SULTAN — People in the Sky Valley are used to the deluge of sedans, SUVs, trucks, vans and wagons that streams through and to the area on holidays and weekends.
But a forecast for sunny days, the observance on Monday of Independence Day and the state lifting COVID-19 restrictions could create an especially busy stretch of travel on U.S. 2 and across the state.
“Fourth of July is probably the worst weekend for (U.S.) 2 going through Sultan, maybe only second to Memorial Day, and Labor Day usually is up there, too,” Sultan Mayor Russell Wiita said.
The pandemic changed traffic patterns in Sultan, he said. Vehicle volumes normally seen only on weekends became more frequent during the week, which Wiita attributed to the extra time people had while out of school and work, and their fewer recreational options.
The Washington State Department of Transportation is urging people to plan for busy roads and long ferry waits.
With Independence Day creating a three-day weekend for many, travelers should plan ahead and expect additional traffic, especially during prime travel times.
AAA Washington anticipates the second-highest Independence Day travel volume on record, second to 2019’s numbers, with over 1 million people driving or flying somewhere in a post-pandemic fleeing frenzy.
People flying this holiday weekend are heading in large numbers to Hawaii and Southern California, according to AAA Washington.
“Travel is in full swing this summer, as Americans eagerly pursue the trips they’ve deferred for the last year-and-a-half,” AAA Washington public relations manager Kelly Just said in a news release. “We saw strong demand for travel around Memorial Day and the kick-off of summer, and all indications now point to a busy Independence Day to follow.”
The vast majority, an estimated 933,000-plus Washingtonians, will drive, according to the insurance-and-travel company. Bellingham, Blaine, Leavenworth and Seattle, national and state parks, as well as road trips to Colorado, Idaho and Montana are anticipated as driving hot spots this year.
Parks and trailhead lots can fill quickly on nice weekends, so people should have multiple options picked out in a given area, in case they can’t park at their first choice.
“Parking on highway shoulders when lots are full is not safe for the people parking, those walking in to the site or those passing by in vehicles,” WSDOT spokeswoman Barbara LaBoe said in an email. “It can also restrict emergency vehicles’ ability to respond if the roadway is too narrow.”
WSDOT staff recommend people travel during off-peak hours and days. They’re expecting traffic on eastbound U.S. 2 between Skykomish and Stevens Pass to ramp up Thursday afternoon, then be heaviest noon to 6 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. Westbound traffic could surge between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday.
State highway tolls will be free and open to all drivers on I-405 Monday. Highway 520 and the Highway 99 tunnel under downtown Seattle will be on weekend rates Independence Day.
Snohomish County suspends most of its road projects by noon before holidays and plans to do so Friday, with crews resuming work Tuesday morning. Road preservation is set to start July 12, and culvert work begins later this summer.
Most state highway projects are set for a hiatus, too. But the southbound I-5 bridge over the Stillaguamish River will remain closed to traffic, which is diverted and shares the northbound crossing.
Last week the county reopened the Mountain Loop Highway, where Litter Wranglers recovered 125 bags of trash, two refrigerators, a bed frame and a recliner, county Public Works spokesman Matt Phelps said.
Elsewhere, Snohomish County spots that often have holiday slowdowns include the interstates, U.S. 2, 128th Street SE/Highway 96 over I-5, 172nd Street NE/Highway 531, and Airport Road at Highway 99.
“Any place you see congestion on a normal weekend, I’d expect to see even more during a summer holiday weekend,” LaBoe said.
“I’d honestly recommend people stay on (U.S.) 2. That’s not only self-serving our residents here, but a lot of times it’s quicker,” Wiita said.
The chance of collisions rises as the number of drivers and level of congestion increases, she said. Plus, with people towing boats, campers and trailers, and driving RVs, more slow-moving vehicles are on the roads. Those big hauls also need more time and distance to stop. (That’s why drivers operating or towing something that combines to 10,000 pounds or more are capped at 60 mph.) They have bigger blind spots, so other drivers should be careful maneuvering around them.
“That’s why we ask people to give themselves extra travel time so they’re not rushing and to be patient. Even a minor fender-bender can further snarl congested traffic,” LaBoe said.
With that many people hitting the roads this weekend, it means travelers should brace for a lot of congestion and slow going in places. That includes U.S. 2 east, where Kirkland-based transportation analytics firm INRIX projects traffic volume to be 10% higher than normal from noon to 2 p.m. Friday between Highway 522 in Monroe to Stevens Pass.
“With travelers eager to hit the road this summer, we’re expecting nationwide traffic volumes to increase about 15% over normal this holiday weekend,” INRIX transportation analyst Bob Pishue said in a news release. “Drivers around major metro areas must be prepared for significantly more delay. Knowing when and where congestion will build can help drivers avoid the stress of sitting in traffic …”