

Currently, this relatively flat segment of U.S. 2 changes from a four-lane separated arterial to a rural two-lane road, with no separation between traffic traveling in opposite directions. The predominant speed limit is 60 mph.

Residents from many towns and cities along U.S. 2 must pass through Snohomish during their daily commute. Though the population of Snohomish has increased by 34 percent since 1990, through traffic has grown by 172 percent.

Collisions are a problem along Segment 1. There were 430 collisions from January 1999 to October 2006, 30 percent of which were rear-end collisions, typically associated with congestion.

Drivers find it difficult to enter and exit U.S. 2. Some even choose to drive through Snohomish city streets in order to avoid congestion on the highway.

The first draft of the RDP suggested installing median rumble strips to reduce cross-over collisions, widening shoulders, and improving the dangerous intersection at Bickford Avenue.

To improve capacity, this section of U.S. 2 could be widened to four lanes, and its bridges upgraded. New turn lanes and on-ramps also were recommended.

Segment 2:

City of Monroe

Where U.S. 2 enters the city of Monroe, it turns from a two-lane rural roadway to a four-lane urban corridor, lined with driveways leading directly to residences and businesses. The speed limit drops inside the city limits, to 45 mph and then to 35 mph.

This segment serves one of the fastest-growing populations along the corridor; the population of Monroe has nearly quadrupled in the last 15 years. Traffic has grown to 40,000 vehicles daily, almost doubling the numbers of 1990.

Two roadways intersect with U.S. 2 within this segment: State Route 522, a major commuting route to the Seattle metropolitan area, and State Route 203, an access route to east King County. A public information document posted on WSDOT’s Web site states that the intersection of U.S. 2 and SR 522 “cannot accommodate current traffic volumes.”

Segment 2 experiences the most collisions of the four areas studied: 1,247 between January 1999 to October 2006; 54 percent were rear-end collisions.

WSDOT’s RDP identified the following potential safety projects along U.S. 2 where it passes through the city of Monroe: installing and upgrading sidewalks, adding traffic cameras and real-time electronic information signs, and improving intersections at mileposts 14.57, 14.92 and 15.15.

The draft RDP also suggested a bypass around the city of Monroe, a project which local officials have been considering for decades. The plan calls for three phases.

Phase 1 is building a limited access freeway north from SR 522, with a roundabout at the north end. Phase 2 would extend the bypass east past the city limits to meet the existing U.S. 2. The third phase would be to eventually construct a road from the roundabout to U.S. 2 west of Monroe.

According to a Dec. 22 article in The Daily Herald, city officials have given the Monroe bypass the green light, “turning a longtime vision into a concrete plan.” The Herald reported that city Engineer Tom Gathmann estimated that the first phase would cost between $40 million and $50 million, and Phase 2 in the range of $90 million to $110 million.

Segment 3:

East Monroe to West Gold Bar

East of Monroe, U.S. 2 again becomes a two-lane highway, passing through the towns of Sultan and Gold Bar, with respective populations of 4,225 and 2,085.

Over the past 15 years, daily traffic volume has nearly doubled through Sultan. During the same time frame, traffic through Gold Bar has increased by approximately 50 percent, reaching approximately12,000 vehicles daily.

During the weekend, travelers heading to Stevens Pass for hiking or skiing swell traffic to upwards of 9,000 vehicles per day in Sultan, and approximately double that in Gold Bar.

Safety also is an issue along this segment, with 774 collisions recorded from January 1999 to October 2006. Heavy traffic makes it difficult for drivers to enter, exit or cross the highway from local streets or driveways. Narrow shoulders and the lack of separation between opposing lanes of traffic also lead to accidents.

WSDOT’s study suggested that U.S. 2 be widened to four lanes along Segment 3, with a 4-ft. (1.2 m) median rumble strip and an 8-ft. (2.4 m) shoulder. Roundabouts have been identified for intersections in Gold Bar and Sultan. Currently, traffic lights can become choke points during busy driving hours.

Suggested safety improvements include installing traffic cameras and guardrails, and adding several turn lanes along the corridor.

Segment 4:

East Gold Bar to East Skykomish

Sharp curves, narrow shoulders and more than 25 bridges characterize this portion of U.S. 2. In addition, the higher elevation means that rain, snow and ice take a toll during the winter months. These factors and others have contributed to the 403 collisions that have occurred between January 1999 to October 2006.

Much of the weekend traffic that congests Segment 3 continues through Segment 4. Weekend traffic through Skykomish averages 17,500 vehicles per day, whereas weekday vehicles number approximately 6,500.

The draft RDP findings illustrated a need for median and shoulder rumble strips, warning signs for sharp turns, enhanced lighting, and new passing lanes. Skykomish may also see the addition of a roundabout to improve local access in and out of the town.

Cost and Implementation

Timeline Uncertain

WSDOT’s Phelps called the RDP “a snapshot of where the highway is today” and “a roadmap to work toward fixing problems.”

The final version of the RDP is scheduled for release in the spring of 2007. Although detailed cost estimates are not included in the RDP, the total cost of all the projects is likely to exceed $1 billion.

Once the completed study is released, it will be up to local communities to lobby for funding from city, state or federal sources. The order in which projects can be pursued will depend on the funding secured.

Already, the first draft of the study has received much attention from communities along U.S. 2, and both local and Seattle media.

“We’ve had a tremendous amount of public input, and cooperation from the cities along the corridor,” said Phelps.

In addition to holding public meetings, WSDOT involved the U.S. 2 Corridor Working Group in the study. This advisory committee is comprised of representatives from the cities and towns along the corridor, as well as Snohomish and King counties, Community Transit, and the Puget Sound Regional Council.

Phelps added,s “The last thing we want to do is identify a project that doesn’t work for the community. It really becomes a team effort.” CEG