LAKE STEVENS — It seemed fitting that on a day John Spencer was headed to Olympia to lobby for highway improvements, it would take him 45 minutes to drive the few miles between his Lake Stevens home of 31 years and Everett.
First, there was the intersection in front of Frontier Village. It’s the choke point where Highway 9 meets Highway 204, the latter a 2.4-mile thoroughfare that begins at the east end of the U.S. 2 trestle and ends in a supermarket parking lot.
Then, there was the glacial slog down 204 to merge onto the oft-congested trestle.
There weren’t any accidents to gum up the works. It was sheer volume.
These days, the Lake Stevens mayor hopes the commute will improve on two fronts. More than $69 million is earmarked for a project to quicken the drive at Highways 9 and 204. A $1.5 million study is under way to improve trestle access.
“They are critically important for Lake Stevens,” Spencer said.
The state Department of Transportation recently posted signs of plans to improve safety and traffic flow at the Highway 9 and 204 intersection. It hasn’t decided what’s in store. In fact, it’s looking for ideas, not just from local government leaders but from commuters and people who live in the area. A public meeting in October is planned to gather ideas. A date has not yet been set.
“It might not be just one thing,” said Travis Phelps, a spokesman for the transportation agency. “It might be several different components.”
Actual construction likely won’t begin until 2019. The money comes from a state gas tax increase approved by the Legislature in 2015 to pay for projects aimed at easing congestion.
One suggestion has been including roundabouts at 91st Avenue NE and at 204 where it meets Highway 9.
Local leaders said they are open to ideas, but would flat out reject one idea that’s been bandied about in the past.
“The concept of an overpass or a bypass is not on the table,” Spencer said.
“It would just kill the commercial property,” said interim city administrator Mary Swenson. “We are not just looking at moving traffic, but at keeping that area vibrant. Keeping the commercial area prospering is equally important to the city.”
It is a message state transportation officials are hearing.
“We are in regular communications with local leaders and want to build something that works for the community,” Phelps said. “Businesses are a key part of that.”
Traffic in the area is an interesting mix of commuters, locals trying to run errands and commerce. Roughly 10 million tons of freight crosses the trestle each year, including gravel from area mining operations.
Todd Welch is among the thousands of people who routinely gets stuck in the bottleneck between Lake Stevens and Everett. He’s in his second term on the city council and commutes south to work. Roughly 36,600 vehicles head north through the intersection on a typical day, while an estimated 21,600 go south.
About 26,300 vehicles a day head west onto Highway 204, and 15,170 vehicles take it east.
“To say it is difficult would be an understatement,” Welch said. “Getting out of there is just getting worse. Highway 9 has become a parking lot where it used to not be … We have been waiting to hear what DOT wants to do.”
Local leaders also have high hopes for the study to improve access to the trestle. The $1.5 million budget doesn’t cover construction.
One option Lake Stevens leaders are asking be considered would be allowing buses and carpools to use the road beneath the trestle to bypass some traffic. Those vehicles would drive onto a longer merge lane two-thirds of the way across the trestle. The proposal has been dubbed the “jump start.”
What’s not clear is if the ground in the area is suitable for that kind of weight and volume.
Swenson doesn’t know exactly what will happen in the next few years. She’s just glad to see some momentum.
“It’s not okay for us to sit here and not do anything,” she said.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; email@example.com.