Highway 531 hasn’t kept up with growth in Smokey Point area

SMOKEY POINT — It wasn’t that long ago that this community between Marysville and Arlington was more rural than urban, its principal landmark a local barbecue restaurant rather than a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

Still, years after the area burgeoned with new residents and businesses, heading more than a mile away from I-5 means navigating two-lane roads more suited to the Smokey Point of old than today’s growing urban center.

More growth is coming soon, and along with it the challenges of living and working in an increasingly congested neighborhood.

West of I-5 on Highway 531 (also known as 172nd Street NE), in the Marysville area, a new development called Lakewood Station has been approved that will add up to 290,000 square feet of commercial space and 350 multifamily housing units.

Next door to Lakewood Station is the future site of The Vintage at Lakewood, a 197-unit multifamily senior housing project.

East of I-5, in Arlington, the land is more geared toward industrial and commercial development, including Wal-Mart.

But there is still some undeveloped agricultural land, both on the outskirts of the area and also nestled in among the housing developments and industrial parks.

Already the Highway 531 corridor sees a higher-than-average level of congestion along its two-lane segments.

While the state Department of Transportation has long had plans to widen Highway 531 east of the Wal-Mart into a four-lane arterial with turn lanes, that plan has never been fully funded by the Legislature, and probably won’t be this year either.

The last estimate from 2009 for widening 172nd from 43rd Avenue NE to 67th Avenue NE, with four roundabouts along the way, put the project’s cost at approximately $57 million.

“Our approach is dealing with it as we can, as we have the opportunity to do so,” said state transportation spokesman Travis Phelps.

Part of that plan has been for developers, as they build along the highway, to do the necessary improvements that help traffic flow, he said.

Such was the case with Wal-Mart, and will be the case with Lakewood Station, whose final plans will likely include a roundabout intersection at 172nd Street.

But waiting for those pieces to fall into place can be a challenge for area businesses.

Scott Smith, the president of Bowman Manufacturing, a precision sheet metal manufacturer located on 51st Avenue NE next to the airport, is mostly concerned about safety of his employees along the two-lane road where traffic can drop from 55 miles per hour to a hard stop in a short distance.

“I can list three people who have had an accident on that road in the past three months, including me,” he said. “I totalled an SUV there.”

The stretch of Highway 531 between 43rd and 67th Ave NE sees traffic volume of 19,500 average daily trips. Its accident rate for that segment is 3.33 collisions per million miles of travel, compared with 2.93 per million for similarly classified roadways in the region.

“These numbers are what you’d expect for highly congested urban corridors,” said state traffic engineer Mike Swires.

Growth won’t wait for capacity on the roadways, however.

More job and production growth at Boeing, and many industrial businesses looking to find cheaper space will be heading north into Marysville’s and Arlington’s industrial neighborhoods. And with the jobs will come workers looking for housing.

One smaller manufacturing company, Micro-Green Polymers, which makes recyclable cups out of old plastic soda bottles, has grown from 36 employees in 2013 to more than 100 this year, and expects to add another 100 in the next year.

The company recently landed a deal to supply United Airlines with its products and has similar deals in the works, said vice president of marketing Chris Jacobs.

The expected growth has the Arlington company looking around for more space for expansion. Many of the conversations they’ve been having include gaining access to the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail spur, which runs through the heart of the two cities’ industrial neighborhoods.

Expected growth extends to residential population as well. The city of Arlington, for example, is expecting its population will increase by 3,500 over the next 10 years, and twice that over 20. Much of the city’s expected employment growth will come along the Highway 531 corridor, Mayor Barbara Tolbert said.

“We’re frustrated and we’re challenged with 531,” Tolbert said. “We know the growth is coming because we’ve seen it.”

On the west side of I-5, the Lakewood School District, with just five schools, expects to add another 455 students by 2017.

Even though the heart of the school district is one mile from the freeway and it extends westward to Lake Goodwin, half of the district’s 2,600 students are in Smokey Point and the surrounding neighborhoods close to I-5.

Both Arlington and Marysville are working on developing a designated Manufacturing Industrial Corridor that overlaps the two cities’ industrial areas, centered on Arlington Municipal Airport.

The final designation of a corridor lies in the hands of the Puget Sound Regional Council. The designation will allow the cities to apply for more state and federal money for transportation projects.

Employment within the corridor area was 5,580 jobs in 2012, 70 percent of them in aerospace or other manufacturing jobs. There are still 1,200 underdeveloped acres of land in the area.

Concurrently, legislation in Olympia is working its way through committees this spring that would add tax incentives for manufacturing and high tech businesses that would locate in the designated corridor.

The designation could eventually result in 12,000 new jobs in Marysville alone by 2025, said Gloria Hirashima, chief administrative officer for the city.

The entire manufacturing corridor, comprising nearly 4,100 acres in both cities, has a maximum capacity of 77,800 jobs at its densest (although the likely result of full development will be significantly less than that).

“We can’t really rely on 531 to carry all the traffic in the Marysville-Arlington area,” she said. Instead, what’s needed is a better system to carry north-south traffic and eventually connect the area to a new freeway interchange at 156th Street where there is currently an overpass.

“We did build the over-crossing with that in mind,” Hirashima said.

In the meantime businesses and governments plan, and do what they can, and wait for Olympia’s rusty wheels to turn, so everyone’s lives will become a little easier.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com.

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