Light rail, congestion top list of transportation challenges

Traffic congestion will fuel another year of debate on how to get people to their destinations in faster, if not more predictable, fashion.

This year’s biggest scrap in Snohomish County is likely to be whether voters decide a 20-year-old promise to bring light rail to downtown Everett is worth keeping — even it means paying higher taxes and waiting another 20 years for the first train to arrive.

Back in the mid-90s leaders of the fledgling Sound Transit pledged to construct a light rail system connecting Everett with Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma and SeaTac Airport.

There’s money to get trains to Lynnwood by 2023 and its leaders are mapping out a $15 billion service expansion that would include reaching Everett sometime after 2030.

Its fate depends on the electorate and the three men from Snohomish County who serve on the Sound Transit Board of Directors and who could influence the outcome.

This November, voters in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties are expected to consider a ballot measure, referred to as ST3, to fund the added service through a combination of higher taxes on property, retail sales and motor vehicles.

The agency board is in the midst of deciding what to build with the money, knowing their choices can sway the minds of voters.

That’s where Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, Everett Councilman Paul Roberts and Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling come in.

As the county’s delegates on the board, they’ve been united in wanting trains to follow a route that stops near the Boeing Co. plant at Paine Field, then proceeds to Everett. It’s a must-have route but one that could cost about $2 billion more than sending trains directly from Lynnwood to Everett along an I-5 alignment.

That’s $2 billion some political leaders in King County are eyeing to pay for additions in Ballard and West Seattle.

The Snohomish County trio realizes that compromise may be inevitable, given what’s on the drawing board for other areas. Without a Paine Field stop in the mix, it could be a hard sell to voters.

Earling, an original Sound Transit board member from the early 1990s, said the agency must keep its promise to serve Everett before branching out.

“It’s our duty, as a board, to stick to that commitment from many years ago,” Earling has said. “We think it’s important to build the right system, as opposed to the cheapest system.”

Light rail won’t be the only battleground for transportation this year.

Those four-month-old express toll lanes on I-405 will attract much scrutiny in 2016.

The law establishing the lanes on a 17-mile stretch between Lynnwood and Bellevue gives the state Department of Transportation until 2017 to work out the kinks before lawmakers can pull the plug.

Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, isn’t in the mood to wait and is giving voice to a legion of frustrated drivers congregating online at Stop405tolls.org.

Harmsworth, a member of the House Transportation Committee, is pushing a bill to get rid of one of the two toll lanes in each direction south of Highway 522, and open up the lanes across the full corridor to all drivers for free on nights and weekends.

Meanwhile, drivers throughout 2016 will endure bouts of congestion in the name of progress.

Weekend closures for I-5 are on the horizon as crews continue a nearly year-long project to replace the aging bridge expansion joints on I-5 over a trio of soggy sloughs. With the bridge over Union Slough completed last fall, the Steamboat and Ebey slough bridges are now in the DOT’s line of sight.

Work on Highway 532 over the Davis Slough — rebuilding the only bridge that connects Camano Island with the mainland — is expected to wrap up in early 2016 after delays.

Construction is expected to start in 2016 on a pedestrian bridge from Grand Avenue down to the Everett waterfront. It’s also going to carry pipelines across the steep slope, railroad tracks and West Marine View Drive, replacing deteriorated underground pipelines. Work is expected to last all year and into 2017.

Meanwhile, commuters who rely on Sounder trains hope this year will bring fewer cancellations due to tracks covered in mud. The last of six federally funded slope stabilization projects are due to wrap up this year.

Herald writers Noah Haglund and Melissa Slager contributed to this report. Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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