As cars zip by on the adjacent State Route 18, Snoqualmie Tribal Chairman Robert de los Angeles asks for a moment of silence from the audience to remember those whose lives have been lost to the roadway.
Standing in a gravel lot just south of Snoqualmie Ridge, de los Angeles is joined by Gov. Jay Inslee and nearly every elected official and public servant with ties to the Valley to break ground on the much-anticipated State Route 18 and Interstate 90 interchange construction project.
After nearly a decade of work, construction on the interchange is expected to begin in November — and ultimately bring congestion relief and safety improvements on one of the state’s most dangerous and congested highways.
On Sept. 8, elected officials met to ceremoniously move the first dirt of a long-coveted project and celebrate their collaboration. But the day’s celebration also has a somber undercurrent. With construction just months away, it’s hard to forget the tragedies that made the $188 million project a top priority for local and state leaders in the first place.
“Our Tribe hopes we are at a turning point today,” de los Angeles said during a speech. “As we look forward to a safer future, we also take time to remember all the Tribal family members, employees and community members we have lost on State Route 18.”
“We are proud to see Washington state is taking the needed and urgent action to safeguard our people and all people who travel across our ancestral lands,” he said.
In prepared remarks, Inslee cited the celebration as a moment of optimism for the state. He also acknowledged the wildlife benefits of the project and touted the state will have a greater portion of electric vehicles by the time the project wraps up.
“We are optimistic travel on (Highway 18) is gonna get safer, that travel on I-90 is going to get faster and we’re going to protect our environment better,” he said. “We are delivering on all of those pistons.”
Aside from the safety benefits, officials also highlighted the economic benefit of the road.
State Transportation Secretary Roger Millar cited the need for safety on SR 18 and the subsequent economic impact it has.
“This project is about safety. Lives have been lost, families have been devastated,” he said. “The individual tragedies on this highway speak for themselves, but when you add them all up statewide, crashes are a $16.5-billion-a-year hit to Washington’s economy. That’s huge.”
U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier said constituents in every portion of her district, which includes Eastern Washington, talk about how important SR 18 is to the state’s connectivity. She also highlighted the importance of the road for freight trucks, which make up about 20% of current traffic and deliver goods from Eastern Washington to the Port of Tacoma.
“Their ability to safely and efficiently get to the port is vital to our entire state’s economy,” she said.
For the estimated 4,000 workers in Snoqualmie and North Bend, including school teachers and hospital staff, who travel over SR 18 daily for work, the interchange improvement could deliver much faster and safer commutes. It could also help aid city businesses struggling to hire and retain workers.
Work on SR 18 has long been a priority for leaders in the Valley, who joined leaders in Issaquah, Maple Valley and Covington as the South East Area Legislative Transportation Coalition to advocate for improvements along SR 18 as their top priority.
“It’s that determination and that single-minded focus — that really coming together — that really brought this [forward],” State Rep. Lisa Callan said of the SLTC’s efforts.
It was that local momentum that allowed state leaders to go after funding for the project. State Sen. Mark Mullet said that took years of collaboration and required those outside of the Highway 18 corridor to see the benefits of the project on a state-wide level.
Mullet said he held his first meeting on SR 18 back in 2013. Although the project received funding in a 2015 state transportation package, Mullet said it was not until 2017 that they were able to move the project forward.
“We can’t give birth to a transportation baby without a lot of help from people who don’t live here,” he said. “It helps to pick a road that elected officials in Eastern Washington need to use to get to Olympia, and I was extremely grateful.”
The SR 18/I-90 interchange project is expected to begin this November and wrap by 2025. It is expected to bring four weekend closures near the intersection as well as occasional lane and speed reduction.
Construction will build a diverging diamond interchange. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) said this type of interchange will reduce the number of traffic lights and drop the number of conflict points between vehicles from 26 to 14. According to WSDOT, that means up to a 15% reduction in crashes and a 36% reduction in fatalities.
Further, construction will expand the highway by one additional lane in each direction for two miles south of the interchange. Combined with the Issaquah-Hobart Road to Deep Creek Expansion that received funding this past year, the entirety of SR 18 will eventually have two lanes in both directions.
That’s something that has taken nearly 30 to 40 years of work, said State Rep. Bill Ramos, noting that the highway has been expanded in pieces.
“This piece and one more after and we’ll have a full four-lane divided road,” he said. “It’s going to make it safe for all of us and our workers that drive it every day.”
The interchange project will also add new bridges at Deep Creek and Lake Creek to allow wildlife, such as deer and elk, to cross under the freeway. The project will also remove fish passage barriers to restore access to 13 miles of blocked salmon habitat.
The majority of the $188 million project was funded through by the state’s gas tax, while $5 million was contributed from the state’s 2015 Connecting Washington transportation package.
Construction on the remainder of the highway, as part of the $640 million Issaquah-Hobart Road to Deep Creek Expansion Project, is expected to begin, at the earliest, in 2025. If WSDOT meets its earliest projections, the entire highway could be four lanes wide by 2029.