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Highway cleared for traffic

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SNOQUALMIE VALLEY - The winding stretch of State Route 202 on the Falls Hill that connects the upper and lower Snoqualmie Valley reopened Friday, more than two months after the Feb. 28 Nisqually Earthquake threatened to be its undoing.

And while that came as good news to Valley commuters, it won't be smooth sailing for everyone. Until permanent repairs are finished, a portion of the highway will be subject to a 16-ton weight restriction.

The highway was closed earlier this year when Washington State Department of Transportation employees found that several cracks had appeared, including one more than 900 feet long and running down the middle of the road, following the 6.8-magnitude temblor. The damage was contained to a 1,000-foot section of SR 202 between Tokul Road Southeast and Southeast Fish Hatchery Road, an area that was already under scrutiny by WSDOT because of a landslide that is slowly encroaching on the highway.

WSDOT officials originally announced they would reopen the road in April, but those plans quickly changed when the state agency discovered new cracks in SR 202 and evidence that it had shifted. They then said they would collect more information on the stability of the road and make a decision in May on whether to reopen it.

Melanie Moores, public information officer for the WSDOT Northwest Region, said since then the road hasn't budged.

"We've seen very little to convince us that the slope is unstable," she said.

Since April, geological engineers have done extensive testing of the hillside on which SR 202 sits, and they determined that the highway - which is a major arterial in the Valley and is used by an average of 8,000 cars per day - is safe for vehicle traffic. However, a 16-ton weight restriction has been issued for the damaged section of the highway, and Washington State Patrol troopers will ensure drivers heed it.

Moores said WSDOT will monitor SR 202 on a weekly basis, and the agency hopes that more truck drivers will follow the weight restriction than during previous closures.

The weight restriction will last until a permanent fix is completed, and that is expected to happen in the fall of 2002. Starting next summer, WSDOT is proposing to build a rock buttress wall to stabilize the bottom slope, from which dirt and rocks had spilled into Tokul Creek.

The reopening of SR 202 is a blessing for many Valley residents, especially business owners along the highway who have seen their revenues drop since the earthquake.

"This is wonderful news. While it is for limited-weight vehicles, we can get cars and ambulances ... up and down the hill," said Snoqualmie Mayor Fuzzy Fletcher.

The recent problems with SR 202 are not the first. The highway has been subject to weight restrictions in the past. Local and state officials have discussed building a new section of highway on the other side of the Falls Hill - through Weyerhaeuser-owned land - which would bypass that troubled section of the roadway. Estimates for the new road range from $40 million to $60 million.

Moores said WSDOT has envisioned realigning the highway and expanding it to four lanes, but it is up to the Legislature to find the funds to build it.

"It's in our system plans [in the] long-term," she said. "We have no resources to even pursue it."

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