By Steve Hunter
Drivers who head east, west north or south through Kent all run into the same problem – heavy traffic.
There is no quick way to drive through the city because of thick traffic, especially at morning and evening rush hours.
Kent city officials know drivers struggle to go north or south through the valley as well as between the valley and the East Hill and West Hill.
The city completed several street projects that have helped, such as the South 277th corridor extension and a few of the street overpasses at railroad crossings.
But city officials have more than $600 million in proposed projects over the next 20 years to address traffic problems, and so far, no money to pay for the projects.
“It’s a broken system,” said Tim LaPorte, city deputy public works director. “There is not a quick fix or a simple fix.”
A heavy volume of traffic as well as waits for trains cause vehicles to back up throughout the city.
The problem starts with commuters (including those from outside of Kent) who use Pacific Highway, West Valley Highway, Fourth Avenue, East Valley Highway and Central Avenue to travel north and south through the city because Highway 167 and Interstate 5 are so overloaded.
The city streets were not built to serve as commuter routes when constructed decades ago.
“The local arterial roads served their purpose (in the 1970s) when they were intended to distribute traffic from the freeways into local neighborhoods and the business community,” LaPorte said. “They don’t do that anymore because the main arterial roads failed and people try to find any alternate route they can. People try to go the fastest route and that’s not necessarily the most direct.”
There are an estimated 250,000 vehicle trips per day in Kent. The city has about 300 miles of streets, including 105 intersections with traffic signals.
Drivers become frustrated with traffic signals as vehicles often back up at the lights and cannot get through the intersections at rush hour until a couple of cycles of light changes.
“About half of them have a very poor level of service,” LaPorte said of the intersections with traffic lights.
City crews added left-turn and right-turn pockets a few years ago at James Street and Central Avenue, but many more intersections need similar improvements to keep traffic flowing.
City traffic officials set signals to last longer for pedestrian crossings along Smith Street and James Street in the downtown area.
“The signal timing is longer for pedestrian crossings so that slows down vehicles because they have to wait longer,” said Cathy Mooney, city senior transportation planner.
Drivers also contend with waiting for trains along the heavy east and west commuter routes of James Street, Smith Street and Willis Street.
About 60 trains go through Kent each day, from freight trains to Amtrak to the Sounder commuter train. Railroad gates are down for an average of 2.5 hours per day in the city.
Commuters must wait on Smith Street when the Sounder picks up or drops off passengers in downtown Kent. Of course, people who ride the train take vehicles off the highway.
“We’re pro-transit and pro-roads,” LaPorte said.
But despite the commuter trains, light rail and even workers who telecommute from home, traffic congestion remains.
City officials expect construction of the South 228th Street overpass above the railroad tracks to be finished this fall. But many other projects to separate the roads from the railroad tracks remain to be funded along Willis Street, South 212th and South 228th.
“We have $170 million worth of (railroad overpass or underpass) projects we would like to build, but no funds,” Mooney said.
City staff has proposed a transportation impact fee on developers of new homes and commercial buildings. The City Council also has informally discussed other options, such as a business license fee charge per employee, vehicle license fees or voted general obligation bonds, to raise revenue to pay for street-railroad grade separation projects as well as new and improved streets.
So far, the city has not approved any new funding sources for streets.
“There’s no mechanism for funding,” LaPorte said. “In the meantime, we waste money sitting at intersections.”
The federal stimulus funds helped a bit this year, but did not even come close to what the city needs. City officials will use that money over the next year to help widen the East Valley Highway between Highway 167 and South 212th Street.
“The city of Kent did very well when we received $2 million,” LaPorte said. “But that’s out of about $600 million we need.”
Many commuters would like a return to the days of easy driving through the valley. Drivers also run into traffic congestion on the East Hill along the Benson Highway and Kent-Kangley Road.
“People want to get it back to the same connectivity as 30 years ago when you could get on Highway 167 and go,” LaPorte said. “But it’s so far broken, it’s bizarre. We have not put money in infrastructure and now we even forego basic road maintenance. We have not kept up (on maintenance) in Kent for the last five years.”
The lack of road maintenance can lead to even bigger, more expensive problems as city planners look ahead 20 years. LaPorte said about 250 miles of the 300 miles of Kent streets need additional maintenance.
“The cost can become a point of no return,” LaPorte said. “The cost could go from $600 million to $1.2 billion.”
Even with all of the traffic congestion and lack of funding in Kent, the city does sit in better shape than other cities.
“A lot of cities are in much worse shape than we are,” LaPorte said. “Some cities have nothing to put into street systems. They are totally broke. It’s a silent crisis in our region.”
Steve Hunter is a writer at the Kent Reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Steve Hunter