If Initiative 976 becomes law, it will blow a $451 million hole in Washington state’s current transportation budget.
And, at this point, that prospect has put on hold many state road projects including a big one, locally: widening U.S. Highway 12 to four lanes from Frenchtown to Nine Mile Hill. That’s Phase 7 of eliminating the dangerous two-lane road from Walla Walla to Pasco.
It’s a concerning development for those of us living in the Walla Walla Valley.
Yet, in Olympia, lawmakers are having a debate over transportation goals. No, not what will or won’t be done to the roads specifically, but over semantics. The House and Senate are considering removing “congestion relief” and “improved freight mobility” from their transportation goals.
House Bill 2688 and Senate Bill 6398 adopt seven goals: Accessibility, safety, environment and climate, health and resilience, equity and environmental justice, preservation, and functionality.
“Instead of continuing to build our roads where individual members come up with projects because there’s a congestion in their district, what we need to be doing is we need to be looking at this more holistically,” said Rep. Sharon Shewmaker, D-Bellingham, sponsor of the House bill. “Accessibility is really what we want to get at.”
That’s all fine and dandy, but what does it mean for Eastern Washington and, specifically, the Walla Walla Valley?
Perhaps nothing, or at least not much, as congestion relief is not among the chief concerns of local drivers.
But what is extremely important is safety. That’s why the push to makes Highway 12 four lanes to the Tri-Cities has been Job One for two decades. Two-lane stretches of roadway can be extremely dangerous in bad weather or when drivers unfamiliar with blind spots in the roadway attempt to pass.
So, if this new wording of the transportation goals gives the green light to safety projects, we are all in.
The local project, however, was not necessarily looked at as a safety matter when it was put on hold. Instead, it was targeted by the Department of Transportation in the wake of I-976 approval (and Gov. Jay Inslee’s order) for postponement because the bid process was not fully concluded.
The need for creating a much safer roadway, however, should supersede that concern.
The constitutionality of I-976 has been challenged, so it’s very possible it will never become law. In that case, the Highway 12 project should start moving forward.
Yet, that could take months. Phase 7 of the Highway 12 project was just about set to go. The design, land acquisition and environmental studies have been completed. All that was left was accepting a bid — and the digging could begin.
Widening of Highway 12 is a safety issue. The delay in getting the job done is unacceptable.