Asking a large urban center like Seattle to care about the traffic problems of their rural neighbors seems like a stretch. But they really should. In Washington state, U.S. Highway 2 is the northernmost, all-season highway traveling into the Cascade Mountains — taking visitors, many coming from the Seattle area, to a wide variety of hiking, fishing, skiing and other family-friendly recreational areas. It begins in Everett, at Interstate 5 and State Route 529, going east through Stevens Pass.
Seattle’s rural neighbors have long endured stop-and-go traffic on long segments of the two-lane highway, especially over weekends and holidays. For some context, Sultan has less than 6,000 residents, Gold Bar 2,000, and Index fewer than 200. And yet, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), nearly 40,000 vehicles drive on U.S. Highway 2 daily.
Volume has only increased since the start of the pandemic, as more people look for in-state travel destinations. Bumper-to-bumper traffic along U.S. Highway 2 causes visiting drivers to pull off into towns and cities looking for alternate routes — clogging side streets and other county roads. Weekends and holidays are notoriously bad, as residents become trapped in their homes because heavy traffic restricts their ability to commute to work, shop and do child-related activities.
This problem isn’t merely a nuisance, it’s a hazard. A memorial to a 17-year-old killed in a head-on collision on U.S. Highway 2 was recently erected near Gold Bar, encouraging people to drive safely. Long designated the “Highway of Death” because of the high number of fatalities, the road bears several crosses with the names of the deceased as a sad reminder of the dangers.
Last summer, visitors to Big Rock, a popular spot along the South Fork Skykomish River, created an additional safety issue as drivers visiting the area parked illegally along the two-lane highway. This limited access for emergency vehicles. Despite several “no parking” signs posted in Gold Bar, visitors often park on both sides of the road, leaving only one usable lane.
Rescuers and emergency medical personnel called to the area, especially those involved in water searches, are unable to help if they can’t get to people in distress. As Sky Valley Fire Chief Eric Andrews stated in a letter to legislators seeking solutions to traffic in the region, “Sirens and lights are of no use when there is no place for vehicles to pull over and allow emergency vehicles to pass.”
A lot needs to be done on U.S. Highway 2. Although we’re grateful our fellow citizens and neighbors coming from Seattle and other parts of the state can freely enjoy scenic recreational areas, we need their support to get important safety and expansion efforts on U.S. Highway 2 moving forward.
The multibillion-dollar House transportation budget includes more than $6.5 million for the U.S. Highway 2 safety project. That allocation includes a proviso I’ve offered that would authorize WSDOT to conduct a safety and capacity study. Regional growth factors, high traffic volumes and congestion causing backups, resulting in long travel times, would be carefully examined along with ideas on what needs to be done to alleviate high-traffic volumes and congestion.
Now that transportation budget legislation has been approved in both chambers, the spending plans head to a budget conference. Leaders of each caucus will iron out differences in the separate proposals and present a concurrent transportation budget for both chambers to vote on again. For safety reasons, it’s critical this study gets approved and funded. But we need support from our Seattle and other Puget Sound area legislators and residents to do so. Let’s get it passed and kick off these desperately needed changes. It’s the neighborly thing to do.