U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier (D-District 8) held a press conference Dec. 13 in North Bend to discuss how the new federal infrastructure bill could help bring improvements to a treacherous section of road along State Route 18.
The project in question involves the expansion of a five mile, two lane section of SR 18, between Issaquah-Hobart Road and Deep Creek, around Tiger Mountain, that is one of the most dangerous stretches of road in King County.
“I was glad to support the bipartisan infrastructure bill,” Schrier said in a statement to the Valley Record. “Funding from this law will begin to be allocated soon, and it will significantly increase available funds for projects like the safety project on SR 18.”
Washington state legislators and the Washington state Department of Transportation (WSDOT) have been working for years to try and pass a state transportation package that would include funding for this section of SR 18.
The project previously received funding for its design phase, but is waiting on an estimated $650 million for construction costs that would finalize the project to widen the road to four lanes and add additional safety improvements.
However, 5th District state legislators say they are unsure of the impact the $1.2 trillion federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will have on SR 18 improvements.
“The fact is I can’t say [Highway] 18 will get money from the federal infrastructure package. We might, but we won’t know for a year or two,” said State Rep. Bill Ramos (D-Issaquah), who serves as the vice chair on the House Transportation Committee. “The federal infrastructure package may help or it may not do anything.”
The infrastructure package did two major things: guarantee what was anticipated funding to states, plus a little extra, over the next five years and expanded money for national infrastructure grant programs that weren’t previously available.
The bill does not, however, set aside any specific funding to SR 18 improvements. The extra funding the bill does provide to Washington, which will be spread across the state, is likely insufficient to finish the project, said State Sen. Mark Mullet (D-Issaquah).
“The bill is helpful, without a doubt, but I don’t see any way you could use the bill to do the project. It doesn’t provide anywhere close to the funding needed,” Mullet said. “If Congress put federal funding for Highway 18 in the federal infrastructure bill, I’d be dancing a jig, but they didn’t, and I don’t want people thinking that they did.”
For SR 18 to receive significant federal funding, the project will have to apply for a highly competitive national grant program and be selected. Ramos said while he appreciates the extra funds, it will be a small piece of what’s needed in the state, and legislators are not counting on federal grants.
“Highway 18 is probably not going to rank as a national priority,” he said. “We’re planning on trying to work on [Highway] 18 from the state side because that’s what we have to do. If we get federal funding, great, but we’re not counting on it.”
Kelly Coughlin, executive director of the Snoqualmie Valley Chamber of Commerce, said a lot of the project’s ability to get funding will rely on officials’ ability to show the highway’s economic value and safety concerns. If grant money is received, WSDOT will also berequired to match that funding before it can be used, Coughlin said.
“Having Rep. Schrier announce that is such a great thing,” Coughlin said. “She’s on top of it in understanding it’s not just the state impact. but a federal economic impact.”
History of SR 18
SR 18 is one of the most dangerous roads in King County, and the section near Tiger Mountain is responsible for the about 70% of the highway’s collisions, between 2014 and 2019, according to the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority.
“[SR 18] is by far the number one stretch of roadway my officers receive complaints from the public,” said Ron Mead, a captain with the Washington State Patrol.
The road is also critical to the state’s economy. Nearly 23,000 vehicles use the road every day, including freight trucks from Eastern Washington traveling to warehouses in Renton or the port in Tacoma. Trucks using the highway transport more than 10 million tons of freight annually, making it one of the state’s most used.
The Tiger Mountain section of SR 18 first made headlines after two Snoqualmie Casino workers were killed in a head-on collision and the then-CEO of the casino, Brian Decorah, offered $1 million to WSDOT to look at improvements.
“We know projects like these take time, but this isn’t something we have the luxury of wasting when the safety of our community is what is at stake,” Snoqualmie Tribal Chairman Robert de los Angeles said at Schrier’s press conference. “Our collective diligence on moving this project forward is critical.”
Following the crash, Mullet and Ramos secured $26 million for the design phase of the project. With funding for the design of the project secured, the SR 18 project is likely to receive priority over other large projects on the state’s waiting list for grant or state funding.
“It puts us in such an amazing place,” Coughlin said. “Without having that done, we wouldn’t have even been eligible to get a grant from the federal government.”
Schrier said SR 18 remains a priority for her and is hopeful the project will get federal grant funding in the coming months.
“The bottom line is this is good for our economy [and] it will save lives,” she said. “This is exactly the sort of project I will be fighting for to get funding for with this big infrastructure package.”
The stretch near Tiger Mountain is the last in need of funding for expansion to four lanes. Ramos and Mullet both said the way forward is through state funding and a state transportation package, something they will be working toward again in the upcoming 2022 legislative session.