Bypass could help alleviate congestion on U.S. 2 trestle

LAKE STEVENS — Carpoolers and bus riders could shave a few minutes off their morning commutes on the U.S. 2 trestle under a locally developed plan gaining traction among state lawmakers.

The idea is to give transit and high-occupancy vehicles a clearer path up to and around the convergence zone of westbound traffic where U.S. 2, Highway 204 and 20th Street SE all come together.

What’s under consideration is restriping a stretch of westbound 20th Street SE, from around 79th Avenue SE to the trestle, to create a dedicated lane for buses, carpools and vanpools to use during the peak times of the morning commute.

Also on the drawing board is the long-discussed idea of opening up a stretch of 20th Street under the trestle to westbound traffic in the morning commute. Carpools and vanpools, and maybe buses, would be allowed to use this underpass and merge onto the trestle mid-span.

Lake Stevens Mayor John Spencer calls it “Jump Start” and says if all goes well drivers might see work on the $2.6 million project get under way as early as fall. The effort received a boost when area lawmakers secured a $1.82 million grant for the undertaking in the transportation budgets proposed by the House and Senate in late March.

“I’m really, really pleased. I think they realize we can’t wait,” Spencer said. He led a contingent of civic and business leaders to Olympia on March 20 to ask House and Senate leaders for immediate help in easing the commute and support finding a permanent fix.

When projects are funded in the initial budgets of each chamber it is generally a good sign those dollars will still be there when a final agreement is reached.

“It’s a big deal,” said state Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, the ranking minority member of the Senate Transportation Committee. He made the request for the funds. “We need to solve the problem with congestion there.”

One of the region’s most congested routes each morning is westbound on the trestle. The choke point is where traffic from U.S. 2, Highway 204 and 20th Street SE are pushed onto the two-lane trestle heading toward Everett and I-5.

A detailed study known as an interchange justification report is under way. It is intended to develop possible solutions to unclogging the interchange and maybe replacing the trestle.

Spencer is pitching “Jump Start” as an “early action” step to slice as much as 15 minutes off travel times for buses and carpools.

Lake Stevens could proceed on its own to establish a transit-only lane on 20th Street SE leading up to the trestle. But it needs approval from the state to shore up and restripe the stretch under the highway for use by carpools in the morning commute hours. Ideally, both would be done to maximize the time savings.

A year ago state Department of Transportation officials didn’t think this could work.

Tom Pearce, a DOT spokesman, said in February 2016 the roadway across Ebey Island was not designed or constructed to handle high volumes of traffic and heavy vehicles such as buses. Moreover the on-ramp at 50th Avenue SE to westbound U.S. 2 doesn’t provide optimal distance for vehicles to accelerate and merge, he said.

“Directing more traffic onto this ramp in its current configuration would simply create a new problem in another location,” he said.

State transportation officials still harbor those concerns but are analyzing the option without reservations.

“We know people are interested in this,” said John White, DOT’s assistant regional administrator for the Snohomish and King County area. “We’re trying to figure out how to make it safely operate.”

Spencer expressed confidence.

“We don’t think we’re going to hit a fatal flaw with standard vanpools and carpools,” he said.

The House and Senate could vote on their respective transportation budgets as early as this week. Negotiations would follow to reconcile differences and craft a single two-year spending plan for the state’s transportation system.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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