Snohomish County’s congestion question

Answers needed as more roads approach overload

By WARREN CORNWALL

Herald Writer

Snohomish County roads are failing to keep pace with growth, with congestion so bad in spots that the county isn’t allowing new subdivisions there if they put a lot more cars on the road.

The stretches of county road that raise red flags about congestion have more than doubled in a year and a half, according to a new report from the county’s public works department.

Growth-control advocates say the traffic problems prove their warnings that fast-paced development allowed by county officials is overwhelming the area’s infrastructure.

"This has been building and building," said Sue Adams of the Pilchuck Audubon’s SmartGrowth campaign. "Everybody’s complaining about traffic, but we don’t seem to get over the bump of doing something about it."

But some county officials say the problem lies more with bottlenecks along state highways than with the county’s roads.

"We aren’t at fault. We have been caught in a dilemma," said Gary Nelson, a county councilman often at odds with Adams.

The congestion problems, and the county’s findings, pose serious obstacles to development.

In areas with roads that fail congestion tests, developers building more than a duplex need to show they will add no more than two cars to the problem road during an hour when traffic is usually bad. The areas include much of central Snohomish County, including land around Lake Stevens and Granite Falls, and a piece of the county north and east of Bothell.

If a project crosses the two-car threshold, the county will block the project, allow the developer to build only enough houses to avoid the limit, or make the developer find ways to improve traffic conditions. The restrictions don’t apply to developments approved by the public works department but not built yet.

County traffic engineer Jim Bloodgood said he has fielded up to a dozen calls in the past year from people considering large developments near problem roads.

"They’re saying, ‘Can we move forward?’ And I’m saying, ‘No, you can’t’ " he said.

Adams welcomed the restrictions as a brake on growth that could help ease further pressure on roads, schools and parks. She said county officials should expand it to a countywide, six-month moratorium on new development, while they examine how to deal with infrastructure problems.

"We have to slow this engine down," said Adams, an activist with the Everett-based group that is working with governments to control growth.

David Toyer, Snohomish County director of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish counties, said developers belonging to the group didn’t want to comment on the roads report at this point.

But Nelson was quick to criticize Adams’ proposal.

"All these people are really very loose with everybody else’s property," he said.

Jody McVittie, a citizen activist who unsuccessfully challenged a development near Lake Stevens by saying it would cause too much congestion, said county policies are partly to blame for the sudden crop of problems.

A 1999 county report showed no county roads failed the congestion tests, and 17 sections of road raised concerns. A year and a half later, four road sections had flunked, and the other list had grown to 33.

The congestion test finds out the average traffic speed during rush hour and whether any future road projects could fix the problem.

When county officials decide whether a road is failing, they don’t consider the added impact of developments that are already approved but haven’t been built yet.

The result, she said, is that the county keeps saying road conditions are fine, and giving out housing permits, even when they are bound for gridlock. She likened it to an airline continuing to sell tickets for a flight after it has already sold enough to fill all the seats.

"Not only have you oversold, but you haven’t even made an effort to figure out what you’ve already sold, and you’re still selling new tickets," she said.

Bloodgood said counting the developments that are "in the pipeline" could help alert the county to potential trouble spots. To remedy it, the public works department, along with the county’s planning commission, is considering revising the county code.

The changes would require county officials to consider traffic from future developments that have already been approved, as well as current traffic, when deciding whether a road is too congested to allow further development.

County councilman Dave Somers said he would support looking at future development to decide when roads are at risk.

But Nelson said forecasts can prove wrong, and he worried mistaken predictions would harm landowners.

Both, however, agreed the county needs to approach the state about working together to deal with existing congestion problems.

The most-congested roads all feed onto state highways, and often the problem can be traced to the point where drivers try to get onto the highway, Nelson said.

"The county itself, in concert with other cities and other counties, needs to get the Department of Transportation to fulfill their obligations," he said.

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