GRANITE FALLS — Nearly two years ago researchers started to look into paving parts of the Mountain Loop Highway, a byway that meanders through the wilderness between two mountain towns.
Now the study is complete.
Soon after researchers began to look at nearly 40 miles of the road, with a focus on the 14-mile unpaved section.
The findings were presented during meetings last week in Darrington and Granite Falls. In all, more than 60 people attended the two sessions.
They learned about four different options, with a wide range of prices.
To maintain the gravel roads as-is would cost about $112,000 each year. The most expensive option, to completely pave and almost double the width of the roadway, could reach an estimated $70 million.
While the highway administration didn’t make any recommendations, project manager Jeff Key gave his opinion during the Granite Falls meeting Wednesday. He’s president of the civil engineering firm Robert Peccia & Associates.
The most extreme option would be to completely reconstruct the roadway and bring the speed limit up to about 40 mph.
Key doesn’t think that idea should move forward.
“I personally feel that leaving it exactly the way it is should drop off, too,” he said.
Currently the roadway is 16 to 22 feet wide and does not drain water very well, leaving potholes all over the road. It’s only comfortable to drive about 20 mph in that area.
Next, the county and forest service have to work together to choose what the highway could look like and then find funding.
They could request the same grant that paid for the study, called the Washington Federal Lands Access Program. Applications are due in May.
That may be a possibility, said Steve Dickson, the county’s transportation and environmental services director.
“It’s going to take some time for the county to review the recommendations and discuss with the forest service what the options are, get input from our county elected officials and reach some decisions,” he said.
For decades there have been talks about paving the Mountain Loop.
Some have said that a smoother path would bring in more tourism dollars to small towns near the route, and that it would be another point for emergency access.
That issue generated a lot of discussion after the 2014 Oso mudslide, when the closure of Highway 530 forced many drivers to and from Darrington to detour through Skagit County.
Others have been worried about negative effects the work could have on the forest. There are also concerns with natural hazards along the highway, such as slides, that could make construction and maintenance difficult.
The finished study is expected to be handed over to the county and Forest Service by the end of the month.