By Jeff Switzer, Herald Writer
A stretch of road between I-5 and Mill Creek faces such a glut of traffic that Snohomish County officials have shut the door on accepting almost all new development in the area.
Anybody who wants to build a new housing development or business must prove their project won’t add more than two cars to the evening commute on 164th Street SW/SE.
County decision-makers say they have no choice but to link the race to build homes in south Snohomish County to the pace of road building.
Until the county comes up with a plan to limit the number of vehicles on 164th Street SW/SE arguably one of the county’s most heavily traveled streets the development ban will stay put.
“I think we need to be able to tell the public we have a good plan and that it will succeed,” County Councilman Dave Somers said.
The road is seven lanes wide, with bicycle lanes, sidewalks and street lights, which cost tens of millions in work done over decades. The road carries about 49,000 cars each day, a figure projected to rise to 64,000 in coming years.
That figure exceeds the caps on traffic set by the county, as required by state law.
County officials say it would cost $100 million to add more lanes, and even if the money were available they want to avoid paving over the street’s businesses.
At the same time, also to keep in line with state law, the county needs to plan for more housing and businesses in the same area.
Caught between slow-moving traffic and the goals of growth management, Snohomish County plans to start coming up with a solution that will keep development alive in the area and traffic flowing.
County traffic experts proposed dubbing 164th Street at “ultimate capacity.” It’s a special move that says no new lanes will be added to the road and drivers will have to tolerate slower speeds and more cars.
Builders wouldn’t be limited to the three-car rule, but would have to take a slice of traffic off the roads.
And everyone using the road will have to bear slower speeds, which today average about 17 mph during the peak evening commute. That could plummet to about 4 mph, according to a county traffic analysis.
The current county standard says traffic mustn’t go slower than 10 mph. At least one home builder already was prevented from getting a permit, and is now negotiating with the county to find a creative way to reduce the number of cars the development will put on the busy road.
The predicament has the County Council’s attention.
“Like the whole region, we’ve got a lot of traffic and have to figure out how to deal with it successfully,” County Council Chairman Dave Gossett said. “If we’re going to bring this forward, we have to have a very clear plan of how we’ll mitigate the impacts.”
To reduce traffic, the county’s list of ideas includes actively adjusting the timing of traffic signals during the worst parts of the evening commute. Other solutions put the burden on developers, including paying for more bus service and limiting the number of business driveways that front 164th Street.
The proposed solutions for 164th Street might later serve as a template for 128th Street in south Everett, which is also close to failing county traffic standards.
County public works director Steve Thomsen is hopeful.
Just getting 10 percent of people to change their habits when they drive, where they drive, or if they drive at all could allow development to continue and transit systems both to expand.
“We don’t have a choice,” Thomsen said.
Cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Seattle aren’t adding lanes. They’ve got a fuller transportation system with buses and taxis, which Snohomish County is getting closer to needing as it becomes more urban and densely populated, he said.
“We have to use the same techniques,” Thomsen said.