Heavy use strains region’s transportation system

  • Wed Dec 29th, 2010 4:53pm

By M.L. Dehm SCBJ Freelance Writer

It should come as no surprise that Snohomish County’s transportation network is overused and wearing out — and likely to get worse.

According to projections released by Sound Transit, the local population is expected to grow 30 percent by 2030. That means another 1.2 million people relying on roads, buses, trains and ferries that may have already reached capacity.

Reid Shockey, president of Shockey Planning Group Inc., is chairman and one of the founders of the Snohomish County Committee for Improved Transportation (SCCIT). He knows what is at the root of the transportation problem.

“It’s certainly dollars,” Shockey said.

Currently there are billions of dollars in repairs and improvements needed in state highways and major arterials. Finding the funds for just a portion of these projects is going to be difficult, and that doesn’t include much needed expansion of transportation to meet the growing population.

SCCIT, a nonprofit organization made up of business, citizen and governmental leaders, works with legislators to help identify funding priorities.

“The approach that we’re taking is that it can be broken down into corridors,” Shockey said. “We believe the bulk of the dollars probably should go to State Route 9 and U.S. Highway 2.”

One notable bottleneck occurs at the junction of Highway 9 and Highway 204 at Frontier Village shopping center. The Washington State Department of Transportation has identified this intersection as the most congested part of the Highway 9 corridor and is working with the city of Lake Stevens on a plan to ease congestion.

While the Legislature has provided $500,000 for preliminary design engineering on this project, there is still no funding in place for the actual construction. Similarly, there is no funding available for another problematic traffic route on the south edge of Lake Stevens: 20th Street SE.

“U.S. 2 has bona fide safety concerns that the safety coalition has been working on many years now,” Shockey said.

Currently there are 56 projects that have been suggested to enhance safety and reduce congestion along a 47-mile stretch of U.S. 2 between Snohomish and Skykomish. Cost for these projects back in 2006 was estimated at more than $1 billion.

A portion of the funding has been found to cover some of the proposed changes but others will simply have to wait.

Of course roads are not the only means of transportation in the county. Two years ago, voters in Snohomish, King, Kitsap and Pierce counties approved a plan to extend light rail to Lynnwood by 2023. This was to have been funded by a half-cent per dollar sales tax.

Now falling tax revenues have cast some doubt on the plan. It is possible the rail extension will have to be scaled back or changed to meet the shortfall. In addition, reduced funding may mean that other communities’ light rail plans could affect what happens here.

“There’s a polite tug of war going on between Snohomish County and the Eastside as far as light rail extension,” Shockey said.

Ferry service upgrades are another key transportation issue. Perhaps most discussed at the moment is the relocation or repair of the Mukilteo ferry terminal. The more than 50-year-old terminal has been in need of upgrade or replacement for some time.

“Everyone agrees that ferry service needs to be upgraded in this area,” Shockey said. “But no one likes any of the alternatives for one reason or another.”

In fact, ferry officials have suggested nine options for the busy terminal and each one has drawn criticism. The original proposal was to move the terminal slightly east of its current location to a former Air Force fuel tank farm.

Unfortunately, soil at the tank farm may be in need of costly environmental cleanup. The tank farm proposal was also not popular with local American Indian tribes. American Indian artifacts have been found near the site, and it is located close to environmentally sensitive marine wildlife areas.

Other proposals for the dock relocation have included a new downtown Everett terminal that might increase traffic congestion. Another suggestion was to move the terminal south to Edmonds, which would increase congestion in Edmonds and force many Whidbey Island drivers into longer commutes.

A transportation issue that is rarely discussed but of key regional economic importance is freight mobility.

“It’s an emerging conversation,” Shockey said. “The ports are feeling more competitive pressure from as far south as Long Beach, Calif., and as far north as Prince Rupert (in northwestern British Columbia).”

The Port of Everett is the third busiest port in the state. A road improvement project in 2003 to extend Everett Avenue west across Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway lines provided easier terminal access for trucking as well as the rail line.

But regional rail traffic is still limited to the existing track. Track expansion, especially across the mountain passes, could be a costly proposition, Shockey said, but not planning for future expansion might make other Western ports look more attractive to shipping companies.

“The bottom line is that you simply can’t raise the revenue needed to address the critical needs of transportation in the Puget Sound,” Shockey said. “You must prioritize and not expect to solve it all.”