Detour? Delay? Drivers, businesses cope with summer road construction - Salish Current
August 18, 2023
Detour? Delay? Drivers, businesses cope with summer road construction
Matt Benoit

Signs of summer, signs of frustration: Drivers have at times ignored or moved road closure signs on Van Wyk Road during this summer’s roadwork on the Mount Baker Highway— and barriers were found smashed and broken at the side of the road a few weeks ago. The project is about half finished, officials report. (Matt Benoit / Salish Current photo © 2023)

August 18, 2023
Detour? Delay? Drivers, businesses cope with summer road construction
Matt Benoit

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While August in the Pacific Northwest is a time of sunshine, heat and all that accompanies a “hot girl summer,” it’s also often a period of road closures, inconvenient detours and traffic snarls. 

This summer, a number of state and local road projects are creating headaches for both Whatcom County drivers and some local businesses. Most notably, State Route 542 — the Mount Baker Highway — has been completely closed since June 5 for the removal of a fish barrier at Squalicum Creek, underneath the highway between Britton and Noon Roads. (View a time-lapse video of the project below.)

Further complicating matters are the additional closures of Noon, Van Wyk and Kelly Roads to non-local traffic, funneling all vehicle traffic into a pattern along Hannegan and Smith Roads. The speed limit along Hannegan is also reduced to 35 mph. 

These closures are slated to last into September.  

Dog days for business

The complete closure of 542 has affected sales at places like 20/20 Cannabis Solutions, a dispensary off the highway that’s located between three of the four closures. 

“It’s been quite a hindrance to our business,” said Casey Larson, a budtender at 20/20. 

With so many pot shops in the area, many customers have decided to visit stores that don’t require detours to reach, he said. Some particularly loyal and nearby customers are still coming in, however, and Larson said there’s little worry their summer sales dip would lead to the store closing. 

While westbound customers and employees experience little inconvenience reaching 20/20, eastbound drivers have seen significant increases to their commute times. 

Larson lives on the other side of the closure off Britton Road, and now takes Squalicum Lake Road to get back onto the highway. It’s turned a five-minute drive into a 20-minute one; recent chip-sealing work along Northshore Road further lengthened the commute due to single-lane daytime closures. 

Road construction on the Mount Baker Highway has “definitely affected business,” say local merchants. A WSDOT diagram illustrates the closure and detour route.

Marr’s Heat and Air Conditioning, which does business just across the highway from 20/20, has also found itself adapting this summer. 

“It’s definitely affected business,” said Brandon Strong, the company’s service manager. “It feels like an unusual summer.”

While customer office and showroom visits are down substantially, Strong said their traveling technicians and inbound supply trucks have figured out the best paths to and from. There have even been some benefits to the closure: the greatly reduced traffic makes moving vehicles around much easier, he said.

Still, initial delays during the opening week of the closure turned Strong’s commute back to Bellingham from 15 minutes to nearly an hour. When enough employees have that issue, it’s noticeable. 

“The cost the company incurs is pretty significant, when we add up all the labor hours across people being impacted,” he said. “We’ve been doing our best using the local roads that are accessible to us, but we are eager for the project to be (finished) up.”

Here’s your sign

Both Larson and Strong have noted that numerous Canadian semi drivers don’t appear to have gotten the message about a closure; they have ignored detour signs and driven straight up to the closure, then awkwardly attempted to turn their large trucks around. 

“It gets pretty hectic out on this corner, even though it’s all quiet and stuff,” Larson said. “A lot of the time, (they’re) blocking off our driveway.”

The road closure barriers on Van Wyk have not been well-heeded by some drivers, Larson added. He has seen drivers frequently step from their cars to remove them and go through, while others have taken a more aggressive approach. 

“I’ve seen people drive through them,” he said. “I’ve seen them thrown in the ditch. I think they’ve had to replace them at least two or three times now.”

Washington State Department of Transportation employees monitored Van Wyk during the first week of the highway closure, Larson added. But since then, only the occasional sheriff’s deputy has monitored or blocked the road, sometimes following those who insist on going through. 

The closure barriers create a big of a headache for any driver, but especially for local traffic and even for first responders; Larson said he has had to move the signs so emergency vehicles could get through onto the highway. 

In an email to Salish Current, WSDOT communications manager RB McKeon said the decision to close the additional roads was made in cooperation with Whatcom County Public Works. They considered traffic volumes, patterns and lessons from a previous fish passage project.

A “quiet zone” project at the F Street railway crossing in Bellingham is requiring rerouting near Squalicum Marina. (Matt Benoit / Salish Current photo © 2023)

“We work together on a traffic control plan during the design phase of projects,” McKeon said. “A decision is reached and then it is presented to the Whatcom County Council through the local legislative process.”

This process includes a public comment period before the council votes on the ordinance. McKeon said the public comment period was extended two additional weeks before voting commenced on the Hannegan speed limit reduction and additional route closures.

Future projects along 542 are pending but not yet scheduled. Among them is bridge replacement and levee repair on Glacier-Gallup creeks for flood control and salmon habitat restoration. Public comment hearings are scheduled for next year.

Plenty of work

In addition to the state-related 542 closure, the City of Bellingham is creating plenty of its own detours along city streets. 

Since Aug. 2, Woburn Street has been completely closed at various places between Alabama and Barkley Boulevard while the city replaces century-old sewer mains. The project cost is nearly $3.5 million and is being handled by Faber Construction Corporation. 

While the Railroad Trail is still accessible to pedestrians and cyclists, all vehicle traffic including Whatcom Transportation Authority buses are required to detour. The Woburn closure is expected to last about three weeks from its start date, but won’t formally conclude until November, according to the City’s website. 

Construction has also fully and partially closed F Street, between West Holly Street and Roeder Avenue, in downtown Bellingham. There, a “quiet zone” (an area where trains aren’t required to sound horns at public crossings except in emergencies) is being worked on to improve crossing safety for all pedestrians and vehicles. According to the City website, F Street is expected to remain closed into September. 

A full traffic signal and protected pedestrian crossing is soon to be constructed at the intersection of Lincoln and East Maple Streets. In an email, Natalie Monro, the City’s Public Works communications and outreach coordinator, said that traffic impacts should be minimal beyond flaggers and occasional lane closures. 

“This project is part of the larger citywide strategy to improve connection and mobility citywide,” Monro said. “New sidewalks, buffered bike lanes and flashing traffic signals are included in this project to make the area safer and more convenient for bikers and pedestrians.”

Reason for the season

Though it’s easy to fixate on the frustration of inconvenience, all these construction projects are ultimately aimed at improving daily life or the environment.

The 542 project is part of a bigger environmental effort occurring across the state to remove fish passage barriers. 

2013 federal court injunction, brought forward at the behest of 21 Northwest Indian tribes, requires the State of Washington to remove a large number of state-owned culverts blocking salmon and steelhead by 2030. As of June, WSDOT has corrected 114 barriers.

Another Whatcom County culvert, located at Duffner Ditch in Lynden, is scheduled to be removed in mid-September. The project will require a complete short-term closure of State Route 539, the Guide Meridian, in Lynden between Front and Main Streets. WSDOT was unable to provide exact dates for the closure by press time. 

Sewer main replacement has caused detours and closures along Woburn Street throughout past months. (Matt Benoit / Salish Current photo © 2023)

Melissa Ambler, the WSDOT project engineer overseeing both the fish passage projects in Whatcom County, said the state has been replacing fish barriers since the 1990s. Barriers like the Baker highway culvert are over 50 years old, she said, and prevent fish passage either by creating grades too large for fish to jump or a water velocity too fast or slow for them to get by.

At the time they were built, there was nothing intentional about impeding local fish populations. 

“When these structures were built, no one thought that they would be a fish barrier,” she said. “It’s only come from recent education about what’s happening to the fish that these are being determined as fish barriers.”

The fish passage projects can only be constructed during a summertime “fish window,” Ambler said. This timeframe, typically between July 15 and Sept. 30, allows water-based work due to the least amount of fish likely to swim through the area.

The Baker highway project is about halfway through its 125-day scheduled window, Ambler added. Delays have been minimal, limited to a few days of rain and harder than expected soil in spots where metal sheet piles are driven into the ground.

She expects few delays going forward, though the unexpected could always creep up. The highway is likely to re-open from full closure sometime in September, with single-lane closures intermittently  occurring into October before the project is done by November, she said. 

When it’s done, fish will be able to move freely, and a new bridge will grace the Mount Baker Highway at Squalicum Creek. 

Although it seems like an end to road construction can’t come soon enough for many, traffic will eventually be back to normal. 

“DOT realizes that a full roadway closure on state routes is an inconvenience to the community and the traveling public,” Ambler said. “We try to complete the project as quickly and safely as possible. We ask for everyone’s patience as we finish this project.”

— Reported by Matt Benoit

View a time-lapse video of the Mount Baker Highway project:

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