BURBANK -- A new overpass and interchange in western Walla Walla County bring an end to the last stretch of stop-and-go traffic on the journey to Seattle.
What are believed to have been the last two controlled intersections between Walla Walla and the Emerald City have been replaced with new infrastructure that carries traffic along U.S. Highway 12 without the danger of changing stoplights.
The overpass at Humorist Road and interchange at State Route 124 opened last month and were slated for a 1 p.m. ribbon-cutting celebration today as the end of the latest movement in the ongoing U.S. Highway 12 widening project.
As with the previous phases, today's "celebration of progress" was an opportunity for local officials to highlight the partnerships of the U.S. Highway 12 Coalition and the economic benefits of the roadway.
"It allows goods to pass through this dangerous corridor without stopping," Port of Walla Walla Executive Director Jim Kuntz said.
But this development -- a piece in the eight-phase project designed to widen Highway 12 to four lanes from Walla Walla to Burbank -- also represents a catharsis of sorts, officials said.
Just across the highway from the celebration on Port of Walla Walla property adjacent to a new Burbank roundabout, was the location of a crash at the intersection with State Route 124 that ultimately took the life of a Walla Walla County Sheriff's deputy five years ago.
On Feb. 6, 2007, the patrol car of deputy Michael Estes, 43, was struck on the passenger side by a commercial flatbed truck as Estes attempted to respond to an emergency call with his lights flashing. Estes, an 18-month employee of the agency, died eight days after the crash.
His death and the safety on the highway continue to resonate with the Sheriff's Office, Sheriff John Turner said this morning.
Estes was one of six people killed in a 12-year period on the Burbank stretch. Another 56 injury collisions had taken place in that same period, said Port of Walla Walla Executive Director Jim Kuntz, a member of Walla Walla's U.S. Highway 12 Coalition.
Kuntz said more than any other ribbon-cutting event in the "celebration of progress" this one carried a greater theme of "reflection."
Surviving family members of Estes were expected to speak at the event today, as were Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla; Rep. Terry Nealy, R-Dayton; Walla Walla County Commissioner Greg Tompkins; Port of Walla Walla Commissioner Paul Schneidmiller, Kuntz, Washington state Department of Transportation Regional Administrator Don Whitehouse, Mike Wickstrom of Walla Walla County Fire District 5, and Columbia High School ASB President Kyla Dixon.
An estimated 16,000 vehicles pass through the corridor daily, Kuntz said. He said the smoother travel should boost the Port's Burbank Business Park, which is in development.
Kuntz believes distributing companies will be among the first businesses there due to the central location between the Tri-Cities and Hermiston.
Development of additional Highway 12 phases is at a standstill until the state has a new revenue package or a new federal transportation bill.