It was going to be an ordinary drive to my ordinary appointment at Olds Station. I left home, as usual, around 5:15 p.m., thinking I had a very ordinary 15-minute trip ahead of me. Little did I know I was driving into the future.
By the time I reached Fifth and Miller I could see the traffic, the congestion, the gridlock. Northbound cars were backed up Miller nearly to Ninth, something I had never seen before, unless there was some traffic-blocking calamity. I assumed I would soon find out what was holding things up, an accident perhaps. But no. In another 15 minutes I was near the always-chaotic intersection of Miller and North Wenatchee Avenue and I could see clearly I was doomed. Cars were bumper-to-bumper and at a standstill as far ahead as I could see. If you had to cross the Wenatchee River Bridge you were in deep trouble, and that seemed very far away. It was a trap.
I crept north at a Los Angeles freeway pace. I expected to see the cause of the gridlock — maybe a jacknifed semi, or a burst water main, or a sinkhole the size of a house. There could be a chemical spill blocked off by the hazmat squad, I thought. But, nothing. I finally made it. It took closer to 45 minutes than 15. As near as I could tell, this was just regular gridlock. There was no natural disaster, no emergency. Maybe a shift change at a fruit warehouse injected a little more than the average traffic, but it was a mess.
Better get used to it. It doesn’t take much to jam up traffic on North Wenatchee Avenue in rush hour, said Jeff Wilkens of the Wenatchee Valley Transportation Council. Here in Wenatchee, we are prisoners of geography. “There are only two ways off the island,” said Wilkens — the Wenatchee River crossing to the north, and the George Sellar Bridge to the south. Growth brings people, many of whom work in Wenatchee and live outside it. North Wenatchee Avenue is a classic bottleneck. “The real problem we have … there is no place else for this traffic to go,” said Wilkens.
The way to help is to build another way to get on or off the island. The Transportation Council has chosen as its top priority a project called the Confluence Parkway. The Wenatchee City Council recently added its endorsement. It would take traffic from Olds Station, across a new Wenatchee River Bridge, south through a corridor between the railroad tracks and Loop Trail, and then to a redesigned and rebuilt Miller-North Wenatchee Avenue intersection. There would be a new railroad underpass for North Miller so train traffic won’t block things. With Confluence Parkway, you could drive into central Wenatchee without driving down North Wenatchee Avenue, at all.
Of course, this plan is hideously expensive. The estimate is $200 million, three times the cost of the big project at the George Sellar Bridge to the south. The chances of landing partial funding for a first phase are up in the air, said Wilkens. Much will depend on wrangling now under way between Legislature and governor over a new transportation package and a gas tax to fund it. The Senate Transportation Committee, a big part of the discussion, will stop in Wenatchee on a statewide “feedback tour” Sept. 23 to hear local reactions and concerns, and that could be important. It is set for 6-9 p.m. at the Chelan County PUD auditorium.
An addendum: Back in 2005 the Transportation Council did a study, that showed the average trip from the Wenatchee River Bridge to Miller Street took seven minutes. In 20 years, with projected population and economic growth and no changes to North Wenatchee Avenue, the same trip will take 33 minutes, it projected. The recession of 2008 may have set that back another five years, Wilkens said. But, think about that. We don’t have much time to waste.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.