MARYSVILLE — Last year, the holiday season in Smokey Point meant more than lights, decorations and festivities. Like never before, it meant traffic.
A new shopping center, Lakewood Crossing, opened just before the holiday season, bringing the mixed blessing of jobs, money, traffic and growth.
The anchor stores, Costco and Target, added 13,000 vehicles per day during the worst of the holiday crunch, choking traffic in a two-block stretch off 172nd Street NE west of I-5.
Bob Banks was one of the unlucky shoppers who got wedged in the bottleneck.
“It just absolutely boggles my mind that this could be even permitted in any kind of planning process,” said Banks, a retiree who lives in north Marysville.
And since last year, 18 stores have opened in the same shopping center.
Banks and others have called for a quick-and-easy solution of building a new onramp onto southbound I-5.
“Give me a bulldozer, a couple cases of beer, a few good friends and we’ll fix this baby,” he said.
City officials say it’s not that simple.
Lakewood Crossing is the biggest example of a long-growing traffic issue in the larger Smokey Point area. The question is whether roads can be built fast enough to keep pace with all the businesses, homes and cars that keep coming to this area.
City officials and businesspeople are confident that plans for building millions of dollars of new roads and expanding existing ones will deal with the traffic problems in the future.
As for Lakewood Crossing, they say short-term fixes already have relieved congestion and no complaints were heard Thanksgiving weekend.
“The traffic over this past weekend was much better” than at the same time last year, said Gene Dunlap, general manager for the Lakewood Crossing Costco store.
Residents remain skeptical, saying the worst traffic didn’t occur until the last couple of weeks of holiday shopping.
“It’s not Christmas yet,” said JoAnn DeLazzari, 59, who lives in the Crystal Tree Village mobile home park, near Lakewood Crossing.
It’s also been bad at other times throughout the year, she said. DeLazzari and others point out that most of the road fixes won’t be made for at least two years.
“We actually have people here in the park who are moving out because they can’t endure the traffic situation,” she said.
A chicken-and-egg series of developments has helped hatch growth in Smokey Point, at one time largely farmland between Arlington and Marysville.
In the 1980s, business owners pitched in to pay for widening some of the main roads, which brought in more stores. A decade later, the two cities expanded and grew together at Smokey Point.
Later, residents from new housing developments to the east near Arlington and to the west in Warm Beach and Seven Lakes found Smokey Point to be a convenient place to shop and get on and off the freeway.
“It’s market-driven,” said Bill Binford, a real estate investor who owns 112 acres in the Smokey Point and Lakewood areas.
Some who live in the area say the growth is now really taking off.
“That area’s booming,” said Jeff Stone, who lives in a housing development at 168th Street NE near Smokey Point Boulevard, east of I-5. “Just in two years it’s exploded there.”
At Smokey Point Boulevard and 172nd Street NE, east of I-5 from Lakewood Crossing, traffic has grown 40 percent in the past 10 years. The number of vehicles driving through the intersection increased from 20,000 per day in 1997 to about 28,000 this year, according to city and state figures. It’s expected to grow to more than 35,000 per day by 2040.
Right now, Stone said, a perception is that “a majority of us are driving on roads that were built for farm equipment.”
Officials and businesspeople believe the traffic plans that call for new and expanded roads will be able to handle the load.
“We’re very, very excited and optimistic about what’s happening out here,” said Becky Foster, co-owner of Bruce and Becky’s Interiors at 156th Street NE and Smokey Point Boulevard.
Foster is co-chairwoman of the TRAP group, short for Transportation Relief Action Plan. That assembly of businesspeople, officials and residents fought for and won a $9 million rebuild of the 172nd Street NE bridge over I-5 in 2005.
The new bridge eased congestion, but more traffic is coming.
A Wal-Mart planned for 172nd Street NE at 43nd Avenue NE east of I-5 in Arlington is expected to dump an average of more than 1,000 additional cars per day onto surrounding streets when it is built within the next two years. And 172nd Street NE is still only two lanes east of where the store would be located.
Throughout Smokey Point, there are large tracts of empty land zoned for business parks or commercial development.
Two possible developments could pour thousands of cars into the traffic mix each day.
A University of Washington branch campus is being planned for Snohomish County. A study recently recommended a site near the Everett Transit Station, but the Marysville site was listed as the next-best option. A final decision is yet to be made.
And a large development company is floating plans to build as many as 6,000 new homes near Lake Goodwin, just a few miles west of Smokey Point.
It’s good for business, and the cities that collect sales taxes.
By the end of 2007, Marysville expects to take in $8 million in sales-tax revenue for the year, up $1.3 million from the year before. In 2008, that number is expected to increase by $1.7 million more, city finance director Sandy Langdon said.
Business brings traffic. Congestion is bad enough as it is, some say.
Stone said he often has trouble getting from his home out onto Smokey Point Boulevard because of congestion that he sees everyday.
“It’s ‘Oh, gosh, I’ve got to fight this again,’ ” said Stone, 47, a Navy chief petty officer who commutes to Oak Harbor.
Lakewood Crossing was conceived by Powell Development of Bellevue. It dovetailed perfectly with Marysville’s plan to add commercial areas to build its tax base, to help it eventually serve large, unincorporated residential areas that lie within the city’s logical expansion area.
The first store, Costco, opened in September 2006. Target opened later in that year.
Then came the holiday season.
The stores and more than 200 homes in the mobile home park and another housing development, along with visitors to Gissberg Twin Lakes Park, share one road outlet — 27th Avenue NE onto 172nd Street NE. With no way out to the south, drivers during last year’s holidays sometimes took 30 minutes or more to drive the two blocks from the stores to get onto 172nd Street NE.
“The last two weeks before Christmas (last year) were hellacious,” DeLazzari said.
Traffic at 172nd Street NE and 27th Avenue NE increased by more than 13,000 trips per day after Costco and Target opened at Lakewood Crossing. This nearly doubled the previous count of 16,000 per day at the intersection. A 2005 consultant study predicted 14,000 trips per day would be added when the entire shopping center is built out.
The study said that while the increase would be substantial, the roads would be able to handle it.
“The proposed project’s impacts on the local transportation network are not significant,” the study concluded.
The study also called for eliminating a right-turn-only lane on 172nd Street NE onto I-5 based on the theory it wouldn’t be needed in the future.
But removing the right-turn only lane not only didn’t work, it compounded the problem, city officials agreed. They pushed the state to add back the right-turn lane, which was done in August at Powell Development’s expense.
Marysville city engineer Kevin Nielsen said the report went wrong in its assumptions about drivers’ behavior, miscalculating how long it would take them to adjust to the congestion around the shopping area.
“Some of the assumptions on who was going where probably weren’t detailed enough in the report,” Nielsen said.
Traffic projections are an inexact science and are based on an average throughout the year, he said.
If every shopping center were built based on traffic at holiday time, “you’d have a four-lane highway going to it,” Nielsen said.
To also help ease traffic this year, the city restriped 27th Avenue NE to create a right-turn only lane onto 172nd Street NE and a right-turn option from the center lane.
City officials believe the right-turn lane and other measures will help the shopping area as much as it can be helped in the holiday season.
“It’s bad everywhere at Christmas,” city administrator Mary Swenson said.
Dunlap, the Costco manager, said businesses have pitched in for overtime pay for a Marysville police officer to direct traffic at the intersection of 27th Avenue NE and Twin Lakes Boulevard.
The major fix planned for Lakewood is a $13.6 million bridge over I-5 at 156th Street NE, connecting Twin Lakes Boulevard and Smokey Point Boulevard. This would create an outlet to the south. Construction is planned for 2009 and 2010.
DeLazzari and other mobile-home park residents, many of them seniors, have vented at elected officials over the issue, and are frustrated with what they say is a lack of response.
With the bridge at least two years away, Banks and others have suggested building an onramp from Twin Lakes Boulevard at Costco or 156th Street NE onto southbound I-5.
Federal highway regulations prevent building an onramp within a mile of another interchange, city officials have said. And because of those regulations, it would take longer to get federal approval for an onramp than the bridge, Nielsen said.
The residents like having the stores nearby, but still need other services.
“Give us a doctor and a fire department and we would be just thrilled to death,” DeLazzari said. If the bottleneck prevents medical aid from getting to a resident in trouble, she said, “then we’re going to be down to lawyers involved.”
Developers and local governments have six years to build roads to catch up with specific large developments under Washington law, according to state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, whose district includes Smokey Point.
“It should be the other way around,” she said. The Legislature is discussing the issue, Haugen said, but revenue-starved cities can’t afford to build all the roads. Fees charged developers result in roads being built after the fact, and cities can’t afford to scare developers off with fees that are too high, she said.
“They’re maxed out,” Haugen said.
Marysville Mayor Dennis Kendall said commercial development has its pluses and minuses. It brings more jobs, more people and generates money to help serve those people — including for the road system, he said.
On the other hand, without development, “the streets wouldn’t be as bad because we wouldn’t have as many cars,” he said.
Powell Development paid $2.1 million in development fees for Lakewood Crossing. Last year, after the shopping center was built, the city increased the fees it charges builders for transportation and other services. It also added a provision that half of the increase in sales-tax revenue each year go into a services pot that includes transportation, which means $700,000 in 2007 and $800,000 in 2008.
Foster, who is with the business group that is pushing for better roads, say it’s important to think long-term. Many property owners stand ready to pitch in for more road improvements through special assessments.
“We’ve never been shy about doing what needs to be done to improve this community,” she said.
Nielsen, the city traffic engineer, said the area is going through growing pains.
“I’m sure it will get better with other roads connecting in the future,” he said.
For residents who drive through the traffic every day, two years seems like a long way off.
Short of the bulldozer and the beer, “I don’t know what the answer to it is,” Banks said. “It’s a difficult thing and it’s going to take a lot of money to fix it.”
Reporter Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439 or email@example.com.
Funded road projects
Following are road projects in the Smokey Point area that have been funded. Others are planned as development occurs, with builders footing all or part of the bill.
State Avenue (Smokey Point Boulevard) 136th Street NE to 152nd Street NE, widen to five lanes
Cost: $9 million
Estimated completion: 2008
Loop ramp from westbound 172nd Street NE to southbound I-5
Cost: $14.9 million
Estimated completion: 2010
I-5 bridge at 156th Street NE, connecting Twin Lakes Boulevard and Smokey Point Boulevard
Cost: $13.6 million
Estimated completion: 2010
Traffic signal at 51st Avenue NE and 152nd Street NE
Cost: $1.4 million
Estimated completion: 2011