Snoqualmie I-90 widening project mindboggling

HYAK – The sheer magnitude of it is difficult to comprehend, even in person.

More than one million tons of rock to be blasted and removed.

Three hundred cubic yards of concrete poured into individual bridge pier shafts, of which there will be 74.

Six new bridges, two of which are nearly 1,200 feet long.

Huge drill bits that bore holes 9 feet in diameter for the piers. Some will reach depths of 180 feet.

All of this is taking place in a narrow, congested 3-mile stretch of the most heavily traveled east-west highway in the state of Washington, where 27,000 vehicles whiz by each weekday. The number nearly doubles on weekends and holidays.

Those are some of the numbers related to the widening and other improvements to Interstate 90 east of the summit of Snoqualmie Pass, one of the largest road projects currently under way by the state Department of Transportation.

The $570 million improvement on 5 miles, from Hyak to Keechelus Dam, will take four years to complete. But when done, the section of I-90 will feature six newly constructed lanes, a snowshed extending across the entire freeway for a distance of 1,200 feet, and a longer area for motorists to remove tire chains.

While motorists will have a safer route and less congestion, wildlife also will benefit.

The elevated bridges will allow safe passage for bears, deer, elk, cougars and other species through the highway corridor to maintain connections to habitat and access to food sources.

Gold Creek, where one set of major bridges is being constructed, is home to bull trout, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A longer span will allow the creek to spread out, creating additional habitat for bull trout.

A detour for eastbound traffic was completed last year so the current lanes can be used to stage for the new bridges – and keep traffic flowing.

“The biggest part of this job was to do this significant work constructing six bridges with the lake on one side and the mountains at the toe of a very steep hillside on the other,” said Bob Hooker, assistant project engineer for the state Department of Transportation. “This is a tricky area. The key message is we have been able to do this while keeping two lanes of traffic open.”

“It’s a big deal,” he added.

Peter Crofton isn’t so much interested in the numbers as he is in the outcome, a safer and more reliable weekly trip across the Cascades to be with his girlfriend and family members.

The 37-year-old Yakima native and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer has made the trip weekly for more than two years. More than once, he has sat on the pass during the winter for up to 90 minutes waiting for avalanche control work to be completed.

“I think it will be nicer when it gets done. It will alleviate the traffic by putting in a lane each way,” he said. “Hopefully, that will make things smoother.”

While Crofton’s interest is personal, it’s a different story for those involved in the movement of commerce over the freeway, valued annually at $500 billion.

A third of Washington state’s apple crop is exported, with a majority transported by truck to the ports of Seattle and Tacoma.

Central Washington’s proximity to those ports and the intervening transportation network is a competitive advantage, said Jon DeVaney, executive director of the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association.

But that advantage relies on an overall reliable transportation system, including Snoqualmie Pass.

“If our main shipping point shifts, we will have higher transportation costs and will lose our advantage,” he said. “The bigger concern is if these issues aren’t addressed, the port would lose its position and some of our competitiveness would go with it.”

It’s true for all agriculture commodities from Eastern Washington, said Mark Anderson, chief executive officer for Anderson Hay and Grain in Ellensburg. The firm ships all types of hay year-round to Seattle for export shipment.

“These are some incredibly needed improvements,” Anderson said, adding the world marketplace has little patience with pass closures and will go elsewhere for supplies.

But some delays will be necessary to make this project happen. The freeway is closed in each direction for an hour Monday through Thursday to allow for blasting and removal of rock to occur.

This week, closure times were modified as the hours of daylight are reduced with the approach of fall.

Workers bore holes in the rock during the day where charges are placed. Once traffic is halted, the rock is blasted and the debris removed.

Hooker said the blasting will continue for two more years to separate the highway from the steep hillside by as much as 120 feet in places.

This 4-mile stretch of the interstate will be replaced with new concrete, which better withstands the freeze and thaw that occurs near the summit.

The current project is funded by the 9.5-cent gas tax increase the Legislature approved in 2005.

The remainder of the road-widening project, another 10 miles from Keechelus Dam to Easton, isn’t yet funded and could take another 10 years to complete.

Additional wildlife passage zones, including one over the freeway, are scheduled in the next phase of construction.