On 522, the only thing slower than cars and fish is money

A lawmaker says bottlenecks and habitat-blocking culverts are not getting solved any time soon.

Drivers aren’t the only ones facing a bottleneck on Highway 522.

In creeks and streams that flow underneath the roadway, fish face their own barriers.

But there aren’t enough of them to spur immediate improvements on fish passages. And that’s one reason there’s no near-term fix in sight to ease the daily slog for human commuters on the roadway above.

At first, it seems like a problem with another problem as the solution.

Problem one: Highway 522 has four lanes, except for a stretch between Paradise Lake Road and the Snohomish River Bridge, where it remains two lanes. The bottleneck has caused angst for many years for commuters. But there’s still no money in sight to widen the gap.

Problem two: A federal court injunction requires the state to significantly increase efforts to remove culverts that block habitat for salmon and steelhead, setting a 2030 deadline to address the bulk of the problem. The state has dedicated millions of dollars to the effort.

There are eight spots where the two-lane section of Highway 522 crosses over streams or creeks in a way that impedes migratory fish passage, according to a Washington State Department of Transportation inventory map. Three of those spots are total blockage points; the other five are partial. Two other spots were corrected in 2005. Another affects only resident trout.

There are another three spots under Highway 524 at Paradise Lake Road that would be affected by a planned new interchange.

Why not use fish passage money to speed up improvements?

In short, not enough fish are adversely affected.

At the high end, fixing a total blockage on Elliott Creek could open up 2,294 meters of fish habitat.

But in the context of the state’s region-wide fish passage efforts, that’s considered a medium impact, according to biologist Paul Wagner, who is heading up the fish passage project for WSDOT. Even 1,000 meters of affected habitat is considered low. The other total blockage points in that area offer potential habitat gain of just 526 meters to 1,027 meters.

The court injunction places an emphasis on addressing the most critical fish habitat areas first.

“None of those barriers are on our six-year plan for stand-alone correction projects,” Wagner said.

Instead, fixing the fish barriers there would more likely be triggered by unrelated road improvements.

“The expectation is they’re going to fix those barriers if they’re fixing the road prism,” Wagner said.

Shoulder driving pushed aside

The fish passage issue is the primary reason a popular short-term fix has never moved forward.

Street Smarts reader Rocky Lancaster, of Monroe, is among the many Highway 522 commuters who have watched eagerly as the state eased other chokepoints by allowing shoulder driving.

For example, there’s the eastbound U.S. 2 trestle, where the right shoulder is open to drivers for the afternoon and evening rush. More recently, shoulder driving was opened up on northbound I-405 at Canyon Park, regulated by signs based on traffic conditions.

How about employing the same solution there? Just eyeballing things, the idea looks feasible in the westbound direction, Lancaster noted.

“This seems to be a low-cost solution to alleviate a real problem with merging accidents, wasting gas sitting and, most of all, frustration at the lack of progress,” Lancaster said.

Lawmakers had been keen on the idea at one point too.

But it likely won’t happen.

“Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as changing the hours of use or restriping the highway,” said Tom Pearce, a WSDOT spokesman.

State staff took a look at the idea for the westbound direction and found potential problem areas.

An initial review of site conditions shows a lot of work would need to be done so that the shoulder area could physically support vehicles. That includes moving drainage structures and guardrail. Midway, the bridge at Fales Road may not have the capacity for added traffic loads either. Traffic and environmental studies, design plans and more would all be part of the to-do list.

“And once you start doing that work, you have to deal with the fish culverts,” said state Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby.

Widening the two-lane stretch to four lanes is estimated at $80 million. Creating a new interchange at Paradise Lake Road is another $62 million. The cost to fix the fish passages makes up $36 million of that $142 million total.

“It doesn’t make financial sense,” Palumbo said. “If you’re going to spend that money for shoulders, you may as well widen it.”

Either way … “Both of those are hamstrung by the fact that we don’t have that money,” he said.

Shorter short-term fix in sight

If all the money needed to widen Highway 522 and redo the interchange at Paradise Lake Road were in hand now, the job would be done by 2025.

As it is, 2025 is currently the first year that the project will see any real money — and that’s only to start design work.

“At minimum we’re going to have to try to move that money up,” Palumbo said.

At the same time, Palumbo said he hopes to secure $3.5 million to install turn lanes on the shoulders at Paradise Lake Road. “People are doing it illegally right now,” he noted.

If approved, that work would involve filling in rumble strips and restriping.

Ideally, the state would identify full funding for widening the highway and move the whole project up. But that’s not likely, the lawmaker conceded.

“We can get ready to get that full funding,” he said.

Have a topic or question for Street Smarts? Reach out at streetsmarts@heraldnet.com or 425-339-3432.

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