Tuesday afternoon, October 28, 2014, along the SR 18 approach to I-90, two semis and a minivan collided. It was a major accident, with one semi rear-ending the van, leaving it almost unrecognizable. The 81-year old minivan driver was airlifted to the hospital in critical condition.
SR 18 was closed between Issaquah Hobart Road and I-90 for roughly three hours. That closure created a traffic nightmare for much of the day, with alternate routes and side streets in Issaquah at a standstill long after SR 18 re-opened.
Many drivers say this section of SR 18 is treacherous, compounded by large semis traveling 60+ MPH over the tight, steep two-lane (except for passing lanes) highway that summits Tiger Mountain. Once dark, there are no street lights. Add rain to the drive and it can leave even the most experienced drivers with white knuckles.
City Officials Concerned with Busy Interchange
The I-90/SR 18 interchange is a busy, often bottle-necked traffic adventure for drivers. Snoqualmie Mayor Matt Larson says for the past 10 years the interchange has been a big concern for city officials, as traffic projections showed it would be a growing concern.
Many blame the growth of Snoqualmie Ridge, with approximately 4,500 new homes, but Mayor Larson says that growth only represents 17% of the impacts at the I-90/SR 18 interchange. Larson says the vast majority of the traffic pressure comes from the growth down in Maple Valley, Covington and other areas south of I-90.
Over the past 10 years, SR 18 has become the north/south freeway for residents on the Eastside’s eastside; a primary north-south connector linking communities and the Ports of Tacoma and Seattle, the Kent Valley, I-405, eastern Washington, Idaho and Montana.
When SR 18 backs up, it has a traffic domino affect, especially in the north areas of SR 18 like SR 169, Issaquah-Hobart Road and Front Street in Issaquah. It also dangerously forces waiting traffic onto I-90 near Snoqualmie and up Snoqualmie Parkway.
Adding to the concerns, a big percentage of vehicles using the I-90/SR 18 interchange are semi trucks moving critical freight. I-90 and SR 18 are both considered primary freight routes and Washington State strategic freight corridors. The freight tonnage moved along these freeways each year is estimated in the millions.
Sound Cities Association Members Push for Critical Improvements
On Friday, October 31, 2014, the Sound Cities Association (SCA), representing 36 King County cities, held a transportation summit to discuss regional traffic priorities before the next state legislative session begins in January 2015.
In preparing for the meeting, Mayor Larson, who is the SCA Vice President, and the City of Snoqualmie drafted a letter to the legislature; a letter that received support from the cities of Auburn, Black Diamond, Covington, Maple Valley and North Bend.
That letter calls for funding improvements to address the “critical deficiencies” at the I-90/SR 18 interchange AND widen SR 18 to a four-lane highway between I-90 and Issaquah Hobart Road, stating these are the top two transportation priorities for their cities.
WSDOT says ‘Show Me the Money’
For years, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has identified these traffic issues as needing serious improvement.
WSDOT states they are “working on early project developments” to widen SR 18 and “completing early environmental and design work” for new, direct ramps at the freeway interchange, but they lack funding to actually do the projects.
State Representative Jay Rodne says the I-90/ SR 18 issues are his “#1 transportation priority,” but the bottom line is these projects have to be part of a larger, statewide transportation package that will be decided during the 2015 legislative session. In 2014, law makers did not pass such a package.
Mayor Larson says due to the legislature’s big focus on funding the $2 billion education gap to comply with the McCleary decision, the SCA isn’t hopeful that a statewide transportation package will be passed in 2015. As a result, the SCA may ask the legislature to consider a “sub-regional solution within the four counties of King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish.”
Mayor Larson says he has also pressed the staff of U.S. Representatives, Susan Delbene and Dave Reichert, about the growing concerns regarding traffic and safety along the I-90/SR 18 corridor.
The mayor warned, though, that given the busy interchange will require both state and federal funding to improve, “it will take some time to arrive at a funded and viable solution, even if in phases.”