In Our View: Better Roads

Plenty of highway projects locally; state begins long-term planning

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Two major transformations in transportation — one immediate, the other long-term — are taking place in the state, and Southwest Washington is playing a key role in both.

The first is a wave of highway improvement projects, almost two dozen of which are in this corner of the state. In a recent Columbian story, Abbi Russell, a state transportation department spokesperson, called it “the largest construction season in Southwest Washington that we’ve ever had.”

That’s good news for motorists who are eager to see the pace and safety of highways improve. Actually, it’s bad news at first as typical inconveniences of construction projects kick in, but forced slow-downs and orange-barrel obstructions will be temporary and worth the long-term benefits.

One of the most significant projects is the $133 million Salmon Creek Interchange Project that is moving into its third phase. Crews will add lanes in both directions of Interstate 5 between Northeast 139th and 179th Streets. Afternoon rush-hour commuters will be glad to see a new exit ramp constructed for northbound traffic. These projects are small parts of the massive new interchange that will take shape over the next few years at I-5 and 139th Street.

Another long-awaited freeway improvement is under way to the south. Crews are working nightly to resurface all lanes of I-5 between the Columbia River and East 39th Street. Lane closures could stretch as late as 7 a.m. on Saturday mornings, and ramp closures could affect multiple exits. Anyone who has driven the downtown portion of I-5 recently has seen the rapid deterioration of lanes in both directions. It got so bad that the $4.4 million project was moved up from 2012 to this summer.

The second major transformation will emerge over the next several months in planning stages, and over the next several years in funding phases. Gov. Chris Gregoire — driven by two dramatic realities — has formed the “Connecting Washington Task Force.” The group will develop a 10-year investing and funding plan for the state’s transportation system and submit it to next year’s Legislature. First, Gregoire knows that hundreds of currently funded projects will be under contract or completed by the end of the 2011-13 biennium. Second, she knows that funding sources are drying up, and this sparsity of money will collide soon with increased infrastructure demands during the hoped-for economic recovery.

The good news is that 90 percent of the highway projects in recent years were completed on time, and 92 percent came in under budget. That’s a good precedent for the task force. But the bad news is that the ferry fleet is aging rapidly, mass-transit needs are multiplying and additional revenue sources are needed.

Clark County residents should be encouraged by a couple of recent developments. In announcing the task force members, Gregoire mentioned three major projects in the state, and one is the Columbia River Crossing. Also, we’ve got a local connection on that task force: Tim Schauer, chair-elect of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce and Chief Operating Officer at MacKay & Sposito Inc. Schauer has been active in numerous transportation issues and can be relied upon as a strong representative of local interests.

To be “charged with developing a 10-year investing and funding plan for the state’s transportation system” looks rather daunting. We suspect the task will be even tougher than it looks.