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Highway 9 in Lake Stevens strains under a suburban boom

September 7, 2019

LAKE STEVENS, Wash. (AP) — Tom Thumb Espresso used to open at 5 a.m., until a couple years ago when baristas noticed their drive-through customers showing up sooner. Now the coffee flows at 4:30.

“People just complain about having to leave super early to get anywhere,” said manager Kaile Sandifer. “Most of our rush is before 6, especially when school starts. It’s really hard to get out of Lake Stevens.”

For residents of this fast-growing community 35 miles north of Seattle, big-city traffic along Highway 9 is a daily burden. Similar congestion reaches other towns that also border the urban growth boundary, such as Monroe, Sammamish, Sumner and Maple Valley.

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, Kemper Development Co., NHL Seattle, PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company and Seattle Children’s hospital. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

Two-thirds of commutes in the Puget Sound metro region are still made by solo drivers, despite a dramatic shift toward transit in downtown Seattle. Vehicle miles increased statewide this decade, one reason Washington has failed to meet carbon reduction goals.

Highway 9 in Lake Stevens leads north to Marysville and south through Snohomish. It has evolved from a predominantly two-lane road in the 1980s, to four lanes in some places and seven lanes at big intersections — an unofficial freeway.

More than 90 percent of employed Lake Stevens residents work somewhere else, a U.S. Census survey shows. Travelers guess whether a Highway 9 trip into King County will beat taking Interstate 5 via the Highway 2 trestle to Everett, which now carries more traffic than Seattle’s Aurora Bridge.

“When the trestle was jammed, Highway 9 was an option,” said Lake Stevens Mayor John Spencer, a utilities consultant who commuted to Seattle and Bellevue. “It could be one hour in good traffic, in the early to mid-’90s — and then 9 started not being so good.”

A morning drive to Bellevue averages 60 to 65 minutes, while a peak commute home ranges from 69 to 72 minutes, according to September 2018 data from INRIX, a transportation data and navigation company. Drives to Seattle averaged 36 minutes at 5 a.m., but nearly doubled by 7 a.m.

With some consternation, Snohomish County residents have watched King County soak up billions of dollars for bridges, tunnels and light-rail lines.

“At a state level, through the Legislature, I just feel like we haven’t gotten the love,” said County Executive Dave Somers.

The momentum could soon shift.

First, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) will spend $70 million to build roundabouts by 2023 to move traffic through the vast junction of Highways 9 and 204, and improve access to the Frontier Village shopping center.

The main event could come later: a proposed $1.5 billion project to replace and expand the aging two-lane Highway 2 westbound trestle. Tolls might be included.

The project’s main champion is Lake Stevens’ own Sen. Steve Hobbs, a centrist Democrat who became chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee in 2018.

Other lawmakers have nominated their own projects, from Moclips to Mount Spokane. Hobbs this year published a statewide project list and a $17 billion revenue plan that includes higher fuel taxes. The proposal, called Forward Washington, did not reach a vote, but he said he’ll try again next year.

Highway 2 is the second-largest road priority in the package, trailing only a nearly $3.2 billion new I-5 Columbia River bridge shared with Oregon.

A roundabout solution

WSDOT and local leaders say traffic signals are no longer adequate for the big Lake Stevens intersection, where drivers often wait through more than one green-light cycle.

At first, the state proposed a standard diamond interchange, to lower and widen Highway 9 to three lanes each direction, topped by a Highway 204 overpass.

Then the agency learned the water table was only 10 feet below surface, adding an extra $30 million unless the state built view-obstructing overhead structures.

So last winter, officials shifted gears toward roundabouts. A pair on Highway 9 would have two lanes each, plus a bypass lane for right turns into Highway 204 toward Everett. Two smaller circles would be built on connector streets.

Washington state has 430 roundabouts, more than 80 multilane, said Brian Walsh, state traffic design engineer. Seattle has none.

The closest comparison to the Lake Stevens project is the Highway 20 roundabout entering Anacortes, which has the same traffic volumes as Highway 204 into Lake Stevens.

“You used to have to wait three lights to get through,” said James Jelvik, a Lake Stevens transmission shop owner who recently visited Anacortes. “It works great.”

Spencer said he’s heard some resistance by older drivers. But he grew to support roundabouts, after reflecting upon the Cascades vista out his windshield, at the end of a slow trip home.

“There were many, many times I was absolutely frustrated, and asked myself many, many times why I located here,” Spencer recalled. “Then I get home and look out at the mountains. You can see Whitehorse, Three Fingers and Pilchuck right there. It was absolutely stunning. That was one reason I told WSDOT, ‘You are absolutely not building an overpass there.’ ”

Multiple-lane roundabouts in Washington state caused a 9 percent increase in crashes, but injuries declined 32 percent, according to a 2009-15 study for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

“If you have one vehicle that collides with another, it’s a sideswipe rather than broadside or T-bone, or rear end,” said WSDOT spokesman Bart Treece.

The state’s blog post announcing the new plan attracted naysayers. “You are asking for a nightmare,” one commenter said. “Putting in roundabouts would add more pressure to side streets as people try to avoid them.”

Researchers in Whatcom County found public approval for roundabouts improved from 34 percent to 70 percent after a year’s experience, but older drivers frequently detoured.

Land is already being cleared to add a lane each in direction on Highway 9 south of the future roundabout, but new retail development will add even more traffic, including a Costco with 850 parking stalls.

“Not enough ways to get out of here”

Drivers often mention wanting a four-lane road with a center divider, “more like Snohomish County’s conduit,” all the way from Arlington to Woodinville, said Matt Tabor, managing director of the Lake Stevens Chamber of Commerce.

“They’re building so many houses and apartments, and there’s just not enough ways to get out of here for everyone,” said Sandifer, the coffee-stand manager. “I’m 23 now, and since I started driving at 16, it’s gotten so much worse.”

If the Hobbs plan prevails, Highway 9 would get another $58 million to widen to four lanes a small segment near Snohomish. Less than half the 17-mile stretch between Lake Stevens and King County is four lanes now.

Environmental advocates say states should halt highway growth and pivot to a low-driving, low-carbon future. That requires more apartments, triplexes and cottages throughout residential neighborhoods, said Michael Andersen, housing and traffic researcher for Sightline Institute.

“Let’s be honest, the main reason for a major population boom in Lake Stevens — and for a large increase in freeway trips — is that North Seattle and every suburb in between aren’t making enough housing legal closer to the big job centers, so people are forced to drive until they qualify,” Andersen said.

Light rail won’t reach Everett, a 6-mile trip from Lake Stevens, until 2036.

Hobbs emphasizes his plan allocates more than $1 billion to maintenance, along with targeted lane additions through bottlenecks like Interstate 405 in Bothell and bridge replacements. Another $3.5 billion would pay for court-ordered removal of road structures that block fish streams.

“It’s not really about building new roads, we’re talking existing roads to withstand earthquakes. We’re meeting growth,” he said. “If density is going to happen, it brings more cars, and more people, so you have to increase infrastructure.

“My response to environmentalists and my friends to the political left of me? If we have buses they go on roads, and if you want to get your organic food (to) PCC, you need a truck.”

County Executive Somers, a Monroe-area resident, said traffic jams require some relief for the foreseeable future. He noted that his Chevy Volt has sipped only 80 gallons of gas to go 38,000 miles, relying mainly on electric batteries.

“That’s a solution, but I’m stuck in traffic,” Somers said.

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