By Pat Jenkins
A detour created by a long closure of State Route 7 turned an intersection in Eatonville into a bottleneck that tried the patience of drivers and police this summer.
On the busiest weekends, vehicles rerouted through town on their way to and from Mount Rainier have backed up for miles while crawling through the intersection of Center Street and Washington Avenue. The worst jams may have been during the Labor Day holiday weekend, when lines of cars six miles long in places were reported over the three days.
SR-7, one of the main routes to Mount Rainier National Park and nearby destinations, has been closed for safety reasons between Alder Cutoff Road and the State Route 161 junction since June 7. That’s when state highway workers discovered rocks and other debris had cascaded down a hillside onto the roadway and that trees high on the slope were leaning, an indication – confirmed later by soil tests – of long-term instability and further risk for motorists below.
During the closure, the SR-7 detour has sent park visitors through Eatonville. The chokepoint at Center and Washington is made worse by mountain-bound traffic from SR-161, which is Washington Avenue in-town.
The Washington-Center intersection where traffic from the two state highways converges is a four-way stop controlled by stop signs. There is no traffic signal, though town officials have suggested to the state Department of Transportation that a temporary signal could help with traffic control.
Eatonville Police officers, aided by State Patrol troopers during Labor Day weekend, have tried to loosen the intersection jams by directing drivers through the intersection – but to little avail. Long backups persisted, both on Alder Cutoff to the east of town and on Washington/SR-161 to the north.
Police chief Jason McGuire noted Eatonville’s tiny police department, with only five officers and a tight budget, can’t devote an officer solely to traffic control.
“They can’t be out there the whole day. They have other calls to handle,” he said. “Having our officers directing traffic does little to help the situation.”
The assignment of state troopers was a state expense, not the town’s. Eatonville officials asked for the assistance to take pressure off its own police, said town administrator Doug Beagle.
Beagle said he recently asked DOT informally if “it’s time to consider putting a temporary traffic light” at the Washington-Center intersection. Even with no more holiday weekends and the peak summer season ending before SR-7 is scheduled to reopen, jams at the intersection are still bothersome and a result of problems with a state highway, he said.
Installing a permanent signal – a long-term nod to any future traffic snarls if SR-7 were ever blocked again – would cost the town an estimated $600,000 for its share of accompanying intersection improvements, such as left-turn lanes. That’s beyond the town’s ability to pay.
SR-7 will likely remain closed into October, according to DOT. It’s expected to take at least that long to stabilize the Alder-area hillside by installing a soil nail wall – a blanketlike material that will be fixed permanently with soil nails DOT officials hope it will be a permanent solution to the problem.
A landslide at the same location in April forced a closure of the highway. In May, DOT crews removed trees and other material from the hillside in an attempt to help stabilize it. The sliding resumed in June, however. DOT officials have said the problem is worse during rainy seasons.
The soil nail wall technique has been used in many places in Washington, but hasn’t been tried before at the trouble spot in Alder, according to DOT.
No injuries or damage to vehicles was reported during the latest rockslides or since the DOT-orderd closure, which has stayed in force for the public’s safety and to make it easier for crews and geotechnicians to work in the area.