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Highway 2 pain not going away anytime soon

We know a lot of you are heading out for Labor Day Weekend, and that means you are going to be stuck in horrible traffic coming home, especially on westbound Highway 2. That highway is a weekly nightmare for people returning from the Cascades and beyond.

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KIRO listener Bryan sent me a note a few weeks ago detailing his ridiculous drive home on a Sunday afternoon after rock-climbing near Index. He wrote it took him more than 2 hours to go the roughly 12 miles to the west end of Sultan. That weekend chokepoint is one of the worst in the region, rivaling the I-5 NB slog out of Olympia every Sunday. It’s a nightmare.

So what’s behind it?

The Washington Department of Transportation said it’s a combination of regional growth, a small mountain highway, and other construction projects in the state.

“There’s a lot of recreational travel going on, combined with the huge traffic boom we’ve had in the Seattle-area,” said WSDOT’s Travis Phelps. “I think a lot of people want to get out of town.”

But he believes it’s the diversion from all the construction on I-90 east of Snoqualmie Pass that has transformed Highway 2 into the crawl it has become.

“It’s a really easy shortcut for a lot of folks on I-90 to cut-over on Highway 97 and take U.S. 2 over,” Phelps said. “The problem is U.S. 2 is a two-lane highway that doesn’t have a lot of capacity, especially out near Index and Skykomish, and it really tends to bottle up fast.”

Most drivers, like KIRO listener Bryan, blame the traffic signals in Sultan as the primary cause for the bumper to bumper traffic. Phelps said it’s not that simple.

“You take those out and there’s another symptom,” he said. “You have folks held hostage in those parts of town. Signals are hitting their capacity, but really, the entire road is at capacity. You’re still going to feel that congestion even if there was a different type of timing in place and probably even if we pulled them out and installed something different.”

If you can handle the more than 2 hour wait times for a few more years, the state is going to put $17 million into improving that stretch of Highway 2, and drivers will be able to give engineers ideas on changes.

“We’re going to be engaging communities up and down the corridor to find the best ways to use this type of money,” Phelps said. “We want to make sure it’s going to serve the commuters that travel through there on a daily basis, as well as taking into account that Stevens Pass traffic. But it’s not going to be an easy fix.”

That outreach will begin in 2019, and construction on whatever the state decides to do won’t begin until 2022.

I have also been asked why the state can’t just widen the highway. The answer from the state is all about money. It would be incredibly expensive to do it because of the terrain and environmental concerns along the corridor.


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