Valley officials concerned about proposed delay on SR 18 construction

Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed budget delays funding for Tiger Mountain expansion project.

A proposed transportation budget released by Gov. Jay Inslee last month has left Snoqualmie Valley officials worried that planned improvements on State Route 18 could see a multiple-year delay.

The governor’s proposed budget, released prior to legislators reconvening for the annual legislative session in Olympia this month, postponed funding that was earmarked for construction along a 5-mile section of SR 18 near Tiger Mountain.

After being awarded funds from the state last year, the plan was to begin improvements near Tiger Mountain as soon as 2025, after construction on a separate project on SR 18, at the I-90 interchange, was finished. When both are complete, it would end a 30-year effort to expand and add safety improvement to the entire highway.

But under Inslee’s proposal, the project would not finish until 2035, a six-year delay compared to original estimates from the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Jim Kopriva, an Inslee spokesperson, emphasized that the proposal is not written in stone, saying that with so many projects, the governor’s proposed budget was based on existing contracts, legal obligations and interstate projects.

“The proposed budget is just that — proposed,” he said. “Legislators will develop their own proposal and the governor is eager to work with them.”

Maps of the two constructions projects on State Route 18. Left: the I90/SR 18 interchange project. Right: The 5 mile widening project near Tiger Mountain. Courtesy images.

Maps of the two constructions projects on State Route 18. Left: the I90/SR 18 interchange project. Right: The 5 mile widening project near Tiger Mountain. Courtesy images.

While the proposal does not carry any legislative weight, it has not been well received by members of the Southeast Area Legislative Transportation Coalition (SEAL-TC), a collective of business leaders, cites and tribes along the SR 18 corridor who have been pushing for improvements on SR 18 for years.

Local leaders have widely viewed the project, which would expand the highway to four lanes and add a dividing median, as a critical investment to the regional economy on a notoriously dangerous road infamous for its head-on collisions.

“We are very saddened and hope we can change their minds,” said Kelly Coughlin, CEO of the SnoValley Chamber and a member of SEAL-TC, who noted group members plan to testify before the state transportation committee about the governor’s proposal.

Funding for the expansion around Tiger Mountain was earmarked in the $17 billion Move Ahead Washington state transportation budget last year. It was seen as a huge collaborative victory for elected officials, business leaders and tribal members along the SR 18 corridor.

Over the last 30 years, improvements on the highway have happened section by section, each working to make all of SR 18 a four-lane, median divided highway. In recent years, SEAL-TC formed to advocate for funding to improve the final seven miles of SR 18, stretching from Issaquah-Hobart Road to the I-90 interchange.

After funds were secured to redesign the interchange and expand two miles of roadway, expansion of the 5 miles around Tiger Mountain represented the final piece to completing the SR 18 puzzle.

At $640 million, the project represented no small investment from the state. It was the second most expensive capital project funded by the state transportation budget last year, trailing only the I-5 Columbia River Bridge.

Yet, officials along the SR 18 corridor point to much needed safety improvement and the highway’s relationship with the Port of Tacoma as justifications for that spending.

According to Washington State Patrol data compiled by SEAL-TC, the project area has more than doubled the amount of fatal and serious injury accidents over the past five years compared to the rest of the highway, which has previously received improvements.

The road also represents the most direct connection between the Port of Tacoma and Eastern Washington, with more than 10 million tons of goods traveling across it annually.

In a statement to Sen. Marko Liias of Everett and Rep. Jake Fey of Tacoma, who chair the state Senate and House transportation committees, mayors from seven cities along SR 18 — including Snoqualmie, North Bend and Carnation — voiced opposition to any delay.

“We are writing to collectively voice our strong opposition to any postponement of these planned, long-overdue safety improvements to SR 18 over Tiger Mountain,” the letter says. “[SR 18 is] a treacherous roadway that has negatively impacted too many Washington families over the past 30 years.”

State Sen. Mark Mullet, an Issaquah Democrat whose district includes a majority of the SR 18 corridor, called the delay a “horrible proposal,” citing a need to stem traffic collisions, and noting he did not see a reason for the postponement.

“We have the funding to keep this project on track,” he said. “I think it was very shortsighted by the governor and I plan to use all my political capital to fight the delay.”