One lane of traffic over Loup expected by July 9
By Ann McCreary
Highway 20 over Loup Loup Pass is predicted to open to one lane of traffic by July 9, earlier than previously anticipated and good news to people who normally use that route for their work commute to and from the Methow and Okanogan valleys.
In the almost 12 weeks since Highway 20 was closed by multiple washouts in early April, commuters have had to cope with a much longer drive down the valley and through Pateros to get from the Methow Valley to Omak or Okanogan.
“What a sore subject,” said Don McIvor, who lives near Twisp and teaches at Wenatchee Valley College in Omak. “It’s made the quarter miserable, quite frankly. It’s hard to put a sugar coating on it.”
“Going through Pateros, my commute went from 90 miles a day to 180 miles a day. Three hours in a car makes a huge difference,” McIvor said. “I told the department chair, only half in jest, that if the road doesn’t open, you’ll never see me again.”
His wife, Mary, also works at Wenatchee Valley College, but has a different schedule, so they weren’t able to carpool.
Karen Jacobsen of Twisp is behavioral health director at Okanogan Behavioral Health in Omak. While the Highway 20 closure seemed an inconvenience initially, Jacobsen said it has resulted in some unexpected benefits.
When it became clear that the highway over the Loup would be closed for some time, she began to look for alternatives to the long commute.
“I realized it wasn’t going to be sustainable to be driving through Pateros regularly. This commute takes it out of you. I felt I had to protect my health, both mental and physical,” Jacobsen said.
“I started asking friends in Omak and Okanogan about renting a bedroom,” she said. She found an acquaintance who invited her to stay at her home a couple of nights a week.
“We’re kind of colleagues and have worked together, but hadn’t really had a chance to get to know each other. Now that we’re spending two nights a week together, the friendship has blossomed and we’re finding ways to enjoy each other’s’ company,” Jacobsen said.
Even after the highway reopens, Jacobsen said, she may consider staying over sometimes.
Michelle Gaines, Winthrop town clerk, devised a similar solution. Gaines commutes from her home in Omak four days a week, and has temporarily adjusted her work schedule to three long days, and she stays in a Winthrop hotel one or two nights.
“The hotel worked with me for an affordable rate. It’s more expensive than gas would cost me, but it’s worth it not to be always traveling,” she said. She’s found that working into the evenings on her longer work days provides quiet time to focus on projects.
“I am looking forward to the Loup opening. It’s going to seem like a quick drive. I’ve gotten used to that Loup trip. It’s a good way to gear up for work in the morning and gear down for home in the evening,” Gaines said.
Josh Thomson, who lives in Twisp and works as a county engineer in Okanogan, has to leave home at 5:45 a.m. to get to his job at 7 a.m., and doesn’t get home until 5:45 p.m.
“It seems more draining to spend that extra time in a car than at work,” Thomson said. And he said he’s missed time with his family.
“I’ve missed a lot of baseball games this spring,” said Thomson, who has four young children.
Fortunately for commuters, repair crews expect to be able to open one lane of Highway 20, with alternating traffic, by July 9, about 11 days earlier than previously predicted, said Dan Lewis, Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) project engineer.
The single-lane traffic will be at the two most severely damaged locations — one about 3 miles west of the summit and the other about 6 miles east of the summit.
“At the least, by that date we hope to get one lane open for two or three hours in the morning and two or three hours in the afternoon — from 6-8 a.m. and 4-7 p.m. — to let commuters get through,” Lewis said.
Nine locations along a 16-mile section of highway were damaged by erosion and debris flows during spring rainstorms. At milepost 211.85, about 3 miles west of the summit, crews excavated a massive hole almost 90 feet deep to remove saturated soil and install new culverts to prevent future washouts.
Using dirt from adjacent U.S. Forest Service property, more than half of the excavated area had been filled by early this week. The site will require about 50,000 cubic yards of dirt — about 5,000 truckloads — to complete the fill below the new road, Lewis said.
Gaining permission to move dirt from the Forest Service land, rather than trucking it in from another location, helped move the project forward, Lewis said.
“That’s where we’ve been able to shave about a week of the schedule, working with the Forest Service to utilize that material directly adjacent to the site,” he said.
The road will likely open with one gravel lane initially to allow traffic through, until it can be repaved, he said.
On the east side of Loup Loup Pass, crews are still struggling to complete repairs at the site of a landslide at milepost 221.08, about 6 miles past the summit, which damaged the shoulder of the road. Repair crews from KRCI, the Wenatchee company contracted for the road work, are working to install a rock buttress at the bottom of the slope to stabilize it, Lewis said.
The job is made more difficult because multiple springs of water are flowing from the hill above the work area.
“It keeps eating up the slope and eroding it,” Lewis said. “We’re trying to get rock in there as fast as possible,” but the erosion took out part of a temporary road built to haul rocks in by trucks, so they now have to be delivered to the site by excavators, he said.
That site is also expected to be one lane, with alternating traffic, when it first opens, Lewis said.
Some areas with less damage have already been repaved, and by the end of June WSDOT hopes to have everything finished with the exception of the two most damaged locations east and west of the summit, Lewis said.
Work on road striping, shoulder repairs and ditches will likely continue throughout July, he said.
He said repair crews have encountered many motorists over the past three months who ignore the road closure signs and drive up to the impassable construction sites.
“There were people with RVs, campers, motorcycles,” Lewis said. Earlier this week, a motorist pulling a tent trailer behind his car reached the repair site on the east side of the summit and had to try to turn around in a tight area.
“He got jackknifed. We had trucks trying to drive up the hill with loads of asphalt,” Lewis said. “Eventually, we had to have one of our truck drivers help him out. It probably took 20 – 30 minutes.”