Officials herald latest phase of US 12

The widening project is near the halfway point, with 18 miles of highway from Walla Walla to Tri-Cities now four lanes and 21 miles left to go.

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State Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-College Place, holds up one of the pieces of a ribbon which was cut Thursday during a ceremony to celebrate the latest phase of widening U.S. Highway 12. Federal, state and local officials gathered at the Myra Road underpass to mark the near-completion of the $24 million project, which runs from Walla Walla to the vicinity of Frenchtown. (July 8, 2010)

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U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., speaks during a ceremony in Walla Walla Thursday to celebrate completion of the latest phase of the U.S. Highway 12 widening project. During the past 10 years, the senator has been responsible for securing more than $25 million in federal funds for the project. (July 8, 2010)

WALLA WALLA -- The latest effort to widen U.S. Highway 12 was officially welcomed Thursday.

The celebration under the overpass at Myra Road marked the near-completion of two years of work to make more than eight miles of the roadway a four-lane divided highway from the west edge of Walla Walla to the vicinity of Frenchtown.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., lauded the broad-based effort to unite public and private interests behind the drive to widen the roadway from Walla Walla to the Snake River in Burbank.

"This community has been absolutely amazing," Murray told the crowd of about 60 people gathered for the noon event.

Along with Murray, a host of other state and local officials spoke, emphasizing how the latest phase of work will increase safety on the highway and aid economic development in the Walla Walla Valley.

"It's a great day. It shows such a partnership with this coalition," said state Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond. "The only way we were going to get this done was to band together."

Jim Kuntz, Port of Walla Walla executive director, said the bulk of funding, $42.5 million, came from state funds raised by the 2003 and 2005 gas tax packages. Another $13.3 million came from federal funds and local contributions totaled $160,000.

Kuntz congratulated Murray and U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., for their efforts to obtain the federal funding which has been vital for design, right of way acquisition and other work needed to make each phase "shovel ready."

According to WSDOT, the project is now nearing the halfway point to completing a four-lane highway from the Tri-Cities to Walla Walla with 18 miles of highway completed and 21 miles remaining.

"There's a method to our madness," Kuntz said.

Murray and others who spoke all said increasing safety on the highway was a major part of the four-laning effort.

According to WSDOT, the Washington State Patrol responded to 216 collisions between 2002 and 2008 on the existing two-lane Highway 12 from Frenchtown to Walla Walla. Those collisions resulted in 101 drivers being injured and there were four fatal crashes.

The next major project to improve the highway will be construction of a new interchange for Highway 12 and State Route 124 in Burbank, said Don Whitehouse, WSDOT south central region administrator.

The $24 million project is slated to go out for bid in October with construction to start in the spring of 2011.

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