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County keeps pushing to expedite work on 179th Street interchange

Officials strive to get engineering, design work underway early

By , Columbian staff reporter
Published:
2 Photos
Clark County for years has been trying to expedite state funding for rebuilding or improving the 179th Street interchange at Interstate 5.
Clark County for years has been trying to expedite state funding for rebuilding or improving the 179th Street interchange at Interstate 5. (Columbian files) Photo Gallery

If letter grades were doled out for persistence, Clark County would get an A for pushing to expedite state funding for the 179th Street interchange at Interstate 5.

The county started trying to change the schedule shortly after state lawmakers in 2015 included $50 million for the interchange in the $16 billion Connecting Washington transportation package, which is primarily funded by an 11.9 cent increase in the state’s gas tax.

In December 2016, then-County Manager Mark McCauley said accelerating state funding was “absolutely vital to the economic future of unincorporated areas.”

Nearly three years later, the county has been unable to shift the 2023-2025 timeline for the state providing funding to rebuild or improve an interchange constructed nearly 60 years ago.

Instead of an all-or-nothing strategy, the county now is seeking smaller amounts so the Washington State Department of Transportation can have engineering and design work well underway or even completed by the time the state provides the bulk of project funding.

Not only would that allow the interchange to be finished earlier, but the state’s work also could be better coordinated with the county’s $66.5 million plan to build and improve county roads in the area.

The Clark County Council discussed the issue Oct. 9 and tentatively agreed to seek $1 million for the state project during the 2020 legislative session.

Based on that meeting, $1 million is what the state realistically could spend on the project in the fiscal year beginning July 1. Additional funding would be needed from subsequent legislative sessions for the interchange project to proceed toward an early construction start.

Tamara Greenwell, Washington State Department of Transportation’s acting communications manager in Southwest Washington, said construction feasibly could begin in 2023 if all design, right of way and construction funding were advanced by the Legislature.

State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said she would resume legislative efforts on behalf of the project during the 60-day session that starts Jan. 13.

“I have been pushing to get funding moved up ever since the package passed,” she said. “I will once again make the push.”

Rivers said another project doesn’t have to move down on the state’s schedule for the 179th Street interchange to move up, because some projects funded by the Connecting Washington package have fallen off the list.

“I think that I have just as good a chance as anyone of getting an earlier release,” she said. “It’s not unheard of. I think the big question we are going to be facing is, ‘Have we made our case?’ ”

‘Sooner than later’

On Tuesday, the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council’s Board of Directors approved a resolution supporting efforts to accelerate interchange improvements.

Matt Ransom, the council’s executive director, said the resolution intentionally does not drill down to requesting the Legislature provide a specific amount by a specific date.

“We see regional value in moving it forward, sooner than later,” he said the day after the council’s vote.

Clark County Councilor Gary Medvigy, one of three county councilors on the transportation council’s board, repeatedly urged the board to approve a resolution.

“We came really close with the Legislature last session,” he said about expediting state funding. “It just dropped off at the last second.”

Clark County is devoting significant time and money to prepare for growth in the 179th Street area, where developers want to build more than 1,500 single-family houses, townhomes and apartments.

Earlier this year, the county council approved a $66.5 million road plan that cobbles together the necessary money from public and private sources. It does not raise property taxes, but it will result in the Mount Vista area having one of the highest traffic impact fees in the state.

This week’s passage of Initiative 976, which will cut car tabs to $30 and rescind additional transportation charges enacted by local governments, could complicate securing an early start for the 179th Street interchange. Sixty-one percent of Clark County voters supported the measure, which will eliminate about $1.92 billion in state revenues over the next six years, according to the Washington Office of Financial Management.

I-976 does not affect gas taxes, the primary revenue source for Connecting Washington projects. Nevertheless, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Wednesday that he has directed Washington State Department of Transportation to postpone projects not yet underway.

State’s official schedule

Last year, the Legislature provided $500,000 for pre-design work at the interchange, but there has been no change to when the $50 million will be available. That has shaped the state’s official timeline for the project: design starting in summer 2023, followed by construction beginning in fall 2027 and ending in fall 2030.

Greenwell said the state participated in a Sept. 10 open house with Clark County Public Works on transportation issues in the area but didn’t generate much interest from attendees.

“They got to our project and said, ‘Wait, you aren’t going to even begin construction until 2027?’ ” she said.

Greenwell said the state can’t do design and other work on the interchange without funding.

“We act as directed based on funding by the Legislature,” she said. “Until funds are available, we don’t have anything to charge to.”

State transportation officials have been unwilling to say they will rebuild the interchange. The agency will go through a “practical design” process that strives to find flexible, innovative solutions yielding maximum results with limited funding.

Three concepts

The state has developed three design concepts that were presented at the open house:

• Roundabout interchange: The interchange would continue to have a traditional diamond shape but no traffic signals. Roundabouts would be added to manage traffic at onramps and offramps. An example of a roundabout interchange is on 319th Street and I-5 in La Center, next to ilani casino.

• Single point urban interchange: With this design, 179th Street would continue to pass underneath the freeway, with gentler curves for traffic entering and exiting I-5. Single point refers to how all traffic on the thoroughfare, onramps and offramps would be controlled by a single set of traffic signals. Examples of single point urban interchanges are 99th Street and I-5, Columbia Shores Boulevard/Columbia House Boulevard and state Highway 14, and Thurston Way and state Highway 500.

• Diverging diamond interchange: This is a modification to a diamond interchange in which east- and westbound traffic on 179th Street would temporarily cross to the opposite side of the road. The advantage of this design is through-movements on 179th Street, as well as left turns onto I-5, can happen simultaneously, reducing the number of traffic signal cycles. WSDOT is currently building the state’s first diverging diamond interchange in Lacy. More information is available by watching this video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gLxlXamhgY.

Columbian staff reporter

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