Final paving options ready in Mountain Loop Highway study

The Federal Highway Administration will present its recommendations during two meetings this week.

Parts of the Mountain Loop Highway are paved and parts are gravel. (Federal Lands Highway, WSDOT)

Parts of the Mountain Loop Highway are paved and parts are gravel. (Federal Lands Highway, WSDOT)

GRANITE FALLS — Visitors who travel from far away to explore the lush evergreens and high peaks along the Mountain Loop Highway eventually run into a 14-mile stretch of narrow, gravel road.

For decades there have been talks of paving that part of the byway that connects Granite Falls and Darrington.

In the past year and a half the Federal Highway Administration has explored options to make the route more comfortable for drivers, with the Mountain Loop Highway Feasibility Study.

Now it’s complete, and people are invited to learn more at two meetings this week. The first is Wednesday in Granite Falls and the second is Thursday in Darrington.

The highway administration plans to present its ideas and the cost of each. After, suggestions will be sent to Snohomish County and the U.S. Forest Service for final decisions. Feedback will be included in that package.

The wide range of choices includes making no changes to the highway, making some improvements and paving all the way through. The last option is not recommended, project manager Michael Traffalis said.

Keeping the road as-is costs about $112,000 per year, while the most expensive construction would be an estimated $40 million.

To pay for the study, the county and forest service received funding through the Federal Highway Administration’s Federal Lands Access Program.

The same program could pay for construction, if that’s what the county and the forest service decide on. Applications for that grant are due in May, Traffalis said.

“Under that program any construction is at least three years out,” he said.

No decisions have been made yet.

The gravel portion of road is between Barlow Pass and White Chuck River.

Over the years, proponents have said paving that section will make access easier to popular recreation sites, and that it could be an alternative route in case of an emergency. That issue generated a lot of discussion after the 2014 Oso mudslide, when the closure of Highway 530 forced many drivers to and from Darrington to detour through Skagit County.

Opponents have been concerned about negative effects the work could have on the wilderness. There are also concerns with natural hazards along the highway, such as slides, that could make construction and maintenance difficult.

Dozens of people attended earlier meetings, the last being in the spring.

Stephanie Davey: 425-339-3192; Twitter: @stephrdavey.

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