Interstate 90 over Snoqualmie Pass, Washington’s main east-west artery, opened Sunday evening after being closed for nearly four days by a major winter storm.
Blewett Pass on Highway 97, which connects I-90 and Highway 2, also opened at 5 p.m. Sunday. The Washington State Department of Transportation said ahead of the openings that the roads would be open to freight traffic, and general and recreational travel should continue to be delayed.
The state agency, dealing with heavy snow, ice, avalanches and debris that has closed four of the state’s main mountain passes, implored drivers not to exceed the 45 mph speed limit.
Crews cleared two narrow lanes on the highway, bounded on each side by high banks of compact snow and ice. With the shoulders closed (as well as most exit ramps, chain-up areas and restroom facilities), any crash would block the road until aid arrived, WSDOT said.
Highway 2 over Stevens Pass, another major east-west route, will probably not reopen before Wednesday. White Pass was on track to open Monday afternoon, WSDOT said Sunday.
After a major multiday operation to alleviate avalanche danger and clear feet of snow, fallen trees and other debris from I-90, crews made the 3,022-foot mountain freeway passable, albeit with major restrictions.
“Because of those factors, all drivers need to be prepared to cross the pass without stopping. There will be no safe areas in order to stop until you cross the pass,” the agency said.
Limited opening brings frustration
WDOT’s announcement Sunday afternoon that the passes would be limited to freight traffic brought frustration for some. On social media, some people expressed gratitude for the crew’s work, while others said they wished the announcement that the road would only be open to freight traffic was made earlier.
Margaret Solomon from Kenmore said her son, who drove home from college for winter break, had originally planned to drive through the pass after he heard of its opening on Saturday. After WSDOT said the opening was limited to freight traffic on Sunday afternoon, Solomon said her son chose to drive eight hours through Portland.
“Now I am nervously waiting, hoping my 18-year-old will get to school safely, driving the longest drive he has ever done solo, in the dark,” she said Sunday.
Julia Yetter, an attorney from Twisp, said she had been stuck on the western side of the state after taking her dog Jaws to get surgery staples removed from his knee in Olympia last week. Waiting from North Bend, she asked other attorneys whether she could legally cross the pass.
Yetter said she needs to get home to clear the snow off the roof of her carport.
In an interview Sunday evening, WSDOT spokesperson Meagan Lott acknowledged that the priority for freight travel is a suggestion and unenforceable.
Nevertheless, Lott urged that general travelers delay their trips to clear the backlog of commercial freight that has accumulated over nearly four days and to decrease the chance of an accident.
“There is no room for driver error. If we have one vehicle that decides to go too fast, spins out, blocks lanes, we’re going to have to close the pass again,” she said.
Easton resident Nicole Stone said there has been a shortage of groceries throughout Kittitas County as the pass closure has limited access to food and gas. She also said that tourists and semitrucks trying to pass through have complicated plowing.
“Unnecessary travel has been detrimental to our communities during this time, and the lack of freight traffic has been even more so,” she said.
The pass closure also brought unexpected business to truck stops and hotels.
Mike Gentile, the manager of the North Bend Motel, said all 17 rooms of the motel have been fully booked for the last four days. Winter is typically a slow time of the year. Many of his guests live east of the Cascades, but were either working or seeking medical care in Seattle when they got stranded on the west side of the pass.
At the Flying J truck stop in Ellensburg, where long-haul drivers take showers, eat meals and do laundry, assistant manager Tavia Toussaint said every parking spot has been filled and business has been “crazy.” Drivers have been getting cooped up and irritated, waiting each day for an estimated opening time, she said.
“It’s got to be really frustrating just sitting here, losing money,” Toussaint said.
More snow headed to Washington
Some 30,000 vehicles traverse Snoqualmie Pass on a typical day. The closure impacted cross-state travel and commerce.
Highway 2 remained closed Sunday evening from milepost 55 to milepost 99 at the west end of snowbound Leavenworth “due to heavy snow accumulation and extreme avalanche danger,” according to WSDOT. Snow slides as high as 70 feet, 4 inches of ice on the roadway, and power and cell service outages at the 4,061-foot summit, are complicating work to reopen the route.
An “atmospheric river” weather system arriving Tuesday is expected to bring heavy rain to the Olympic Peninsula and more snow to the mountains, but snow levels, at least initially, are likely to be higher than the passes, according to the National Weather Service.
The last time all four passes were closed simultaneously was 13 years ago. During that closure, Jan. 7-10, 2009, Snoqualmie and White were closed for all four days, while Stevens and Blewett each closed for two days, according to WSDOT.
The Chehalis River remained under a flood warning Sunday morning, according to the NWS, but Interstate 5 has been open since Friday and waters were receding. Floods across the state closed portions of highways in Grays Harbor County and Thurston County.
Northbound I-5 near DuPont, Pierce County, reopened Sunday morning after lane closures overnight for emergency pothole repairs.
Seattle saw a rare sunny day on Sunday, but a pair of weather systems could bring rain on Monday and Tuesday, according to the weather service. The second system has the potential to bring heavy rain — as much as 5 to 7 inches — to the coast and Olympic Mountains, which could again cause river flooding. The Seattle area, expected to be in the rain shadow, could see 1 to 2 inches of rain.
The system is expected to bring more snow to the Cascades, which have received copious amounts this year. An additional 6 inches fell at Snoqualmie Pass on Saturday, bringing the total for the season to more than 24 feet, nearly twice the five-year average for this point in winter. (The snowpack on the ground at the pass Sunday was about 8 feet.)
The weather system is expected to bring warmer temperatures Tuesday morning, likely raising snow levels above both Snoqualmie and Stevens passes, said Mary Butwin, National Weather Service meteorologist in Seattle. However, a convergence zone that often follows the passage of this type of weather system could set up over one of the passes Wednesday, boosting snow accumulations at pass levels.
Skiers eager to schuss through all the fresh snow will have to keep an eye on the resorts. The Summit at Snoqualmie Pass remained closed Sunday but said it may reopen Monday.