Drivers wear out welcome on brick road

In "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," Dorothy follows the yellow brick road all the way to the Emerald City. In Redmond, commuters rattling along the Red Brick Road often have the same destination in mind — only they're traveling a shortcut that's also a fragile piece of state history.

Those who live along the historic road say that cut-through traffic is destroying the brickwork that was once a part of the Yellowstone Trail stretching from Seattle to Boston. Residents have presented a petition to King County urging that the traffic be curbed and the century-old road preserved.

Now it appears their wishes may come true, in part anyway. County and state road officials are considering changes that would restrict traffic flow along the 1.3-mile stretch of 196th Avenue Northeast, between Union Hill and Highway 202.

Driving along the hand-laid, uneven road is akin to taking a step back into history. Horses, deer and birds populate the rural backdrop. Even the speed limit — 25 miles per hour — is from a bygone era.

The route began in 1901 as a dirt and gravel track and was resurfaced in 1913 with distinctive, locally made bricks, according to county records. It became part of a zigzagging route of rural roads that connected to Boston before interstate highways were conceived.

In 1989, the county spent $600,000 restoring the road as part of the state's centennial celebrations. These days, it is designated as a King County landmark for its engineering significance and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Amo Marr has lived along the Red Brick Road for 75 years. She can remember when there was a sawmill, a dairy farm and a mink ranch. She recalls when Model T Fords would stop for cream and vegetables before continuing to trundle along what was then the main route over Snoqualmie Pass.

Even then, traffic was a problem, she said. The Union Hill intersection became known as "Dead Man's Corner" because the upright cars of the day would tip over if they tried to turn too fast. The volume and speed of traffic have increased, she said, but the road remains just as treacherous.

"It's a terrible road, but I don't want to get rid of it," Marr said. "We are destroying everything old."

While other historic routes are recognized around the state, very few have original surfacing, said Kate Krafft, coordinator of the county's landmarks program. Bricks were used for only a short time in the early 1900s before being replaced by asphalt. While the historic designations prevent major changes to the road such as removing or paving over the bricks, they do not address traffic flow, Krafft said. Decisions over how landmarks are used remain in the hands of local authorities, she said, in this case county road officials.

That is why Todd Colby and a majority of other residents along 196th stepped into the debate. Concerned that a state project to widen Highway 202 would not address the increasing cut-through problems along the brick road, they presented a petition to the county two months ago.

"You can see the wear and tear," Colby said. "You can see the bricks popping out. It is a slow thing, but it adds up."

They suggested a number of alternatives: restricting access to the brick road from Highway 202 (including the popular Northeast 55th Place entrance); building an overpass along the highway; improving the brickwork to the point it could withstand more traffic; and implementing temporary fixes such as speed bumps and better signs.

Not everyone agrees that changes are necessary, however. At least one brick-road resident likes having unfettered access. A nursery is concerned that it could lose business if restrictions are imposed, and emergency-service personnel worry about getting to homes.

A traffic survey conducted over summer indicates more than half of the cars traveling along the brick road use it as a cut-through. Crafty commuters on congested Highway 202 use the brick road as an alternative way to get to Highway 520, or for traveling north to Avondale Road.

Overall use is low, at between 520 and 580 cars per day, said Mark Mitchell, the county traffic-operations supervisor. But an estimated 350 of those cars use the 55th Place cut-through route.

Last night county engineers presented their recommendations to Harold Taniguchi, the director of the county Department of Transportation. Taniguchi is to release his findings within 10 days.

Paulette Norman, the county's acting road engineer, said she is recommending that Highway 202 remain connected to the brick road but that the county also consider other alternatives.

Those include closure of the southern entrance to 55th; better signs and enforcement of speed limits; and possibly working with the state to restrict access between Highway 202 the brick road.

One option the state is considering would add a median barrier along the expanded highway at 196th, which would prevent eastbound traffic from entering the brick road.

David Edwards, who is heading the $36 million state project to add a lane in each direction to Highway 202, said that adding a median barrier would be a minor alteration to the project. The state plans to convert 55th into a cul-de-sac anyway, he said, and would not likely object to an earlier closure.

Widening the highway should improve traffic flow and reduce the incentive to use the brick road as a cut-through anyway, he said.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or