Fixing the Stevens Pass highway

by Robert Graef

Every city of importance has a major highway nearby. We have two, I-5 to take us north or south and US 2 to carry us eastward. If we ever stopped to pin down geographical epicenters for society’s madness, we would probably zero in on those highways. They have become sites for epidemic road-rage and routes of choice for drinking drivers. Add distracted cell-phone junkies and show-off teens and US2 carries more than enough reason to keep ambulances, wreckers and accident investigation teams busy.

Beginning twenty or thirty (was it forty?) years ago, planners recognized that something should be done to make the Stevens Pass highway safer. A bypass around Monroe has been on the back-burner forever. Here’s what’s been accomplished: The highway through Monroe is four-lane. Access lanes help to merge and turn lanes help left-turners. Some miles of rumble strips keep drivers from veering into oncoming traffic. Fog lines and no-passing stripes help. As highway deaths mount up (50 since 1999), citizens along the route are yelling for better safety.

Commuters know that U.S. 2 ought to be four-lane from Everett to Sultan. While that adjustment would help to get one-per-car commuters to and from work faster, it might not put a dent in the traffic fatality figures. Further most of the really bad accidents happen to the east of Sultan.

Of all the reasons for accidents, highway design is near the bottom of the list: Lack of attention, preoccupation with electronic gadgetry, substance abuse, impatience, speeding, not adjusting for adverse driving conditions, driving unsafe vehicles, falling asleep, failing to yield, unsafe passing and anger at other drivers account for most of the carnage.

Highway improvement may cut the numbers of accidents but so long as drivers act irresponsibly, don’t look for a total cure. Even partial fixes may be slow in coming because the Department of Transportation’s budget has been chopped severely. The challenge lies in deciding what can best be done with the few scarce dollars that might be released to improve US2. Washington’s highway planners have plans but they don’t have money.

They envision a bypass that would loop around Monroe some day. Two lanes may become four when the economy recovers but at a cost of $6.1 million per lane-mile of new highway we may be waiting a long time to drive on them. In the meantime, parts of the existing road surface of US2 are getting rougher by the month.

The problem is most apparent when driving east from Monroe where cars and trucks lumpety-bump over much-patched blacktop that tests shock absorbers. But even resurfacing might have to wait since it costs about $180,000 to put a fresh surface on one lane-mile of highway. Multiply that times the number of miles of pitted roadway and you have a definite budget-buster.

Nigeria’s Benue State highway department was called upon to deal with a similar situation. A sign near a stretch of impressive chuck-holes said, “Irregular road surface ahead.” After threading through miles of pits and washouts a second sign said, “You have been warned.” That was it. The Nigerian government dismissed the issue of highway safety for something like 75 miles of road with two signs. The memory makes me feel fortunate for whatever condition US2 falls into.

Does Olympia have a fix on how big their shortfall really is? A recent breakdown of Washington’s budget shows $7.2 billion allocated to transportation. More recently, the Seattle Times reported $4.9 billion allocated for transportation. The smaller figure covers ferries, roads, bridges and mass-transit facilities. Since the same article quoted the cost of the Alaskan Way project at 2.4 billion and the 520 Floating Bridge at 2.6 billion, something’s screwy here. I’m not the greatest with math but even when federal highway dollars and stimulus money are factored in it doesn’t seem that there’s much left for projects such as Highway US 2.

The cost of 56 recommended projects needed to fix Highway 2 is estimated to be $1.84 billion. Only one of the 56 has been funded—completion of rumble strips between Everett and Stevens Pass. At a cost of $3.6 million for the rumble strips, Hwy 2 is getting two-tenths of one percent of the cost of what planners say it needs.

In these budget-cutting times it is necessary to adjust expectations. What we want — and even what we need — are lavish lists compared with what’s possible. For instance, Seattle leaders want a tunnel to replacement the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Seattle needs some kind of new arterial to replace the viaduct. Engineers say an above-ground replacement would cost about half as much as a tunnel.

Whether for new presidential helicopters or road work, cost estimates leave us wondering if estimators lose track of their decimal points. For instance, I-5’s flawed cable barriers near Marysville are to be replaced with concrete barriers at a cost of $27 million. It seems that $27 million should buy more than enough Jersey barriers.

There is one cheap fix that could keep US2 traffic moving more safely, and at little cost. First, post signs at five mile intervals east from Goldbar: “Slower traffic must use turn-outs to allow passing.” Then mark existing chain-up areas and a few new broadened stretches of shoulder, “Turn out here to allow passing.” That should get tailgaters that account for most of the accidents off our backs.

Comments may be addressed to: rgraef@verizon.net.

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