By Pat Jenkins
The same part of State Route 7 that was closed for five months last year because of dirt and rock slides will be closed again this summer, this time for work that highway officials hope will be a permanent solution to conditions that pose a risk to motorists.
The state Department of Transportation (DOT) couldn’t confirm last week an exact timeline for the closure, but it’s expected that the two-lane highway between Alder Cutoff Road and the State Route 161 junction will be off-limits approximately June through October.
That’s the same five-month period that a closure was in effect last year while DOT engineers and crews monitored a crumbling hillside and pondered ways to keep rocks and other debris from cascading onto the roadway. Because of cost considerations, DOT eventually put off permanent repairs of the hillside until this year, but the highway was reopened last October with some restrictions. The speed limit was reduced to 20 miles per hour, the lanes were narrowed to nine feet wide in each direction, and massive metal shipping containers – the kind that usually carry freight on trains, ships and trailers – were placed between the slope and the roadway to catch debris that might tumble down during the winter months.
DOT wants to stabilize the hillside by installing a soil nail wall fixed permanently with soil nails. The proposed technique for shoring up the hillside is common in many places in Washington, but will be used for the first time at the SR-7 trouble spot between Alder and LaGrande.
DOT spokeswoman Kelly Stowe said work is scheduled to begin between mid-June and early-July and be finished by mid-October.
Detour routes will be announced as they’re finalized, but “at this point” they’ll probably be the same ones used last year, Stowe said Monday.
Eatonville hopes for a business windfall from the upcoming closure. During last year’s closure, Alder Cutoff Road and State Route 161 were the detour route. This year, town officials hope DOT will designate Eatonville Cutoff Road as a detour, which could bring additional traffic through the town’s main business district, luring people on their way to Mount Rainier National Park to stop for services and merchandise.
Stowe said DOT’s goal with detours is to minimize the amount of time and distance on motorists.
According to DOT, the stretch of SR-7 that will close averages 1,600 motorists per day when open. It’s one of the main routes to and from Mount Rainier. Traffic is heaviest during the peak summer months for visiting the park, which resulted in traffic jams on weekends and holidays last summer.
At least one holiday will be detour-free. Stowe said project officials plan to have State Route 7 open for Labor Day weekend in September.
Mayor Ray Harper said the town is working with DOT on the possibility of installing a temporary traffic light at Center Street and Washington Avenue to help traffic flow during this year’s highway closure.
DOT officials have said they recognize the inconveniences caused by the closures but want to put the motoring public’s safety first.