WALLA WALLA -- Faced with looming grant deadlines, safety concerns and close to $2 million in projected cost overruns, the Walla Walla and College Place city councils approved a $20,000 engineering study in hopes of finding less costly alternatives to what has grown to become the $5.7 million grade-lowering and bridge-building project at the intersection of Myra and Dalles Military roads.
College Place Council members Mayor Rick Newby, William Jenkins, Alexander Scott, Bernie Yanke, Steve Dickerson and Scott Duncan voted unanimously to fund the study, with Marge Nyhagen and Larry Dickerson absent from the special joint meeting held Monday night at the Walla Walla Regional Airport conference room.
Walla Walla Council members Jim Barrow, Conrado Cavazo, Jerry Cummins and Shane Laib also voted in favor of the study, while Fred Mitchell and Mayor Barbara Clark voted against it. Council member Dominick Elia was not present for the voting.
"It's not such a major problem, at this point, that it is worthy of the spending. It is a question of priorities, and I don't think this is our highest priority," Clark said, informing her colleagues before the vote she would not support the motion to fund the study.
A report by an independent traffic analysis firm, DKS Associates, portrayed a bleak future for the intersection 20 years down the road, unless the upgrades are made.
As for current problems at the intersection, they were limited to a lack of visibility due to the abrupt change in grade, a hairpin turn tractor-trailers and buses can't navigate safely and the five percent grade that leads to Highway 125.
Several Council members, along with two members of the general public, questioned if the current problems are worthy of a project that could end up costing each city as much as $1 million.
The cities would split any unfunded costs because Myra Road marks the boundary between Walla Walla and College Place.
"Is this really the most important road intersection in the city? And if we are to spend $1 million of the citizens of Walla Walla, is this really the best place to spend it? ... I haven't seen anything there today that has convinced me of that," Walla Walla resident Lenore Barkan said.
She was followed by Andy Pryor of Dixie, who said, "There is nothing wrong with this intersection at this point of time."
The debate over need was paltry compared to the debate over funding.
Even among council members who voted in favor of funding the alternatives study, there was still doubt the state would be able to cover the additional $2 million needed.
"If we had some reasonable expectation that these six alternatives, that they would come in at or at least close to the amount of money we have available, I for one would be in favor to move ahead ... but we don't have an extra $1 million to put in this project at this point," Barrow said.
The project was initially funded several years ago with $1.5 million in state and federal funds that were to be used to reduce the grade to 3 percent, which meets state and federal transportation safety recommendations.
Then the concept of putting a bridge at the intersection garnered another $1.86 million from the state Transportation Improvement Board, which was augmented by another $30,000 in Port District funds and $300,000 each from the cities of College Place and Walla Walla.
The final cost in 2009 was at $4,013,230 and the project was mostly funded.
Additions along the way, such as a jug-handle bypass, and escalating construction costs now put the project around $5.7 million.
Adding to the pressure of Monday night's decision was a grim warning from the executive director of the Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board, Karen Schmidt, who said a deferral now would imperil funding from her agency for grade lowering at the intersection.
"Deferred doesn't totally kill the project, but obviously the money is gone. And you would have to come to the board to reactivate the project. And at this time we have never had a project that has been revived," she said.
On May 13 city officials will meet with the board to explain why the project was not completed last year, and to possibly ask for a deadline extension for the original grant.
Alfred Diaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8325.