DARRINGTON — A study focused on potential changes to the Mountain Loop Highway is on track to be completed by next summer.
A central question is whether the 14 miles of gravel road that go from Barlow Pass to White Chuck Road could be paved.
The study is being done by the Federal Highway Administration and will not make a recommendation on any specific plan. Instead, it is meant to lay out options, including their costs, timelines and environmental constraints, so that Snohomish County and the U.S. Forest Service can make decisions about the future of the road.
It’s an early step in what is likely to be a years-long process for the scenic byway that connects Darrington and Granite Falls.
Last week, public meetings about the study drew 46 people: 27 in Darrington and 19 in Granite Falls.
Improvements to the Loop, specifically paving the gravel stretch, have been talked about for years. Proponents have spoken about the need to improve access in a popular recreation area and to have an emergency route for people who live along the Loop or in Darrington. Opponents say roadwork would negatively affect the forest, waterways and wildlife, and note that stretches of it are prone to slides and other hazards that would make for difficult construction and maintenance.
The study is expected to examine access needs, recreational and economic opportunities, crash history, erosion and traffic patterns.
Any construction is a long ways out. The current study would need to be followed by environmental analysis and, if a project moved forward, extensive design and engineering. The study will look out to 2038 and include a mix of short- and long-term projects, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
“We don’t know that there will be a project,” said Doug Hecox, an agency spokesman. “That’s why there’s a study.”
Additional public meetings are planned this fall and near the end of this year or early next, he said.
In 2016, the county and Forest Service received a $500,000 grant to pay for the study. Two years earlier, the city councils in Granite Falls and Darrington passed resolutions in favor of paving the rest of the Loop. Those resolutions talk about access and tourism, which is a key economic piece for the rural communities.
“It’s a pretty area,” Hecox said. “We want to make sure that what folks get is a complement to the area and not an eyesore or something they would regret later.”
Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.