Fred Walser and John Seehus have been working way to improve traffic and safety along U.S. 2 in Sultan for more than 20 years. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Fred Walser and John Seehus have been working way to improve traffic and safety along U.S. 2 in Sultan for more than 20 years. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Gridlock keeps many in Sultan feeling trapped in their homes

Held hostage by an onslaught of cars that clog U.S. 2, Sky Valley residents rally for a solution.

SULTAN — Come midday most Sundays, Dolly Green and her husband retreat home as the onslaught of cars begins to clog U.S. 2 heading west as the weekend comes to a close.

It’s not unusual for bumper-to-bumper traffic on the two-lane to stretch from east of Gold Bar to the western edge of Sultan.

“We’re home by noon and stay there until Monday,” said Green, who has lived in Sultan for many years.

The procession of cars through the town of 5,000 peaks in the summer months, during the ski season and following a big event in the tourist town of Leavenworth. Cars slowly roll along the Stevens Pass Greenway Scenic Byway, a key recreational route between Puget Sound and the Cascades, in a hurry to make it through Sultan’s one roundabout and three traffic lights.

On Sunday afternoons, the number of cars can more than double along the corridor that links Skykomish and Sultan compared to weekday volumes, according to state Department of Transportation data. A similar trend is also building Friday afternoons.

“Basically, the residents here in Sky Valley are held hostage,” said Sam Low, the Snohomish County councilmember who represents the area.

The weekend traffic spike on the highway has been an issue for more than two decades. In recent years, gridlock has begun to overflow onto residential streets as drivers follow a shortcut offered up by Google Maps.

“Cars come flying down the road,” said Green, who lives along one of the suggested bypasses.

Then, after a few miles, drivers must rejoin the congestion but have to wait their turn to get back onto U.S. 2. It’s difficult for residents to even get to the homes of family and friends on the same road.

Drivers take an eight-mile bypass to avoid a three-mile backup to save two minutes, Low said.

Residents are organizing to free themselves as well as weekend travelers from the gridlock. State Rep. Carolyn Eslick, R-Sultan, who took office in 2017 and has endured the congestion for years, has made it one of her top priorities, as have mayors along the corridor.

Traffic drives though the roundabout in east Sultan in November. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Traffic drives though the roundabout in east Sultan in November. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Sultan’s spine

U.S. 2 starts on the eastern edge of Everett, crossing the Snohomish River as a four-lane road. On clear days, the Cascade Range beckons as the road wanders through groves of evergreen trees and farm fields. Around Monroe it officially becomes the Stevens Pass Greenway Scenic Byway and again narrows to two lanes as it leaves the city. Then the U.S. 2 meanders through the Sky Valley’s small towns, skirting the Skykomish River at times.

“This highway is our spine,” said Merlin Halverson, Sultan’s fire chief. “There are places only reachable by Highway 2.”

On Sundays, Halverson’s commute time to the station can quadruple.

“It’s solid bumper to bumper,” he said.

On those gridlocked days, it wasn’t unusual for Sultan’s outgoing mayor, John Seehuus, to receive emails from drivers stuck in the weekend slog home.

“‘Once again sitting in a Sultan-caused traffic jam,’” he recalled one note reading.

Drivers get cranky and blame the community, said Debbie Copple, executive director of the Sky Valley Chamber of Commerce.

“Sunday is not a good day for our businesses, because drivers don’t want to lose their place in line,” she said. “Half of Seattle is crammed into the scenic highway. It was never meant for that kind of capacity.

“It’s not our fault it’s way over capacity,” Copple added.

Drivers passing through often blame the bottlenecks on the town’s traffic lights.

If there were no signals in Sultan, however, there would be a continuous line of cars during peak periods and it would be very difficult and risky to turn onto U.S. 2 or get across, said Miguel Gavino, WSDOT traffic engineer for the Northwest Region.

“The bottom line is there is a whole lot more drivers wanting to use the highway than the highway is designed to carry,” Gavino said.

Car volumes more than double on Sundays along U.S. 2 through the Sky Valley compared to an average weekday Monday through Thursday, according to the latest data collected in Skykomish, the location of the closest permanent traffic counter. It’s a similar story on Fridays. The traffic jams can be traced back at least to 2001.

To accommodate the heavy traffic, in 2017 WSDOT extended the time of green at Sultan traffic lights for east-west travelers to 4 minutes between the hours of 1 p.m. and 10 p.m., Friday through Sunday. (For most signals, three minutes is allocated for the entire cycle.)

“It’s hard to tell if it is making a difference, the demand is so high,” Gavino said. “I think we are allowing more cars through, but it doesn’t reduce the length of the queues.”

Rallying for a solution

For years, residents have known not to travel the roadway Fridays and Sundays, or to plan around the gridlock, said incoming Sultan Mayor Russell Wiita.

“Now it’s impacting mobility just getting out your driveway,” he said. “People are outraged.”

This has sparked a renewed push by residents and elected officials to address the issue.

A community meeting hosted by Low and Eslick in the summer drew about 100 people, many of whom described feeling held captive by the traffic.

Working off that momentum, Eslick and Low and a coalition of mayors along U.S. 2 are organizing a lobbying effort to secure $1 million for a study of possible remedies. Civic leaders and residents are planning a trip to Olympia in February to press their point with lawmakers.

Through the years, a few ideas have been floated to ease the bottleneck: a bypass around town, widening the road or installing a one-way couplet with Main Street — creating two two-lane roads.

“I don’t want anything off the table, but widening is tough,” Wiita said.

The roadway is constrained on one side by the river and railroad tracks and the other side is lined with businesses.

Adding a lane in each direction destroys the cultural integrity and history of the small towns, said Copple of the Sky Valley Chamber.

“The majority of what you see on Highway 2 would be gone,” she said. “If the buildings could stay, there would be no parking.”

A grand plan has been proposed by the U.S. 2 Safety Coalition. Fred Walser, who leads the group, said the coalition is pushing for an extensive bypass from Everett to Spokane, with three lanes in each direction, two rail lines for freight and another for high-speed passenger trains.

The $58 billion plan, envisioned as a public-private partnership, would take years to create. Many want to see a solution sooner.

“It’s impacting the entire state. It’s time for it to become an actual discussion,” Copple said.

One short-term solution seen by new Mayor Wiita is the possibility of connecting the Sultan Basin Road to the city’s downtown, giving residents access to downtown without having to get on the highway.

Eslick suggests converting traffic signals to roundabouts. Whatever the solution, funding from the state will be needed.

For decades, Peggy Tuttle has lived along or just off Sultan Basin Road. She remembers a time when few cars traveled the narrow two-lane county road.

“If you had a flat tire, you hoped someone would come by and help,” she said.

Today her road is a de facto bypass for impatient drivers. The traffic on the once-quiet road dictates Tuttle’s weekend activities.

“Everybody plans their activities around the traffic,” she said. “We can’t plan Friday night or Sunday events. We do feel like we are trapped in our own homes.”

Lizz Giordano: 425-374-4165; egiordano@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @lizzgior.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

Snohomish residents Barbara Bailey, right, and Beth Jarvis sit on a gate atop a levee on Bailey’s property on Monday, May 13, 2024, at Bailey Farm in Snohomish, Washington. Bailey is concerned the expansion of nearby Harvey Field Airport will lead to levee failures during future flood events due to a reduction of space for floodwater to safely go. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Harvey Field seeks to reroute runway in floodplain, faces new pushback

Snohomish farmers and neighbors worry the project will be disruptive and worsen flooding. Ownership advised people to “read the science.”

IAM District 751 machinists join the picket line to support Boeing firefighters during their lockout from the company on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Amid lockout, Boeing, union firefighters return to bargaining table

The firefighters and the planemaker held limited negotiations this week: They plan to meet again Monday, but a lockout continues.

Catholic Community Services NW Director of Housing Services and Everett Family Center Director Rita Jo Case, right, speaks to a man who asked to remain anonymous, left, during a point-in-time count of people facing homelessness in Everett, Washington on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Homelessness down nearly 10% in Snohomish County, annual count shows

The county identified 1,161 people without permanent housing, down from 1,285 last year. But lack of resources is still a problem, advocates said.

Snohomish County Deputy Prosecutor Craig Matheson on Wednesday, May 15, 2024 in Everett, Washington. Matheson retires this month after 35 years in the prosecutor's office. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
For decades, he prosecuted Snohomish County’s most high-stakes cases

“When you think of a confident prosecutor, you see a picture of Craig (Matheson) in the dictionary.” Or in the thesaurus, flip to “prepared.”

Lynnwood
Lynnwood woman sentenced for stabbing Bellingham woman while she slept

Johanna Paola Nonog, 23, was sentenced last week to nine years in prison for the July 2022 stabbing of a woman she’d recently met.

Granite Falls
Man presumed dead after fall into river near Granite Falls

Around 5 p.m. Sunday, the man fell off smooth rocks into the Stillaguamish River. Authorities searched for his body Monday.

Pilot found dead near Snoqualmie Pass after Arlington flight

Jerry Riedinger’s wife reported he never made it to his destination Sunday evening. Wreckage of his plane was found Monday afternoon.

Firefighters respond to a fire on Saturday morning in Lake Stevens. (Photo provided by Snohomish Regional Fire & Rescue)
1 woman dead in house fire east of Lake Stevens

Firefighters responded to find a house “fully engulfed in flames” in the 600 block of Carlson Road early Saturday.

YMCA swim instructor Olivia Beatty smiles as Claire Lawson, 4, successfully swims on her own to the wall during Swim-a-palooza, a free swim lesson session, at Mill Creek Family YMCA on Saturday, May 18, 2024 in Mill Creek, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Splish splash! YMCA hosts free swim lessons around Snohomish County

The Y is building a “whole community” of water safety. On Saturday, kids got to dip their toes in the water as the first step on that journey.

Bothell
2 injured in Bothell Everett Highway crash

The highway was briefly reduced to one northbound lane while police investigated the three-car crash Saturday afternoon.

Heavy traffic northbound on 1-5 in Everett, Washington on August 31, 2022.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
On I-5 in Everett, traffic nightmare is reminder we’re ‘very vulnerable’

After a police shooting shut down the freeway, commutes turned into all-night affairs. It was just a hint of what could be in a widespread disaster.

The Eternal Flame monument burns in the center of the Snohomish County Campus on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Elected officials to get 10% pay bump, or more, in Snohomish County

Sheriff Susanna Johnson will see the highest raise, because she was paid less than 10 of her own staff members.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.