Highway 502 workers get their feet wet

Construction can't start yet, but habitat work is under way

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

 
photoSteven Lane/The Columbian A sign scrawled on the front of a shuttered Dollars Corner bar bids farewell to its former customers as it awaits its fate.
photoA bar at Dollars Corner sits boarded up waiting for the widening of Highway 502 between I-5 and Battle Ground, Friday, July 20, 2012. (Steven Lane/The Columbian)
photoA wetland mitigation project connected to the widening of Highway 502 between I-5 and Battle Ground, is underway near N.E. 67th Avenue, Friday, July 20, 2012. WSDOT employee Michelle Jacobs-Brown nets fish, frogs and other critters from Mill Creek to be relocated away from the project.(Steven Lane/The Columbian)
photoA wetland mitigation project connected to the widening of Highway 502 between I-5 and Battle Ground, is underway near N.E. 67th Avenue, Friday, July 20, 2012. (Steven Lane/The Columbian)

The widening of state Highway 502 near Battle Ground isn't scheduled to begin in earnest until next year, but there's plenty of dirt moving at the site this summer.

Crews have started reshaping part of the nearby landscape as part of the project's wetland mitigation process -- essentially creating new wetlands to make up for existing ones buried by construction. Much of the effort centers on a large property off Northeast 67th Avenue, just north of the highway.

In all, about 110 acres of land are undergoing changes. But the trucks and equipment that started lining local roads July 5 should be gone this fall.

"We've only got 75 days," said Chris Tams, an area engineer with the Washington State Department of Transportation. "We're here for a couple months, and then we're gone."

That's only phase one of an $88 million project that will widen Highway 502 to four lanes from Interstate 5 to the west end of Battle Ground. WSDOT planners hope the end result improves safety and traffic flow along the corridor, while accommodating future growth.

Wetland mitigation typically happens at or near the end of a large construction project. It's somewhat unusual to build new wetlands before the existing landscape is affected. But WSDOT hasn't acquired all the right of way it needs to start laying down new lanes on Highway 502. In fact, planners have a long way to go.

Of the more than 170 properties WSDOT will need to acquire for the project, 81 remain unsettled. Seventy-six have closed or are in condemnation, and 23 more are in the review process, according to WSDOT. The agency has been in negotiations -- at times contentious -- with dozens of homeowners and businesses along the corridor.

In the meantime, crews under lead contractor Tapani Underground will haul some 110,000 cubic yards of dirt while carving out new wetland and habitat.

The property off Northeast 67th Avenue, which already resembles a lake during the winter, will get a new water channel and lower grades in places as part of the work. The idea is to make the land more varied and keep water habitat from all disappearing at once, said Dan Corlett, roadside restoration and mitigation manager with WSDOT.

Invasive grass will be removed in places. Trees will be planted near an area of towering oaks already there.

Other wetland work is happening along Curtin Creek, east of Interstate 205 and well south of the main project area. The Highway 502 expansion will affect just over 11 acres of existing wetland, according to WSDOT.

Much of the excavated fill is being taken to another WSDOT property off Northeast 10th Avenue, south of Highway 502. That's where WSDOT hopes to eventually build a maintenance facility. The preparation is a stark change for neighbors.

"It was a field, and now it's truck after truck after truck coming in here," Tams said.

Transition underway

Crews can't start expanding the highway itself until all those properties are nailed down, Tams said. The work will require relocating utilities and other infrastructure, which can't be done part-way, he said.

"You have to have all the properties purchased so you can connect the dots," Tams said.

The highway is already showing signs of transition. Several buildings are boarded up with "No trespassing" signs posted. A few were demolished in training burns for local firefighters.

At Dollars Corner -- the busy intersection of Highway 502 and Northeast 72nd Avenue -- an old tavern sits closed for good. On the front door, a hand-written message begins, "Good-bye Corner!"

The project's schedule calls for the highway widening to begin in summer 2013.

"It's a very aggressive schedule," Tams said, "and we're doing everything we can to meet that."

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.