WSDOT delays Highway 502 project

Property acquisition remains stumbling block, officials say

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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A longer-than-expected property acquisition process has delayed a planned expansion of state Highway 502 into Battle Ground, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.

The decision means the project schedule will be pushed back one year, said WSDOT spokeswoman Abbi Russell. Instead of beginning construction this summer, contractors will begin widening the highway in 2014, she said. The project is now slated for completion in 2016, she said.

"We just don't have the property we need. That's the driving issue," Russell said. "We have to have all of the properties before we begin."

The $88 million project will widen Highway 502 to four lanes between Interstate 5 and Battle Ground, and install a median barrier along that stretch. Planners say they hope the result eases congestion and improves safety.

But the widening means WSDOT must acquire at least a portion of 180 properties. As of this week, the agency had secured about 150, leaving some 30 parcels to go, Russell said.

The process has already transformed the corridor as WSDOT has locked dozens of commercial and residential properties. Businesses have moved or closed. Some buildings' windows have been boarded. And crews have already built a wetland mitigation site near the highway, essentially creating new wetlands to offset natural areas that will be buried by construction.

Several factors caused the property acquisition process to take longer than expected, Russell said. Planning for the project began well before the economy cratered, driving down property values and complicating negotiations, she said. The sheer number of acquisitions also played a role -- WSDOT had never approached an acquisition load of this size locally, Russell said. WSDOT brought in extra staff and resources from other regions to help, but still needed more time, she said.

Some negotiations with landowners have moved faster than others. A few acquisitions have gone to court to be settled.

"Property acquisition is dependent on so many different factors," Russell said. "It's complicated."

Among the remaining properties still in negotiations are five commercial parcels in the Dollars Corner area, Russell said. Others are scattered along the corridor.

The list of unresolved acquisitions includes the former site of O'Brady's Drive-In, which closed in 2012 amid a compensation dispute as WSDOT works to acquire at least part of the property.

The O'Brady's property is considered in litigation. Last month, owner Susie Brady, in a message posted on a public Facebook page set up in support of the restaurant, called the entire process "trying."

"This ordeal continues to be a nightmare!" Brady wrote. "All that I want is to be able to move on, reopen somewhere and start serving the people of Battle Ground some most delicious hamburgers (and) milkshakes again!"

WSDOT plans to secure all needed properties, so it can tackle the linear corridor all at once. Working in sections is neither efficient nor cost-effective, Russell said.

"We can't jump around," she said. "If we don't own this strip of property, we can't just work over here and come back."

Russell said the delay will not affect the project's cost. Most of its $88 million budget will be paid through statewide gas tax increases approved in 2003 and 2005, according to WSDOT.

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