EVERETT — Anyone who regularly commutes on I-5 through Everett knows when and where the backups start.
You can usually count on it by 6 a.m. heading south and west, then again around 2:30 p.m. until 7 or 8 p.m. heading north and east, Monday through Friday. The nexus seems to be the interchange with U.S. 2 and the ensuing reduction of lanes just before the freeway crosses the Snohomish River.
It’s even officially counted in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Annual Roadway Congestion Index, in which anything rated higher than 1 is “undesirable.” Seattle was a 1.03 in 2011. For comparison, San Francisco’s index was 1.41 and Spokane was 0.68.
What about changing the actual design on the interchange?
Everett wants to explore the question and see what can be learned through a $2.3 million study called an interchange justification report. The city is spending $165,000, Snohomish County partnered on the endeavor with $150,000, and a $2 million Federal Surface Transportation Program grant covers the rest.
“This is just an incremental step in trying to deal with the I-5/U.S. 2 interchange,” Everett City Councilmember Paul Roberts said at the council’s June 24 meeting.
The report, called an IJR, is a planning level study that looks at needs (traffic volume, population growth projections) for a new interchange or new geometries (basically the shape and angles that two high-speed roads connect).
“Nothing will get built out of an IJR, but it’s the first step in the process to get funding that we need to build something,” Everett principal engineer Tom Hood said.
About 171,000 vehicles used that stretch of I-5 and 82,000 vehicles took the trestle every day in 2019, according to Washington State Department of Transportation data. The southbound I-5 on-ramp from the trestle averaged 25,150 in weekday traffic in 2018, per the state’s 2018 ramp and roadway report.
WSDOT isn’t involved in the pre-planning and early design work and doesn’t have any long-range improvement plans for the interchange, spokesperson Kris Olsen said. The Legislature would have to fund a study to create a preferred alternative and construction before WSDOT joined the project.
The state, county and some cities served by U.S. 2 helped fund a study on replacement of the trestle between Everett and Lake Stevens. WSDOT’s report for the Federal Highway Administration is unrelated to the interchange, Olsen said.
Though the projects are separate, Hood said the “next logical step” of replacing the westbound trestle is how it connects to I-5. After all, the infrastructure is connected.
“When a vehicle’s going 60 (mph) and they have to slow down to 40 (mph) to take a turn, that slowdown will create a chain of blowback,” Hood said.
Everett’s interest in the interchange is more than just commerce moving into, out of and through the city. The area around the tangle of ramps on and off the highways regularly become jammed with vehicles queuing along Everett Avenue, Hewitt Avenue, Pacific Avenue and Walnut Street.
The city doesn’t have any recommendations in mind yet, Hood said.
“The most likely scenario would be rerouting, new access points to I-5 or U.S. 2,” he said.
The city will contract a consultant or consulting firm for the interchange study because the work is more than city staff can handle atop existing responsibilities, Hood said. The timeline for it to be presented to the city isn’t certain, though it’s likely over a year out, he said.
When the project could actually begin and finish is a total unknown.
“That’s anybody’s guess because it requires so many, probably hundreds of millions of dollars, to do something of this magnitude,” Hood said.
Everett led a similar study for the 41st Street interchange redesign in 2004. That project, which was rolled into the state’s expansion of northbound I-5 with a high-occupancy vehicle lane between Highway 526 and U.S. 2, took years to complete.