Planned new I-5 on-ramp could be on hold for lack of $7.2M

WSDOT says the cost of improvements at the interchange of I-5 and Highway 529 is higher than expected.

The Highway 529/I-5 interchange project includes a northbound ramp from the freeway onto the highway into Marysville, and a southbound ramp from the highway to the interstate. The southbound ramp could be delayed. (Washington State Department of Transportation)

The Highway 529/I-5 interchange project includes a northbound ramp from the freeway onto the highway into Marysville, and a southbound ramp from the highway to the interstate. The southbound ramp could be delayed. (Washington State Department of Transportation)

MARYSVILLE — Several cities, Snohomish County and economic agencies are pushing the Washington State Department of Transportation to keep a major I-5 interchange project intact.

The Highway 529 and I-5 interchange was in the Connecting Washington transportation funding package passed by the Legislature in 2015. Work is planned to begin next year and wrap by late 2023.

It originally had one northbound and one southbound ramp linking the freeway and highway on Ebey Island, and the state combined it with another project to build a northbound high occupancy vehicle lane between Everett and Marysville to save money and mitigate traffic.

But in an Aug. 18 letter, WSDOT Northwest Region Administrator Mike Cotten told the city of Marysville and Snohomish County that work on the southbound ramp from Highway 529 to I-5 in Marysville could be postponed, even as the rest of the project is built. The reason, he wrote, is the price tag is now estimated to be $7.2 million beyond the $89.4 million project budget.

The main factor is the cost to offset the loss of 2.5 acres of wetland during construction. The state hoped to buy credits in an existing wetland mitigation area in Marysville for a small sum. When that didn’t work out, it spent several million dollars to restore about 11.3 acres of estuarine habitat where saltwater and freshwater mix in the Snohomish River near Port Gardner.

“In order to remain within the $89.4 million funding available, the base scope we will advertise will include the northbound improvements,” WSDOT spokesperson Kris Olsen said in an email.

That approach — of doing only some of the project now and the rest later — didn’t sit well with civic leaders. They contend it will result in higher costs for taxpayers and years of added aggravation for drivers.

“It strikes me as penny wise and pound foolish,” Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said.

Concern over the ramp’s postponement prompted Marysville to send a letter, with signatures from Somers, the Snohomish County Council, the mayors of Arlington, Everett, Granite Falls and Lake Stevens, the Port of Everett and the Marysville Tulalip Chamber of Commerce to the state transportation department. It asks the state to include the southbound ramp in the base scope for the project, instead of being optional.

“There’s an urgency in getting this done completely,” Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring said.

On Monday, staff for Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, spoke with Cotten and other WSDOT officials about the situation. Hobbs said he is gathering details on the higher costs and options going forward.

“This is one of many projects around the state that we’ll have to look at,” he said. “It is going to happen, but it might take slightly longer than they expected.”

As planned, the Department of Transportation will proceed with work that includes the HOV lane between Marine View Drive in Everett and Fourth Street/Highway 528 in Marysville, and a northbound I-5 off-ramp to Highway 529. Currently, the first northbound interstate exit to Marysville links vehicles with Fourth Street/Highway 528, where an average 25,000 vehicles rolled through every day in 2019, according to WSDOT data.

On the Marysville side of I-5, vehicles cross rail lines. When trains come through, traffic backs up at least two intersections, Marysville’s mayor said.

Highway 529 loops underneath I-5 in south Marysville and links Everett’s Broadway and Marysville’s State Avenue. The highway saw a daily average of 34,000 vehicles in 2019. They pour in from cities beyond Marysville and Everett, coming from Arlington, Granite Falls and Lake Stevens.

Those areas have seen steady population growth and development. The stretch of I-5 in south Marysville averaged 132,000 vehicles a day in 2019, according to WSDOT data.

“All you have to do is go to Highway 9 and 528 and watch how many cars turn onto Highway 528 every morning,” Nehring said.

News that the southbound ramp could be delayed due to the overall project’s higher cost surprised Marysville’s mayor and Snohomish County Council Chairman Nate Nehring, who is Mayor Nehring’s son. Neither heard of any issues surrounding project costs until the Aug. 18 letter arrived.

“I think they should be able to do the project on schedule, without delay,” Nate Nehring said. “The residents of Snohomish County have been paying higher gas taxes with the expectation it will be done.”

Delaying the on-ramp would push expenses higher because it would mean mobilizing and demobilizing construction crews twice, he said. With inflation, the added tab could be as much as $10 million in overall costs, Nehring said.

“It doesn’t make fiscal sense to delay for $7.2 million,” which at this point is only an estimate, he said.

WSDOT hasn’t solicited bids on the project yet. That’s supposed to happen in January, with work starting later next year and finishing by the end of 2023.

“We are hopeful that the economic climate in 2021 will encourage interested contractors to submit bids that include the ramp to southbound I-5,” said Olsen, the WSDOT spokesperson. “The northbound improvements, however, will address the significant congestion that drivers regularly experience during the afternoon commute and on weekends.”

Anyone who has driven between Everett and Marysville in the past 15 years knows the northbound lanes are often congested with stopped cars and spurts of movement during weekday afternoons. The southbound morning commutes aren’t a breeze, either.

“Obviously you’re helping people get home at night, but you’re not helping them get out of town without the southbound interchange,” Jon Nehring said.

The highway also is an important freight corridor, especially for the Port of Everett, which relies on Highway 529 to connect to waterfront facilities along the east and west sides of Everett.

“While we are all navigating very challenging financial times, it is vital for economic recovery for transportation projects like the Highway 529/I-5 interchange be moved forward,” Port of Everett CEO Lisa Lefeber said in a statement. “This project offers significant freight mobility and safety improvements for trucks and passengers traveling between Everett’s working waterfront and Marysville. Now is not the time to delay projects that will be necessary as we reopen, recover and maintain a good quality of life in our region.”

For Marysville, which has managed traffic woes due to development, the highway, the interstate and rail lines, there’s also anxiety over a partially lost local investment.

The city spent $13 million on its First Street bypass, a project that widened the road at the expense of several homes and was designed to connect to the new Highway 529 interchange and relieve traffic on Fourth Street. Marysville and the county also paid for the initial interchange justification report that demonstrated the need to the state.

“Marysville and the county put early money in to do the interchange justification report. … That was all local money,” Jon Nehring said.

Ben Watanabe: bwatanabe@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3037; Twitter @benwatanabe.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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