Driving along the new eight-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 12 offers some amazing views. The drivers get a different perspective on the rolling wheat fields and the Blue Mountains.
And the drive is not only scenic but safer and a bit quicker -- even for those who don't speed. Unfortunately, far too many drivers are going 70 mph or more (much more) on the newly opened highway.
Keep in mind the speed limit on the new stretch of roadway is 60 mph like the rest of Highway 12 from Walla Walla to Tri-Cities. A lot of folks are hitting the accelerator, which is why law enforcement -- city police, county sheriff's deputies and state troopers -- are working that stretch hard.
Most of those speeding probably don't realize they are going so fast because the new road is so smooth and feels so open.
Another concern is over access being reduced or cut off to the wineries along the Old Highway 12. Not all the accesses are open and permanent signs have not been posted on the new highway. This is a huge problem for these businesses and the Valley's wine industry. This unfortunate situation needs to be corrected as quickly as possible.
Still, the opening of this new roadway is great for Walla Walla. For those who have traveled Highway 12 for years it's nice to be able to move along without being stuck behind a long string of cars slowed by a truck, farm equipment or a driver who is creeping. No longer do travelers have to endure the dangerous white-knuckle experience associated with poorly timed or ill-advised passing.
The Washington State Department of Transportation reports the State Patrol responded to 216 collisions between 2002 and 2008 on the old two-lane Highway 12 from Frenchtown to Walla Walla. Those collisions resulted in 101 drivers being injured and there were four fatal crashes.
Yes, the highway is still dangerous as it is still two lanes as it heads west from Lowden through Touchet to Wallula Junction. It's going to take time and millions of dollars to complete the four-lane highway from Walla Walla to Burank. The project is now close to the halfway point with 18 miles of highway completed and 21 miles remaining.
The just-completed section cost $56 million with more than $42 million from state funds and over $13 from the federal government. Obtaining the funds was a community effort and the hard work of the Highway 12 Coalition.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., was in Walla Walla last week to praise the public-private partnership that fueled the highway improvements.
"This community has been absolutely amazing," Murray said.
Port of Walla Walla officials, local government officials and civic leaders have remained focused. They've pushed when necessary to get Walla Walla noticed and the funding allocated. They -- and the entire community -- should take pride in what has been accomplished.