The Scenic Isle Byway becomes a traffic jam | Rockin’ a Hard Place

Has anyone else noticed how much traffic seems to have increased on our Rock’s two-lane main artery with a split personality that morphs from Highway 525 into Highway 20? The Fourth of July weekend was cloudy and chilly, but that didn’t deter the bumper-to-bumper line-up inching through Bayview and Freeland, or creeping through Oak Harbor.

When I first arrived on the Rock, I loved seeing those signs at both ends of the island bidding me to meander along our “Scenic Isle Byway.”

It was an invitation to slow down, inhale the fresh air and enjoy the natural scenery. The 50-mph speed limit was plenty fast enough; you often didn’t have another car right in front of or behind you.

To be sure, there were the occasional impatient ones, but their desire to pass those of us meandering along usually didn’t involve a life-endangering experience.

As with most personal hunches we have on the Rock, finding definitive information to back what we think is happening isn’t simple. Not having absolute proof of what one suspects to be true is one big reason we Rock dwellers love to debate with each other over coffee.

To arm myself for those debates, I set out to determine why there may be more vehicles on our scenic byway. Let’s start with the ferries that bring folks from America to Whidbey.

The number of vehicles crossing both ways from Clinton to Mukilteo increased more than three percent to 514,840 in the first quarter this year versus 2015. The number crossing both ways from Coupeville to Port Townsend increased more than six percent to 69,639. Imagine how many more are coming during the summer!

The state Department of Transportation doesn’t keep quite as close tabs on our scenic byway vehicle counts as it does on the I-5 and I-90 jammed-ways.  But it does have some estimates. Daily traffic across the Deception Pass Bridge rose almost seven percent to 17,500 over the past three years, including more than four million tons of freight per year brought by big trucks.

DOT does monitor traffic at two spots on our byway:  Where Highway 20 intersects Parker Road near Coupeville, 500 more vehicles per day went whizzing past in 2015 versus three years before. And on Highway 525 near Clinton, the daily vehicle count rose seven percent.

Our state parks have seen an increase in overnight visits. Deception Pass, the biggest, had almost 15,000 overnighters in the first quarter this year, up 3.4 percent from last year. Fort Ebey and Fort Casey state parks saw similar increases.  The majority of those overnight campers in those cold weather months of the first quarter came in big, beautiful RVs — mansions on wheels up to 40 feet long.

There is no doubt that cheaper gasoline and an improved economy have brought some of this increased traffic. And it’s true that our Rock has been rightly discovered as a beautiful place for a day trip or a short staycation.

But there is one other major element fueling the increase. Naval Air Station Whidbey Island is growing rapidly.

Three more squadrons are arriving between now and 2018. Military population on the base will be almost 16,000 by the end of this year and is expected to grow to 19,500 by 2018. Available housing is hard to fine in Oak Harbor, so our Navy families are living as far away as Freeland, Anacortes and Burlington — and driving to work.

Add it all up and you see why our scenic byway is often jammed. Despite it all, however, the fresh air and natural scenery are still free for the taking.  Slow down and enjoy them.