Freight Infrastructure Fixes Needed Sooner, Say Washington State Stakeholders

Freight Infrastructure Fixes Needed Sooner, Say Washington State Stakeholders
A growing bottleneck at the interchange of State Route 18 with Interstate 90, west of Snoqualmie Pass, is adding delays and costs for truckers and shippers. A large volume of goods are conveyed annually between Eastern Washington and ports and distributors in Greater Seattle and Tacoma using I-90 and SR 18. Stakeholders would like to see design begin sooner than 2023, as currently planned, on a state project to ease the choke point. Seen here: a traffic stand-still on I-90 near Snoqualmie Pass. Photo: Chuck Taylor.

A planned fix to one of metro Puget Sound’s most glaring truck freight bottlenecks is taking too long to unfold and needs implementation sooner, according at least one state lawmaker and trucking industry officials.

State Rep. Jay Rodne (R-5) says that moving up the timeline for a fix to the often-chronic and costly congestion at the interchange of Interstate 90 and State Route 18 in King County is much needed, and could involve more state-issued bonds or higher project prioritization by state lawmakers. Other legislative sources say that either would be a heavy lift.

As things stand now, design won’t start until 2023.

$500 Billion Yearly In Goods Via Snoqualmie Pass

At stake is a big slice of a busy freight corridor’s goods.

Each year, 10 million freight trucks carrying $500 billion worth of interstate, import, and export goods move through Snoqualmie Pass on I-90, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).

Between I-90 and I-5, many of those trucks use the key 28-mile stretch that is SR 18 to reach the Port of Tacoma or nearby freight forwarders. However, the road and its interchange with I-90 are increasingly overloaded.

Commerce ‘Slowed To A Trickle’

“Just from firsthand experience I know how significant the problem is,” said Rodne. “Sometimes it takes 20-30 minutes on a bad…day. Commerce has been slowed down to a trickle. People are getting frustrated, and commuters are seeing exceedingly long wait times to get through.”

The state’s $16 billion Connecting Washington transportation package passed in 2015 includes a $150 million improvement project to increase road capacity at that interchange, but the design phase is not slated to start until 2023.

The effects of congestion on commerce and safety are why the beginning of work needs to be pushed up to 2019, Rodne argued in a newsletter this week. A Snoqualmie resident, Rodne told Lens that “I don’t think we can wait…while the growth continues unabated.”

Rodne wrote he has already met with WSDOT Secretary Roger Millar to discuss the proposal, although he acknowledges he will have to convince legislative colleagues of the need to act sooner.

Traffic Volume And Safety Concerns Growing

A WSDOT annual report found that the average daily traffic volume on SR 18 where it crosses the Issaquah-Hobart Road has increased from 22,000 to 25,000 vehicles between 2012 and 2015. In 2000, that same segment had an average of 19,000 daily vehicles.

The added traffic and inadequate road capacity can create mile-long backups along the I-90 interchange and increase the potential for traffic incidents. In September, a severe accident involving two pickups and a semi-truck shut down SR 18 for four hours. A similar accident in July near the interchange shut down eastbound I-90 for several hours.

Truckers Cite Delays And Added Costs

The clogged interchange also lengthens delivery times and raises transportation costs for truckers. That’s according to Mike Hobby, Communications Manager at Oak Harbor Freight. The regional trucking company has terminals on both sides of the Cascades and has approximately eight daily scheduled trips that rely on SR 18. He added that the sooner the interchange improvements can be made, the better for truckers.

The view is shared by Sheri Call, president of the Washington Trucking Associations (WTA). She told Lens that interchange improvement is among the top two most important projects for WTA in Central Puget Sound. The other encompasses freight network improvements to connect State Route 509 with I-5 and extend State Route 167 across I-5 to the Port of Tacoma.

Although state-based truckers are adapting to anticipated choke-points such as the SR 18/I-90 interchange, and they try to avoid peak-hour traffic, “in my mind it needs to be pushed forward,” Call said.

Timeline Changes Would Pose Challenge

WSDOT can make minor improvements to the interchange by including more road striping, lighting, and signage. Expediting the project would require either additional bonding authority from lawmakers to appropriate needed revenue earlier, or higher placement on the 2015 transportation spending package priority list.

Both of these ideas would face big hurdles, said Rep. Jake Fey (D-27). Fey is the co-vice chair of the House Transportation Committee.

Fey said any proposed modification to the Connecting Washington priority list for the sake of the SR 18/I-90 interchange “would be likely to be at the sacrifice of another project.”

“That makes it problematic,” Fey added. “I wouldn’t say absolutely no, but my initial thought would be it’s something that’s going to be difficult.”

Fey added that although the state could issue more bonds, doing that “has its own set of problems” and the state is moving away from using additional bonding authority to pay for transportation projects.

Despite these hurdles, Rodne believes other lawmakers will support the effort when they realize how much traffic conditions within the SR 18/I-90 corridor ultimately affect their districts. “I think it (the interchange) has a regional significance and we’re really going to use the regional impacts as justification,” he said.

Another pressing freight and commuter infrastructure project in the state, according to lawmakers, employers and regional officials, is the sidetracked effort to replace the dangerously-designed, aging and seismically vulnerable twinned bridges across the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon. A renewed effort to get the project back on track is expected in 2017.

Meanwhile, major employers earlier this year banded together in a new regional advocacy group called Challenge Seattle to promote public and private sector solutions to the chronic traffic congestion bedeviling Central Puget Sound. The group’s agenda includes attacking freight bottlenecks, growing ride-sharing, and advancing further consideration of a utility-based approach to charging for road usage.

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