Traffic

Decadeslong wait on SR 167 nearing an end

For 40 years, they have been hearing about the highway.

Two brothers married two sisters and settled down on land in Fife. They raised two families. They read newspaper stories saying that one day, state Route 167 would pass through the area and connect to the Port of Tacoma.

Some neighbors sold. Nearby houses came down. But no highway went up. The state didn’t have the money. Unused land fell into disrepair, invaded by blackberries and suspicious cars.

The Mattich family stayed.

“Where would you go? When you live in the country all these years,” said younger brother Ed Mattich, a recent widower whose one-story house is ideal for navigating with the help of a walker. “I’m going to live in an apartment house? I don’t visualize that.”

Then last summer came word that the Legislature had raised the gas tax to pay for highway projects. The SR 167 extension project made the cut.

It’s still a long way off. With about four years needed for buying land, updating environmental research and designing the road, estimates have construction running from 2019 to 2029.

When today’s preschoolers are adults, they can expect to drive a tolled SR 167 from the port to Interstate 405 in Renton. By then, Washingtonians will already be traveling beneath Seattle in a Bertha-drilled state Route 99 tunnel and riding light-rail trains from downtown Tacoma to the Hilltop, and from Seattle to Redmond, Lynnwood and Kent.

EXPENSIVE HIGHWAY

Forgive some doubt from local residents who have been hearing for years about plans to pick up the highway where it left off in Puyallup in the 1980s and build the last 6 miles to the port.

“Every couple years when they bring it up, the money just goes up higher and higher and higher,” said Pat Bailey of Fife.

A quarter-century ago, in February 1991, The News Tribune reported that a “decades-old plan” to build a four-lane extension would cost $50 million to $100 million.

Today, the state has spent more than that sum without laying an inch of pavement.

But since the proposed project ballooned to six lanes and roughly $2 billion by 2008, the price tag has come down. A 2012 update based on the latest construction prices lowered the cost of a full six-lane build-out, including a carpool lane in each direction, to $1.5 billion.

However, lawmakers building a $16 billion transportation package this year didn’t go for the carpool lanes. They considered an even more modest option, but settled on the four-lane configuration — two general-purpose lanes in each direction — at a cost of $933 million.

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Carpool lanes remain an option in the far-off future if lawmakers ever decide to kick in the remaining $567 million.

Charging tolls to access the new highway is expected to reduce the demand for extra lanes, at least in the short term.

Anticipated tolling revenue over four decades would raise a fraction of the upfront cost of the project — up to $65 million, according to a 2013 tolling study, or about 7 percent — but would cover ongoing maintenance and preservation once it’s built.

“The projects are going to be built probably in stages,” said Craig Stone of the state Department of Transportation, “so we’re working through what would be the first stage, what would be the second stage.

“If we open up a segment, we’re going to have to make sure the tolling is in place when it opens up because it’s going to contribute to the funding.”

Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson named Stone in October as the program administrator overseeing SR 167 and the extension of state Route 509 in South King County.

The two new tolled highways are to be built in tandem as one project dubbed the Puget Sound Gateway. Lawmakers considered but rejected adding toll lanes on Interstate 5 to help pay for the two new segments.

Like the Pierce County gap on SR 167, the missing piece of SR 509 from Sea-Tac Airport to I-5 is seen as an obstacle to movement of freight by truck.

CARGO BOTTLENECK

Appliances, clothing, home products, electronic gadgets and other imports arrive in the Northwest on container ships and end up on store shelves. In between, there are companies such as Sumner’s Norvanco International Inc.

Norvanco contracts with truckers to bring cargo to its two warehouses in Sumner. The typical truck then heads back to the port to get in line for its next load, said Marcus Moore, the logistics company’s vice president of sales and marketing.

“The faster the cargo gets to our location or any of our peers in the industry, the faster it can be turned around and put into the marketplace for sale,” Moore said.

With no straight-shot highway, trucks either take local streets or go miles out of their way, and often waste time in traffic either way.

An SR 167 extension has long been on the wish list of Pierce County economic-development advocates.

By speeding the movement of goods from the port to and from east Pierce and King county warehouses, Eastern Washington farms and Midwestern markets, the thinking goes, the highway would help the port keep up with its rivals in British Columbia, California and even the East Coast.

“Freight mobility ties the economy of the whole state of Washington, so that we can move our apples and our wheat and our manufacturing goods to the ports from Eastern Washington,” Gov. Jay Inslee told reporters at an October ceremony celebrating the project.

“This has been the highway to nowhere. Now it’s the highway to the future.”

Boosters of the project sometimes cite predictions from a 2007 consultant’s report tying the project to creation of 80,000 jobs, but that estimate is likely to be off the mark since it hinges on old assumptions of sizzling growth at the Port of Tacoma. The rise in the number of containers passing through the port is falling far short of what was predicted in the report.

The 2007 report says it could spur development in downtown Tacoma by providing a direct connection to the growing eastern part of the county.

Whatever the long-term economic results, the state Department of Transportation says the project would generate up to 4,200 short-term construction jobs.

The study also found an extension would help drivers by saving between 8,500 and 13,900 hours a year of our collective travel time, although that analysis didn’t take tolls into account.

Critics of the project say it promotes sprawl and relies on a view of trade that overstates the importance of Washington’s ports to the state’s economy. In their view, the money could be better used for fixing existing roads and bridges.

Having a highway into and out of the port would remove traffic from I-5 and local streets in Fife. However, charging tolls on the new highway will keep some drivers from making the switch.

The area has become “Truckville,” said Mattich, who remembers when he raised horses and could run them to the Tacoma Tideflats to settle them down.

Not anymore. One time, it took him 25 minutes to drive a little more than a mile to the Johnny’s at Fife restaurant.

COULD BE DISPLACED

Mattich concedes that the highway is needed.

“But it’s still kind of hard to say, ‘OK, I’ll get out of my house after all these years,’ ” said Mattich, sitting on his couch in a living room paneled in knotty pine.

The state’s interest in his property and that of his brother and sister-in-law, Bob and Delma Mattich, has waxed and waned as designs for the highway changed, they said.

A Navy veteran, Ed Mattich ran a door-manufacturing operation while raising two boys and two girls.

He has seen his share of losses over 86 years, starting when a car crash left him an orphan at age 12. He has outlived his 8-year-old grandson, one of his sons and his wife.

“He has survived so much, and it breaks my heart to think he may also need to surrender his heart-filled home,” daughter-in-law Allison Mattich said.

WSDOT isn’t saying yet whose property it needs to buy as it looks to acquire the remaining 30 percent of the project’s right of way, mainly between mid-2017 and mid-2019.

Having already bought most of the undeveloped property it needs, what’s left is likely to displace people and businesses.

Reaction is likely to vary because property owners and tenants can expect to be paid for their trouble.

Warren Walsborn said the state paid his daughter and son-in-law to move out of the house they were renting next door to him. The payment was enough to cover all of the rent they had paid in living there for two years, he said.

Early designs show the highway just missing Walsborn’s house, where he runs a window-washing business, but close enough to restrict his access to the street in front of the house.

WSDOT isn’t sure if it would buy his land or only his access rights to 54th Avenue, which would involve creating a new way for him to access his home.

“This is my retirement, man,” Walsborn said, “and now it looks like I’m going to lose it. I don’t know if that’s going to be good or bad.”

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826, @Jordan_Schrader

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