It’s getting a little crowded for Sky Valley Fire Chief Eric Andrews out between Gold Bar, Index and Sultan.
Last summer, the popularity of a spot along the South Fork Skykomish River became a nuisance and a hazard. People illegally parked along U.S. 2, further narrowing the two-lane highway and limiting emergency access as rescuers rushed to search the rapids for people who went under. Some were hospitalized, some died, and some have yet to be found.
But that was just the latest high-profile problem for the area that has long endured rush hour and weekend traffic. Increasingly, those transient drivers are pulling off the stop-and-go highway and onto rural Snohomish County roads, many of which don’t have enough room for two vehicles to pull over and an emergency medical vehicle or fire engine to pass between them.
Andrews cited an emergency call over Labor Day weekend on a side street that was backed up with cars.
“It wasn’t a serious call, nobody died because of it, which is a good thing,” Andrews said. “But it’s always a potential.”
It culminated in Andrews writing a letter pleading to legislators for help and traffic solutions. “Sirens and lights are of no use when there is no place for vehicles to pull over and allow emergency vehicles to pass,” Andrews wrote. “A member of our community could die if we cannot to respond their call for help in a timely manner.”
Sky Valley Fire District has 75 volunteers who staff three stations. But only Station 54 in Gold Bar along U.S. 2 has people ready around the clock. If westbound traffic is creeping by, it can be pinned in until enough vehicles move and make room for an engine to get out.
“We were seeing a drastic increase of the back roads that were being clogged up,” Andrews said. “It’s important (legislators) realize it’s not just a traffic problem on U.S. 2, it’s an emergency problem.”
Local lawmakers know those issues well.
Snohomish County Councilman Sam Low, who Gov. Jay Inslee recently appointed to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, got Andrews’ letter.
Low agreed with the fire chief that county residents and roads bear the brunt of high traffic volumes and drivers pulling off the highways, which clogs the side streets.
“These residents are basically prisoners in their own homes on the weekends from Sultan to Index,” Low said.
But the county doesn’t have money or plans to widen its roads in the area because of the cost and likelihood that it would not fix overall traffic, he said in an email.
He offered several ideas. One is for the Washington State Department of Transportation to double the lanes between Monroe and Skykomish. Another is to divert westbound traffic toward I-90 through a travel time sign for westbound U.S. 2 travelers before they reach Leavenworth. From there, drivers could turn to U.S. 97 and connect to I-90 instead.
“… Drivers on westbound (U.S.) 2 use their traffic apps that divert them off the highway and onto routes that are basically horseshoes,” Low wrote in an email to The Daily Herald. “These horseshoe routes might take them seven to eight miles off the highway for 45 minutes to have them rejoin (U.S.) 2 just two or three miles ahead. All this happens to save them three to four minutes.”
Knowing that funds are limited, Low said he asked the state to install signs prohibiting right turns on Sundays and holidays from the highway to some of the frequently congested “shortcuts” on county roads. Snohomish County erected some signs saying “No U.S. 2 bypass” a couple of years ago, but law enforcement can’t cite someone for using the publicly funded roadway.
Another solution Low would like to pursue is pressuring app developers to exclude the routes. The effects of routing apps has been criticized as saving some drivers a few minutes by pushing traffic onto routes not built or designed for that kind of volume. A Los Angeles city council member even considered legal action against a popular app a few years ago.
Making it safer to travel on U.S. 2 is a continuing quest for other east Snohomish County lawmakers.
“It is a very serious problem,” said Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley. “We have been working the last four sessions to come up with a transportation package that is not an economy killer and will help us make the needed safety improvements. How we pay for it is always the question.”
Wagoner also endorsed an effort by Rep. Carolyn Eslick, R-Sultan, to get lawmakers to approve a plan for making improvements on the highway.
“Gridlock keeps many residents along (U.S.) 2 trapped like prisoners in their homes,” she said in a statement. “It’s not unusual for bumper-to-bumper traffic to not only prevent emergency vehicles from getting through, but even routine, daily activities… It’s long past time for something to be done about this problem.”
Right now, several proposals for another multi-year, multi-billion dollar transportation package are getting batted around in Olympia. Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, authored his chamber’s proposal, an $18 billion package dubbed Forward Washington.
“I recognize there is a problem,” he said. “If we can get a transportation package out with the help of Sen. Wagoner and the two House members in that district, we can get more safety improvements done.”
Forward Washington includes $58.5 million for the U.S. 2 Monroe bypass, which would build new lanes and widen existing roadway for the highway between Monroe and Snohomish. A separate bypass segment between Gold Bar and Monroe has been discussed but is not included in either the House or Senate transportation package proposals.
Herald writer Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.
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