Highway 530 solution seen as crucial — and complicated

ARLINGTON — A handwritten note on a flip chart in the Stillaguamish Senior Center summed up some of the frustrations people have with the closure of Highway 530 since the March 22 mudslide:

“6 a.m. not early enough — school employees, some start at 6:30 a.m. in Darrington.”

The times are a reference to state plans to convert a steep one-lane gravel utility road into a temporary bypass for local residents and employees.

The state Department of Transportation has held three public meetings this week to reveal those plans and solicit the public’s input on it and the future of Highway 530.

Emergency crews have been using the road to access both sides of the slide, but with the only other route to Darrington a two-hour detour through Skagit County, the overwhelming sentiment is that something needs to be done for the locals who need to get to and from work.

The state’s initial plans to open the access road to local traffic only from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. are motivated by safety concerns, but as most of the comments written down or asked in the public form indicate, that won’t be enough.

School employees, logging trucks, and commuters to Boeing and other jobs in the rest of Snohomish County were all part of the 3,400 vehicles that used Highway 530 every day before the mudslide closed the road. Many of them made that trip after dark or before first light.

Beyond the access road, which might open as early as next week, the concern is getting Highway 530 reopened, a process that might take from one to three months, said Lorena Eng, the transportation department’s regional administrator.

One man stood up and stated the case in stark terms: “The (Hampton Lumber) Mill is crucial to Darrington. Just get the road open,” he said to general applause.

The situation has been made all the more complex by the ongoing recovery effort. As of Thursday morning, four people remain missing in the slide area.

Officials met with the families of victims before holding the community meetings this week.

“One thing we’re hearing is those meetings is that they want the recovery operation to continue,” Eng said. “We want to be respectful to the families.”

Other comments and suggestions ran the gamut from technical questions about the road base to concerns about access to private property, to who exactly will be permitted to use the access road and how rebuilding contracts will be administered.

Only a few of the questions could be answered with a direct “yes” or “no.” One of those was that no significant work can be done on the highway until the emergency responders performing recovery work release the area to the transportation department, Eng said.

The next step for the transportation department will be to compile the public’s input, incorporating what works into the agency’s plans for the access road and possibly the highway as well.

There will be another meeting at some point, department spokesman Travis Phelps said, and the agency now has a separate email list for Highway 530 news with which it can update subscribers.

Those who attended the public meetings and filled out comment forms may be contacted directly, Phelps said, as long as they provided a phone number or email address.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165 or cwinters@heraldnet.com.

Receive updates on Highway 530

The state Department of Transportation has set up an email list for people to receive updates on Highway 530. You can sign up at wsdot.wa.gov/Projects/SR530/Landslide/, click on the “Sign up for SR 530 email updates.” After entering your email you will be shown a long checklist of options to receive email updates. The check box for Highway 530 is about two-thirds of the way down the list, under “Construction Reports” for the Northwest region.

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