By WARREN CORNWALL
EVERETT – A state effort to ease congestion on a highway joining Everett and Marysville has been stymied by the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard rejected a state Department of Transportation request earlier this year that the marine agency keep drawbridges on Highway 529 closed during morning and evening rush hours.
The Coast Guard turned down the request because the closures could hurt a tide-dependent towing business on the Snohomish River, said Austin Pratt, bridge maintenance specialist for the Coast Guard office in Seattle.
In addition, the drawbridges on the highway, including the large one over the Snohomish River, were far less active than others with rush-hour limits, Pratt said.
"No other drawbridge in our district has as few openings as the Snohomish Bridge and has a closure on it," said Pratt, whose district includes Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho.
Transportation officials, who had argued the drawbridges were causing "extensive highway traffic backups," have settled instead for a voluntary deal that the towing company cut trips beneath the bridges by a third during rush hours.
But Klara Fabry, the department’s area administrator for Snohomish County, said this may not be the final word.
"I am not viewing this as a closed issue. I am viewing this as an evolving issue," she said.
In its initial application, the state claimed the three bridges on that stretch of road opened during high-traffic hours 107 times in 1999. The openings caused backups that could reach nearly a half-mile. The department sought a ban on bridge openings from 6 to 8 a.m. and from 3 to 6 p.m.
But Coast Guard officials said even the busiest bridge opened far less often than bridges in Seattle subject to opening restrictions. For example, the Ballard bridge opened more than 5,000 times in 1999 including nonrush-hour times, compared with 452 for the Snohomish River bridge, John Mikesell, the Coast Guard district’s Plans and Programs Section chief, wrote in a letter to the Transportation Department.
That wasn’t enough to override the right-of-way that water traffic traditionally has over cars.
That should be welcome news for Dunlap Towing Co., which tows barges laden with wood chips down the Snohomish River. In the past, company officials opposed restrictions, saying they depended on the tides to safely take their boats down the river, even if the tides came during rush hour.
A company spokesman could not be reached for comment Friday.
Fabry said she hoped the voluntary effort would help reduce the problem. The department is also considering installing message signs near entrances to Highway 529 that could alert drivers when the bridge was going up, giving them time to take an alternate route like I-5, she said.
"I certainly feel very optimistic," she said.
You can call Herald Writer Warren Cornwall at 425-339-3463 or send e-mail
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