Study to examine Mountain Loop Highway improvements

A car makes its way through a winding unpaved section of the Mountain Loop Highway 15 miles outside of Darrington. (Jennifer Buchanan / Herald file)

DARRINGTON — The U.S. Forest Service and Snohomish County are getting $500,000 to research whether paving 14 miles of dirt and gravel road on the Mountain Loop Highway is a realistic option.

A study is planned to look at improvements along stretches of the 55-mile Mountain Loop, a winding road that skirts mountains and follows rivers and streams on a route that connects Granite Falls and Darrington.

The focus is on the 14 unpaved miles, mostly single-lane, that run from Barlow Pass nearly to Darrington. The goal is to examine the environmental and economic consequences of improving that portion of the Loop. Options include paving, widening, rerouting or leaving the road as is. Other possible projects, such as a turn lane at the Verlot Ranger Station, may be reviewed as well.

Proponents of paving the rest of the Loop say it would provide better, safer access to a popular recreation area and create an alternate route for people who live in Darrington, Granite Falls or along the route. They point to the Oso mudslide in 2014, when the main highway to and from Darrington was impassable and detour options were limited and lengthy.

Opponents have expressed concern that significant construction, especially paving, would be harmful for the environment, particularly along the Upper Sauk River. The road work and likely increase in traffic afterward could harm water and air quality and destroy habitat, they say.

Those are the types of issues the study is meant to examine. It doesn’t mean any final decisions have been made. This is the first step in a number of requirements that would need to be met before work could begin, said Darrington district Ranger Peter Forbes of the U.S. Forest Service.

“There isn’t going to be any ground disturbance associated with this project,” he said. “This is purely looking at what-if kind of scenarios and making determinations about potential impacts.”

The next phase, if the project moved forward, would be an environmental analysis.

“We’re a long, long ways from even having that conversation,” Forbes said.

The study is being paid for with the $500,000 grant from the Washington Federal Lands Access Program.

Improvements to the Loop could help boost the economy in the Stillaguamish Valley, where thousands of visitors come for outdoor recreation each year, Snohomish County Councilman Ken Klein said in a news release. He said he was thrilled to see the study funded and calls the Loop a crucial link between rural communities.

Work has not started yet on the research. It should take about a year to complete. The grant was announced last week.

The study is expected to look at details such as where the Loop runs now and whether other routes would be safer or less damaging if pavement is put down. The research should weigh access and safety benefits with environmental costs, including impacts on fish through possible increased sediment in the water, Forbes said.

The Darrington Area Resource Advocates have been in support of paving the Loop for several years. In an email Thursday, group organizers said they were happy to share news of the grant and plan to spread the word and continue their support.

This isn’t the first time officials have looked at paving the remainder of the Loop. More than two decades ago, a proposal to continue paving farther up the road after the stretch from Darrington to White Chuck Road was finished met with opposition from groups worried about environmental damage. At the time, there wasn’t enough support on either end of the Loop to push forward.

In 2014, the Granite Falls City Council and Darrington Town Council passed resolutions in support of revisiting the idea of paving the rest of the scenic byway. Improvements to the Mountain Loop Highway also have become part of an economic recovery plan for the Stillaguamish Valley that was put together after the Oso mudslide.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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