Highway 14 congestion worsens, frustrates commuters

WSDOT proposes adding lanes to crowded corridor

By Dameon Pesanti, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

Any other time of day, it takes Diane Hassett about two minutes to drive the two miles between Southeast 164th Avenue and the Interstate 205 interchanges on state Highway 14; but during her morning commute, it’s 20 minutes — and that’s if everything goes right.

When it doesn’t, then her 40 minute, one-way commute can take an hour.

“What makes it so screwed up is if anything happens on I-5 the entire world is on I-205, and it can’t handle it,” she said. That complicates things for all the people also trying to merge onto I-205 and in turn chokes up traffic on westbound Highway 14.

When that happens, all the other drivers trying to make it to work on time get “that deer in the headlights look,” she said.

For the last four years, Hassett has commuted from her home in Washougal to her job in Vancouver. She’s watched the traffic get worse on Highway 14, especially between 164th and I-205.

She has a strategy for working through the congestion. She knows which lanes are faster and up until which point. She’s used to oncoming drivers cutting across the onramp gore, the striped area between the main lane and the merging lane, and screwing things up for the drivers behind them, rather than following the zipper lane all the way to the end as they should.

When it’s really bad, she said drivers will get off at the 164th Avenue exit and come right back on just to get a little further ahead.

“Everybody needs to keep their job,” she said. “There are only so many days where you can say ‘I hit traffic.'”

As the metro area’s population has boomed and the economy has bounced back, the region’s highway capacity has been pushed to the limits. Hassett and all the other commuters on Highway 14 experience it firsthand in the corridor between I-205 and 164th Avenue.

To bring some relief to those commuters, the Washington State Department of Transportation is proposing to add a lane in both directions of Highway 14 within the corridor.

“This stretch of 14 is a bottleneck during the peak commute times,” said WSDOT spokesman Bart Treece. “This project is looking to try and alleviate some of that. … Our goal is to improve safety, improve traffic flow and improve commute times.”

The state legislature approved $25 million for the expansion during the last session.

Work is in the earliest phases. Construction likely won’t begin until the summer of 2020. A couple weeks ago, WSDOT held an open house to get people familiar with the plan and field comments. Planning and public input will be going on until next spring.

About 100 people arrived to tell WSDOT representatives their experiences with the highway. The grievances ran the gamut from being stuck in the fast lane behind someone trying to merge onto the I-205 onramp at the last minute, to living next to a noisy highway.

John and Lori Scheck live along Highway 14 and attended the open house. They said they were pleased to hear the project would improve traffic conditions, but they and their neighbors really want to see a sound wall built along the highway. It’s unclear if one will be built.

“The highway, when we moved into our house 20 years ago, it wasn’t a freeway like it is now, but the traffic has increased tremendously and so has the noise,” John said. “It’d be nice if we’d be protected from that.”

Debby Lavinder, who lives in a retirement community along Highway 14 echoed the Schecks, but said she’s also concerned about air pollution. She worries about the air pollution from all the cars idling in congestion. Widening the highway and adding a sound wall would help mitigate that, she said.

“The pollution, I think, is the worst,” she said. “Our houses get soot on them. The wall will cut down on the small particle pollution and that is what damages your lungs.”

Before construction begins, acoustical engineers will measure noise patterns in the neighborhood around the project to determine if a sound wall is feasible. WSDOT will also start doing environmental studies, purchase property as needed and begin the permitting and bidding process.

Hassett said she thinks it’s a good idea to put extra lanes in the corridor. But she wants WSDOT to think about the larger network and what happens when traffic that would normally use I-5 to get into Portland funnels onto southbound I-205.

She said her “dream scenario” is to put the onramp for northbound I-205 on the left hand side of westbound Highway 14.

“If they widen it and don’t think of all the other things around it … it doesn’t really do anything and you just have more people in the traffic,” she said. “Yes, more lanes, but only if you use them wisely.”