Feds give go-ahead for repairs to Mountain Loop Highway

SILVERTON — Earlier this week, it looked as though a funding snafu could shut down Mountain Loop Highway just as the spring recreation season was ready to warm up.

Snohomish County roads crews had abruptly stopped repairs on a landslide-damaged section of road after being told they might not

be reimbursed for up to $2 million in costs.

On Friday, however, state transportation officials told them to start back up.

“We’ve been given clear direction from the feds that the work from the county could proceed and would be considered eligible” for reimbursement, said Kathleen Da

vis, the state Department of Transportation’s director of highways and local programs.

The Mountain Loop Highway is a federal road on U.S. Forest Service land, but the state has a role in administering the work. The county works as a federal contractor.

County road crews since January have been working to fix the road in a slide area west of the former mining community of Silverton. The route is the easiest way to reach the Big Four Ice Caves and other attractions in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Otherwise, it’s necessary to take a lengthy route through Darrington, on the other end of the Mountain Loop.

Workers were about three to four weeks from finishing repairs when the Federal Highway Administration decided that the work didn’t qualify for emergency repair money, county public works director Steve Thomsen said. Instead, the federal agency decided that the work would have to undergo a more complicated environmental review. That forced the county, which had been doing the work on the federal government’s behalf, to stop.

That also left county leaders worried they wouldn’t be reimbursed for about $750,000 in work to date, Thomsen said. The county was expecting to be paid for $2 million worth of work to the steep embankment.

For now, the road is restricted to one lane and open only to people who live in the area. Had the work stoppage continued, Thomsen said even that tenuous link would have been in jeopardy, since small cracks started to appear in the road. That could have forced the county to close the remaining single lane.

“From what I’m seeing right now, it’s pretty unstable,” he said. “In the meantime, the road continues to get worse.”

The slide area has been under watch for about 10 years. Heavy rains in mid-January made it worse.

If the Mountain Loop shuts down, popular hiking, climbing, fishing and horse-riding areas would be impractical to reach. About 100,000 people drove the route between May and early September of last year.

“We’ve been getting a lot of calls from people concerned about it,” Thomsen said.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

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