Jolts driving across the Pilchuck River bridge and head-on crashes could become history for a stretch of U.S. 2 between Lake Stevens and Snohomish.
Another $15.6 million state project for highway preservation and safety improvements is to conclude in May with replacement of expansion joints on the Pilchuck River bridge.
And the Washington State Department of Transportation’s $3.1 million project to install concrete median barriers between Bickford Avenue and just east of Highway 9 started last year and wrapped up earlier this month.
Drivers who cross the bridge may have noticed something amiss with the gap onto and off the bridge. The work was intended to be done last summer during the highway’s repaving.
But a mistake in ordering the bridge’s expansion joints required the contractor to ship them back to the New York-based manufacturer, WSDOT project engineer Mark Sawyer said. Then the Midwest storm in late January delayed the joints’ return trip by a couple of weeks. By then, the weather had turned and pushed their replacement, which will require single-lane closures of the bridge, into the last two weekends of May.
Most of those costs are covered by the contractor, but some will be paid by WSDOT.
“Now we’re at a point where putting them back in is quite a lot of work,” Sawyer said. “You put them in a half at a time so you can keep half of the bridge open.”
To install the joints, the bridge must be chipped out, the joints put in and concrete poured around them, then carried into place.
“All of that takes time, so that’s why we’re doing it on a weekend,” Sawyer said. “That’s when we feel like we can best afford having the traveling public have a daytime closure.”
Exposed after repaving last year, the joints are a noticeable dip and rise from the roadway to the bridge and back. People have complained for months.
Those concerns reached Snohomish County Councilman Sam Low’s office, which asked the state about them in early December. WSDOT crews worked on the expansion joints to temporarily address the “bump that was getting many complaints,” according to an email exchange between a WSDOT project engineer and Low’s staff.
The east-west highway mostly has one lane in each direction to carry an estimated 36,000 vehicles per day, according to WSDOT data. That connects people between Everett and Index in Snohomish County and beyond to destinations such as Stevens Pass and Leavenworth.
High speeds and the lack of a physical division between oncoming lanes have led to fatal and serious injury crashes, hence the grim nickname “highway of death.” At least 68 people died on U.S. 2 between Everett and Stevens Pass over 14 years. There were three fatal crashes in 2019 along the highway in Snohomish County, according to state data.
“Obviously it’s a great start,” said Low, who also is a member of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. “We’ve seen a lot of fatalities on U.S. 2.”
Along with the barrier, the medians were widened to four feet and six feet, depending on location. Rumble strips, which alert drivers who drift out of their lane, were added to each side, as well.
“This is an important safety issue for our community,” said state Sen. Steve Hobbs, the Senate’s lead transportation budget writer whose legislative district includes the area. “The numerous collisions that have occurred throughout the (U.S.) 2 corridor are unacceptable and preventable. We must continue prioritizing safety as we make decisions regarding our transportation infrastructure, especially this year with transportation funding levels so sparse. This particular project is high on the list of safety needs and I’m glad it’s part of the equation.”
The concrete separation is a welcome sight to John Hernandez, who lives near Everett. He and his wife drive the highway several times a week to take their daughter to gymnastics training in Monroe.
“I love it and just want to see it continue as far as we can,” he said in an email to The Daily Herald.
Eventually, the state could install the barriers to Fryelands Boulevard in Monroe, but there are no working plans. Extending the median barriers from where they end now to just west of Monroe is estimated to cost over $40 million, according to WSDOT. That work is not funded.
The state plans $17 million worth of improvements between Snohomish and Skykomish starting next year. That funding is from the Legislature’s previous transportation package, Connecting Washington. It includes a two-foot median buffer between Monroe and Sultan, bike and pedestrian improvements along the highway in Monroe, a westbound auxiliary lane or peak-use shoulder at Old Owen Road in Sultan, and pedestrian crossings in Gold Bar and Startup. Some of the 16 projects were proposed during a town hall Low held in 2019.
Hernandez suggested lowering speed limits along the highway where there isn’t a median barrier to 45 mph.
“I mean, what would it take, putting up some new signs and making some change management announcements?” he wrote. “These are not expensive barriers.”
Dropping the speed limit is more complicated than posting new signs, Sawyer said. The state evaluates a road’s collision history, speed that most drivers travel and the geography, and educates drivers before and after the speed changes.
“Lowering a speed limit isn’t going to lower the true speed of the road,” Sawyer said. “You can fool yourself by thinking I can lower the speed and just change the signs and that’s all I have to do. That’s not true. Either you have to make the road feel like it should be driven at a lower speed or do a tremendous amount of enforcement, and we just don’t have enough Washington State Patrol officers.”
Low also said more safety improvements are necessary to reduce fatal and serious injury collisions along the highway. Additionally, people in east Snohomish County for years have asked the state to add capacity and make navigating the area easier. Those living in cities and towns along U.S. 2 can feel trapped at home during weekend traffic, which has worried emergency responders, as well.
In addition to planned improvements next year, Hobbs said investing in multimodal projects, HOV lanes and safety programs such as Target Zero make the highways safer, all of which are funded in his proposed $17.8 billion Forward Washington transportation package debated by lawmakers this session.
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Correction: This story was changed to reflect that John Hernandez and his wife have one daughter.