Work starting on next phase of US Highway 12 is welcome

It's another step in getting the four-lane highway from Walla Walla to Tri-Cities completed.

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All the doom and gloom of the Great Recession has had folks wondering when - or if - the improvements to U.S. Highway 12 would continue.

Sure, there was talk, but many took the we-will-believe-it-when-dirt-is-moving approach.

Well, last week, actual construction began on the dangerous stretch of U.S. Highway 12 through Burbank connected to the bridge over the Snake River to Pasco.

A new overpass and interchange are being built in this $22.3 million phase of the Highway 12 overhaul. This stretch of highway, which has two stop lights, is the site of many collisions.

"We're going to be saving a lot of lives getting (the overpass and interchange) done," Port of Walla Walla Executive Director Jim Kuntz said.

The Burbank section handles about 16,000 vehicles per day, approximately 1,000 of those trucks, according to information from the Washington State Department of Transportation.

In addition to the overpass and interchange, the construction will include two roundabouts, turn lanes on State Route 124 and a new entrance to Hood Park. The highway will be open during construction, but lane closures may be common during non-peak travel times.

The roundabouts in Burbank - like the triple roundabout at Myra Road - will likely take some getting used to. But studies show roundabouts are safer than other intersections, so that's what we will see with all future improvements.

The utlimate goal is to have four lanes of Highway 12 from Walla Walla to Pasco. It's happening, albeit slower than most us had hoped.

Still, the eight-mile stretch of four-lane highway completed last summer is magnificent.

Not only is the trip to and from the west a little quicker and safer, but it is also beautiful. The drivers get a nice view of the rolling wheat fields and the Blue Mountains.

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. According to the state Department of Transportation, 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.

The numbers in the short stretch near Burbank aren't nearly as dramatic, but the danger is nevertheless real. When the fog rolls in, it can be difficult to see stop lights or even other vehicles. The traffic crossing the highway also creates some concerning situations.

Getting these hazards fixed will be great. And so will having one more section of new roadway on the quest to four-lane the highway from Walla Walla to Tri-Cities.

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