Local leaders celebrate funding milestone for State Route 18

Construction is expected to begin later this year on SR 18/I-90 interchange.

It’s more than just a road — it’s a life saver.

That’s the message federal, state and local leaders reiterated about improvements coming to State Route 18 as they gathered at Snoqualmie City Hall on March 23 for a roundtable discussion to celebrate the end of a three decades-long effort to widen the entire state highway.

The celebration comes as the state passed its nearly $17 billion Move Ahead Washington Transportation Package earlier this month, which earmarked $640 million in funds to widen and add safety improvements to a five-mile stretch of SR 18 near Tiger Mountain — the last section in need of construction funding.

Alongside construction at the SR-18/ I-90 interchange — which is expected to begin later this year — the remaining two-lane portion of the road will be expanded to four lanes with 10-foot sholders on both sides. Construction at the intersection is expected to finish by 2025, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Improvements for both projects will include a new median barrier all the way from Issaquah-Hobart Road to the interchange, which project engineers believe will quell head-on collisions that the road has become infamous for.

Kris Olsen, a WSDOT spokesperson, said it is too early too know if construction at the interchange will be impacted by an ongoing concrete worker strike in King County. Since early December, concrete delivery drivers, who supply the county’s concrete, have been on strike. This has caused delays in several projects including the SR 520/I-5 interchange, SR 99 and the I-405 in Bellevue. As of March 17, WSDOT projects have missed over 2,000 truckloads of concrete.

Although construction and subsequent road closures along SR 18 will have its own challenges and delays, clearing the funding barrier represents a huge milestone.

Known as one of the deadliest roads in King County, safety improvements along the highway began in the 1990s as officials worked to widen the entire highway from two to four lanes.

Since then, elected officials in Snoqualmie, North Bend, Issaquah and at the state and federal level, alongside first responders, the Snoqualmie Tribe and SnoValley Chamber have been collaborating to bring that work to fruition.

“It is a testament to the phrase: it takes a village,” Snoqualmie Mayor Katherine Ross said at the roundtable. “To know this final puzzle piece has been solved is a major collaborative accomplishment.”

At $640 million, the five-mile widening effort was the second biggest capital project funded by the state transportation package, second only to the I-5 Columbia River Bridge. But for first responders and those who commute over the road daily, the funds are priceless.

“When we were talking about how much it’s going to cost, really it’s what’s the value of the lives lost and what’s the value of the number of lives that are going to be saved,” Snoqualmie Police Chief Perry Phipps said at the roundtable. “I don’t know if we can put a value on that.”

Between 2014 and 2019, the road has been responsible for almost 700 collisions, according to the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority. About 70% of those accidents were concentrated in the 7-mile stretch between Issaquah-Hobart Road and the I-90 interchange, the only section of the highway that is not yet four lanes wide.

Reducing accidents on State Route 18 means a lower chance of first responders being struck on the side of the road and experiencing trauma that leads to PTSD, said Snoqualmie Fire Chief Mark Correira, pointing out that more firefighters die by suicide than in the line-of-duty.

“If we can reduce the number of incidents that firefighters are exposed to, that’s going to lead to a healthier workforce,” he said.

Officials are also hopeful that improvements along the highway can address a housing imbalance and provide a safer commute to those working in the Valley.

Nearly two-thirds of those working in the Snoqualmie Valley travel in from outside the area, said Snoqualmie City Councilmember Rob Wotton, including 4,000 who commute over SR 18 daily. Most of those workers are in low-wage positions and travel over SR-18 from South King County, where there is greater housing availability.

Those workers include teachers and staff at Snoqualmie Valley schools who would benefit greatly from reducing congestion, said district Superintendent Lance Gibbon, who acknowledged some staff have multiple-hour commutes.

“I often hear that we have staff coming from Black Diamond,” he said. “It’s a two-hour commute and you just think of the quality of life impacts.”

SnoValley Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kelly Coughlin, who has been advocating for improvements on the highway in an effort to bring more workers to the Valley, praised the Snoqualmie Tribe for bringing the danger of the highway to the attention of state leaders.

Following a fatal crash involving two Snoqualmie Casino employees on their way to work in 2018, then-casino CEO Brian Decorah went to Olympia to offer the state Department of Transportation $1 million to pay for an assessment of design and construction on SR 18 between Issaquah-Hobart Road and Deep Creek. That momentum was shortly followed by state Sen. Mark Mullet and Rep. Bill Ramos securing $26 million for the design phase of the project, and ultimately the construction funding earlier this month.

“[Decorah] brought out pictures of everyone who passed away and that humanized everything,” Coughlin said. “I don’t think it would have been possible had he not been there to show that.”

Snoqualmie Tribal Chairman Robert de los Angeles said the Tribe was proud to partner with cities, 5th District legislators, Eastside Fire & Rescue and U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier to help securing funding.

“The Tribe is grateful for their hard work, and many others who ensured this project got funded,” he said in an email. “We know that outcomes are collectively greater and more impactful when we work together.”

Schrier, a Democrat who represents the 8th Congressional District, hosted the roundtable. Schrier said the improvements along SR 18 will be felt throughout the entire district because the state highway is a critical connection between those in Eastern Washington and the Port of Tacoma. Freight trucks using the highway transport more than 10 million tons of goods annually, making it one of the state’s most used.

“It really touches almost everyone in the district whether they’re commuters or farmers or emergency responders,” she said. “It all really converges on I-90 and SR 18.”