Highway plan draws criticism of residents

BELLEVUE - Just when you thought the idea of a new highway cutting through the Valley was history, it's once again being considered by state lawmakers.

Earlier this year the state Legislature approved $500,000 for the Washington Commerce Corridor Feasibility Study that will explore building a north-south highway east of Interstate 405 that would cross the Valley to the east of State Route 203 or near Highway 18. The highway would extend from Lewis County to the Canadian border. The eight-lane expressway would be partially funded by private industry and would likely include truck and toll lanes, high-voltage transmission lines and could reach speeds of 80 mph for passenger vehicles in certain sections.

Under the provisions of the Senate bill that approved the study, the "corridor must be developed, financed, designed, constructed, and operated by private sector consortiums."

Proponents of the bill have said that with Interstate 5 being burdened by congestion, efficient movement of freight, goods, services and people is impeded. With the cost to improve the I-5 corridor in the urban areas substantially high, and in some cases not possible due to development, a new route needs to be explored for the region to remain economically competitive.

"[Development of this corridor] is going to be very, very important if we're going to maintain the economic viability of this great state of Washington," said Sen. Jim Horn, chairman of the state Senate's Highways and Transportation Committee.

On July 15, Washington State Department of Transportation officials and consultants working on the plan held the first public forum to receive comment on the issue at a Bellevue hotel. The meeting, attended by more than 100 concerned residents from around the Puget Sound area, was short on specifics but high on property-owner concerns.

Project representatives were quick to point out that the current round of meetings was merely to gauge whether such a project was possible, and that many specific details, such as the route's possible location and cost, would not be determined until the corridor was given the green light by the Legislature.

"We're a long way from construction. We're even a long way from finishing this study," said Dan O'Neal, the Commerce Corridor Steering Committee chairman.

Despite the uncertainties and assurances that the project, if approved at all, was likely decades away, forum attendees were quick to label it irresponsible, many chastising the state for not looking to improve the I-5 corridor. Opponents said this latest look at the corridor would take farm land away from people in the north, and that providing more roadways would just create more traffic.

Issaquah resident Jackie Thomas said there was a need for another corridor in the region, but that she didn't want it in her backyard.

"Issaquah does not want to become another Factoria," she said.

Acme resident Michael Fagan blasted committee members, stating that the project would simply take land away from innocent residents.

Study officials said there are many factors that could cause a corridor project not to be completed. Among them are environmental concerns and cost.

According to Jack Middleton of Huckell/Weinman Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in environmental issues, the project would cut through the Cedar River Watershed. If the cost of mitigation for improvements is too much, that would likely cause a proposed road project to not be approved.

The next public forum for the project is scheduled for October. The results of the study are expected to be released by the end of the year.

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