The state Department of Transportation has determined the Highway 20 interchange and the northbound College Way on-ramp to be the “worst performers” on Interstate 5 through Skagit County, according to a recently completed study.
Transportation spokesperson RB McKeon said other areas of concern along Interstate 5 through Burlington and Mount Vernon are the bridge over the Skagit River, the Kincaid Street on-ramp and the Cook Road interchange.
These trouble spots were determined through a Department of Transportation analysis of the interstate between Cook Road north of Burlington and Old Highway 99 south of Mount Vernon, an online survey and feedback from area stakeholders.
“We are really investigators trying to figure out what exactly is wrong with the (highway) system that needs to be fixed,” Mount Baker Area Planning and Engineering Services Manager Todd Carlson said.
The state received 750 responses to its online survey.
The survey component of the state’s work was used to allow drivers to either collaborate or dispute the department’s analysis.
“The public’s feedback is extremely valuable,” said McKeon. “We want to see people participate because what is decided will affect them.”
Carlson said the department found drivers are using the interstate both for commuting and for local trips.
“There is a lot of use by people simply going to the store,” he said.
A similar study of the interstate in Bellingham found 60% of travel covered three interchanges, telling the department drivers were not using local streets because they were too congested.
McKeon said a majority of survey respondents experienced congestion on the interstate.
And when speeds start to drop, there are more collisions, Carlson said.
“Some of the worst collisions tended to occur on that southbound approach to SR 20,” he added. “And we found ourselves asking why? Sight distance isn’t bad; there’s room. We still don’t really know why because we haven’t really dug deep enough into it to see why these weird things are happening there and the public collaborated that. So people are experiencing what the data is telling us.”
The Cook Road interchange remains troublesome, as well.
“Really, the anomaly in the corridor is the Cook Road interchange, and it’s one that has been on our minds as well as on the minds of residents in Sedro-Woolley,” Carlson said.
The problem is when a train is passing in the area, traffic backs up onto I-5.
While a fix to the issue has been identified and it’s in the regional plan, it has yet to be funded. The fix would involve using signals and sensors to better clear the traffic.
“When trains finish crossing, it takes forever to clear the backup,” Carlson said. “With a signal, you can coordinate that so traffic can move through quickly.”
A similar system in Whatcom County solved 80% of the traffic flow problem. However, it had a price tag well into the millions of dollars.
Carlson said now that the state has a better idea of I-5 problem areas in the county, it can begin to look for remedies. He compared it to the doctor who doesn’t quite have a specific diagnosis for a patient’s illness.
“We are trying to figure out what is ailing this 60-year-old patient of pavement,” he said. “These are old roads and we don’t have all the answers. We feel good about what was accomplished because it didn’t cost a lot of money to do.”
Funding for improvements is an issue, especially with the state being required to work on fish passage projects over the next nine years that will cost $3 billion.
“Culverts and paving are our priorities now,” Carlson said. “Then if we have anything left over, we will work on safety.”
The Department of Transportation does not see safety as being a significant issue on Interstate 5 in Skagit County because there hasn’t been, as Carlson puts it, “horrific, 18-car pile-ups with multiple fatalities, which is obviously fortunate.”